Film 2018: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen


When it came to going to the cinema when on holiday in the Lakes, Zeffirelli’s in Ambleside constantly disappointed. But I would always divide my week away between Ambleside and Keswick, and I didn’t even know there was a cinema in Keswick until the day I climbed Blueberry Fell and Walla Crag, walking out of the town down a street I’d never ventured so far along before, discovering a little but proud cinema. And by an ironic coincidence, what was it showing? Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

Incidentally, though I didn’t learn this until this decade, I also walked down the street where Robert Neill had lived until his death in 1981.

I went that evening, an old-fashioned picture house with a big screen, ideal for the expansive nature of this film, of Terry Gilliam. I drank everything in with great enjoyment, and rolled back to my guesthouse in the quiet evening air, well satisfied.

That said, Munchausen is certainly the most problematic of Gilliam’s Trilogy of Imagination. It’s long, with a tendency to ramble a bit, it blurs the line between fantasy and reality and it tends to go for spectacle rather than structure. Of it’s two predecessors, Time Bandits is clearly the greater influence: both films are primarily episodic, and Gilliam repeats the trick of the first film, in which Kevin’s toys all appear, in mutated form, throughout the film, whereas in Munchausen, the members of a cast of players become most of the characters in the Baron’s story. And there are some memorable guest stars having some self-indulgent fun.

What Gilliam does is to put onto the screen (not for the first time) some of the incredible and unbelievable tales of the real-life Baron, a teller of tall tales, who remains popular on the continent even to this day. Gilliam puts this into the context of a siege by the Grand Turk, battering an unnamed coastal city whose ‘mayor’, Horatio Jackson (Jonathan Pryce), is a man of reason and rationality.

Gilliam signals where his loyalties lie by having Jackson demonstrate rationality to the absurd point of ordering an unusually heroic officer to be executed for demoralising the ordinary ones! To the extent that the film is an opposition between Imagination and Reality, one side’s clearly not going to get an even break.

In the midst of bombardment, a troupe of players under Henry Salt (Bill Patterson) are putting on a surprisingly lavish ‘Adventures of Baron Munchausen’ stageshow when it is denounced and interrupted by an elderly gentleman claiming to be the real Baron (John Neville), and the show being a pack of lies.

The Baron claims to be the cause of the Grand Turk’s attack and relates an absurd story of a bet with the Turk, his near-execution and his subsequent stripping of the entire Treasury – all perfectly legitimately but not taken well – leading to the present attack in an attempt to recapture him. The tale features the Baron’s legendary servants, Bertholt (a perpetually sarcastic Eric Idle), who can run at incredible speeds, Albrecht, of super-strength, Gustavus, of incredibly hearing and lungpower, and Adolphus, of incredible eyesight and accuracy.

Of course, everyone denounces it as rubbish, especially 9 year old Sally Salt, daughter of Henry (a wonderfully written and determined performance by 9 year old Sarah Polley). But when Sally loses her head at the latest attack, which has brought the Angel of Death to take Munchausen’s soul, she runs out to the ramparts, screaming at them to stop, only to witness the Baron fly towards the Turks riding on a mortar shell, and fly back riding on a cannonball!

No-one believes her, of course.

However, the Baron undertakes to lift the siege by leaving the city (in a hot air sailing ship whose balloon is constructed out of ladies’ silk knickers – thankfully, this is not set in the modern day or he’d need the entire city’s worth) to find and bring back his amazing servants. Unsurprisingly, Sally has stowed away.

It’s taken a long while to get here, and though it’s been fun to date, those who criticise Gilliam for a slow start are not without a point, because this is where the story really begins, and here is where Gilliam can gleefully abandon the fetters upon his imagination that a ‘real’ setting imposes. The only representative of rationality present is young Sally, who brings every bit of a 9 year old’s unimpressedness into trying to keep the Baron on point, and the object of the quest – saving everybody from being killed – as an objective. Never has the familiar line, ‘Can we go now?’ been so aptly repeated, and Polley brings everything to it.

We go by the Moon, via the King and Queen of the Moon – the King is Robin Williams, credited as ‘Ray D. Tutto’ (King of Everything) – and their entirely separable Heads and Bodies. Williams hams it up something rotten, Valentina Cortese does the same with a greater degree of subtlety, and there’s this hilarious gag where, the Queen’s head having come to save the Baron and his party whilst her body is in bed with the King. Sally is deeply puzzled by the Queen’s gasps, and sighs and ‘ooh’s until the Baron delicately explains that the King is tickling her feet. We nod to ourselves, wisely, and then there’s a cut to the bedchamber where the King is tickling her feet…

Then it’s off to Hell, and my favourite part of the film. Hell is the realm of Vulcan, who’s being played by Oliver Reed in a manner that I can only describe as delicately and subtly completely OTT! Reed’s roaring, for which he employs a well-good Lancashire accent is tempered by his massively overplayed attempts to be a good host and the whole thing just has me rolling on the floor every time. And this is coupled with Uma Thurman as Venus, Vulcan’s wife, first appearing on the half-shell, immediately smitten with the Baron, and taking him into the ballroom for a dance. Through the air.

The romance of the scene is busted by Reed’s hysterically funny jealousy, all accusations of ‘Strumpet!’ and ‘Floozy’ and similar epithets. Of course, the Baron gets thrown out, with Sally, Berthold and Albrecht, into the South Seas, where they’re swallowed by a massive sea-monster.

No guest roles here, just Gustavus, Adolphus and another grab by the Angel of Death, beaten off by Sally’s one-track-mindedness, and once the Monster is forced to sneeze them out, courtesy of a modicum of snuff, we’re back at the Town and the siege.

The Baron’s full of plans of attack but Sally, despairing at last, points out that his servants are all old, and can’t do it any more. Very well, the Baron insists, I said I’d relieve the siege and I will, and he marches off to the Grand Turk to offer himself up for beheading. Jackson’s there, efficiently and scientifically negotiating the date on which the Turks will surrender (we surrendered last time, it’s your turn).

For the first time in the film, something doesn’t ring true, and there will be another such moment along soon, but for now let us relish that the Baron’s willingness to sacrifice himself galvanises everyone into showing off their strengths, resulting in the complete routing of the Turk and the saving of the town.

Everyone pours out and celebrates the Baron as their saviour. Everyone except Jackson, of course, who lurks with a sniper’s rifle in a high tower, determined to have his way, and shooting the Baron through the back. The Baron dies, amidst much mourning, and is buried in state.

At which point, we’re back on stage, the Baron’s concluding his story by explaining that’s just one of the many times he’s died, and how refreshing it can be. It’s all been a story (of course it has, but whose?) Jackson confronts him, arresting him for spreading fantasies when everyone’s in such danger, but Munchausen claims the Turks are gone. His confidence inspires the crowd to open the gates, against every attempt by Jackson to enforce reality, and true enough, the besiegers are gone and all is the devastation of the Baron’s story.

So, was it all true after all? Sally, the junior representative of reality has come over to the Baron’s side, and the audience is willing to go along for the ride, having had a great deal of fun, but we really do have to put our feet down here and admit that Gilliam has, in the end, let the film get away from him. I’m all for Imagination and Reality being thoroughly mixed together, without a point-by-point explanation as to which bit is supposed to be which, and Time Bandits‘s ending is a superb example of that.

But Gilliam in the end lets his visceral loathing for order and restriction overrule his sense of decent storytelling. Let’s go back to those three moments I’ve picked out with Jackson (Pryce is, of course, absolutely brilliant in the role). Having the heroic officer executed is a great black joke, and the fact that it’s Sting makes it delicious for the non-Police fans among us. But it’s a logical idea, albeit a twist version of logic.

But Gilliam loses it with Jackson at the end. If the man is supposed to be emblematic of Reason, then to have him negotiating not just the continuation of battle, and the ensuing death, destruction and mayhem, as a properly scientific approach to war is breaching your own internal logic. It isn’t twisted, it’s beyond logic.  It’s hating your ‘opponent’ and putting words in his mouth to make him even more despicable.

And the same goes for the assassination bit. By now, Gilliam isn’t working to any kind of logic at all. He’s obsessed, fanatically stamping his feet like any baby demanding his way, and it comes close to blowing the film completely because it shows he’s lost control.

Which is a shame because in every other respect, I love this film, and it’s tremendous fun to watch, but it is flawed, and whilst the flaws are minor, they go to the heart of Gilliam’s themes in not just this movie, but also its two predecessors.

That’s now four fantasy films in four weeks, and next Sunday marks the halfway point of this project. Time for something a little more serious, I think, to celebrate.

Film 2018: Brazil


I never went to the cinema when I was on holiday in the Lake District. This had nothing to do with the puritanical belief that days on the fells and nights at the flicks didn’t mingle and everything to do with the way that the schedule of films at Zeferrellis in Ambleside showed that the film I wanted to see had been on last week, or was due next week (or, sometimes, both), but the one playing now wasa pile of poop.

Brazil was the exception, yet even that didn’t break the sequence. The film that week was indeed a pile of poop, but there was a one-off, late night showing, starting at 10.30pm and ending close to 1.00am. It was strangely fitting: a wide-open space, a small audience, a big screen on which to watch Terry Gilliam’s astonishing, coherent, fully-integrated vision unroll to its stunning ending, and coming out into the silent night, slipping quickly through empty streets I’d never seen at that hour before or since, into bed to get the hours needed before another day in the open air.

No matter how often I’ve re-watched it, knowing now where that unbelievable final section leads, Brazil never disappoints. Indeed, thirty-odd years onwards, in an era that makes its effects look primitive for all they are utterly convincing, it remains an immersive experience, one that takes several minutes to shake off after the credits finish running.

As a story, the film is surprisingly simple once dissected. Due to an unforeseeable error, the wrong man is arrested. Jill Layton, a neighbour, attracts suspicion by protesting this. Sam Lowry, a wilfully bored minor bureaucrat tries to save her from this attention. The outcome is disaster. Put like that, it’s an awfully skeletal story, but so is ‘A group of seven mercenaries, for their differing reasons, agree to defend a village from Bandits’, and we know what classic film was built on that foundation.

What Gilliam does is to bring an especially powerful visual imagination, allied to a hatred of bureaucracy, and bound into a hybrid of dystopian SF and slapstick comedy, to life on the shoestring of this plot. There are psychological levels driving the story, and changing its course, homages to other classic films, a strong cast (when Robert de Niro plays a bit part, you have a strong cast), and a complex mosaic of of incident, display and example that places the insane society of the film onto a well-grounded and completely believable footing.

The film’s most obvious inspiration is 1984. The year is never given but the film was made in 1984 and released the following year, and Gilliam very intelligently places the look of the future in the style of the past, specifically that of 1948, when Orwell wrote his legendary book. Over this, he lays an Orwellian dictatorial bureaucracy, based upon suspicion and paranoia, Nazi-imagery in security uniforms and building construction, with an information technology equivalent to the then-modern age but expressed in Heath Robinson-esque equipment: small screen television style monitors fitted with magnifying glass screens, keyboards like pre-War typewriters and largescale cabling like gigantic spaghetti in its profusion, contained in ducts, ducts, ducts, everywhere.

Yes, and a fully-maintained pneumatic tube communication system, which is glorious.

What starts the insanity is the tiniest thing possible. This is a fly, that annoys an anonymous bureaucrat into swatting it. It falls into his machine, changing the name on an arrest warrant, from freelance Heating Engineer Archibald Tuttle to cobbler Archibald Buttle. Buttle is arrested, in an horrific scene of home invasion by gun-bearing, black-clad, jackbooted, black-helmeted officers, bursting through ceiling, door, window, wrecking a small, cheap apartment, fitting Buttle into a straitjacket, making his wife sign a receipt for him (in duplicate), and bearing him off, leaving his wife and two small children. The replacement hole-plug for the bored-through ceiling – which is the floor for upstairs neighbour, truck-driver Jill Leyton (Kim Greist) – is the wrong size.

This becomes a mini-theme for this world of bureaucrat, form-filling comprehensiveness. Quite apart from the obvious drawbacks of a fascist system, it keeps making minor mistakes. The nature of the system makes correcting them almost impossible, and indeed their effects multiply rapidly, and as we’ll see, fatally: there is no such thing as a mistake, it’s clearly enemy action, this Government has been fighting against terrorists for thirteen years. Bombs keep going off, but the terrorists are never seen, or identified. Their invisible presence means that anyone drawing attention to themselves in this horrific world is automatically suspected of being a terrorist. And, in a sadly accurate prefiguration of today, suspicion is proof of guilt, especially when interrogation is torture. The torturer, all white coats, surgical precision, happy, secure, family man, Jack Link, is played by Michael Palin, whose smiling niceness does nothing to hide his total amorality.

One of Jack’s friends is Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce in a role he says was the highlight of his career). Sam is a minor bureaucrat, a very clever one, with total command of all his systems, whose boss, Mr Kurtzman (Ian Holm) utterly depends on him. Sam is in an anonymous backwater and loves it: his mother (Katherine Helmond), who is otherwise obsessed with cosmetic surgery to reduce her age by decades, is ambitious for him and wants to get him promotions. Sam just wants to be left alone. He lives alone, isn’t interested in mother’s attempts to fix him up with the awkward Shirley, daughter of her best friend, wants to maintain the emptiness of his existence.

But Sam dreams and daydreams, and in his dreams he’s a flying warrior, in silver armour, soaring the clouds and coming to the rescue of a lovely long-blonde-haired damsel in distress, floating in the air, dressed only in a long diaphonous white dress. She’s constantly under threat, from escalating dangers that symbolise Sam’s real-life experiences. She is being played by the short, spiky-haired Greist in a floaty wig, which gives us a clue towhat’s going to happen.

The Buttle mistake results in an unprecedented thing – a refund cheque. It’s finagled into Kurtzman’s department where Sam, kind-hearted, agrees to get rid of it by the unorthodox step of actually taking it to Buttle’s widow and getting her to sign a receipt. Whilst there, he sees Jill, his dream girl.

In a subtle foreshadowing of the film’s ending, Sam cracks up. From here until the end of the film, he is driven entirely by obsession over Jill. She’s a perfect stranger, from an entirely different social strata, an American in Britain, and she has a phobia about having her personal space invaded on top of her loathing of the bureaucracy that has crushed the Buttle’s and which Sam represents, but she’s literally the girl of his dreams. Even if the girl of his dreams is a helpless, Rapunzel-like damsel, existing only to be saved.

But not only is Sam driven by his obsession with finding Jill, and protecting her from the state that sees her as a terrorist (and he can’t be sure she isn’t), but his every act is that of the noble warrior. He’s already living in a fantasy, of getaways and shoot-outs and the hero winning the day without any thought of the chaos he causes that has to be mopped up immediately behind him. Sam will save the girl, the day, the world.

Watching this morning, I began to wonder exactly when the fantasy takes over. Sam is knocked out and arrested for being too close to another bomb. He’s released (?) back to his new role in Information Retrieval, where he blows the pneumatic tubes, Jill turns up at his apartment all lovey-dovey, he takes her to his mother’s whilst he erases her from the system for her protection, comes back to find her in a long, flowing, blonde wig. They shag each other senseless.

Then, in the morning, the same home invasion scene is re-enacted. Sam is taken prisoner, processed through the system. His only thought is Jill. It’s all a mistake, he’s not a terrorist. The disabled Deputy Minister who’s been his (sinister) sponsor, Mr Helpmann (Peter Vaughan), tells him Jill was killed resisting arrest. Sam laughs it off: no, that was him. Oddly, she seems to have died twice… Then it’s torture at the hands of Jack, furious at Sam’s selfishness in putting him through this.

Until Jack is shot through the head. Tuttle and the resistance rapelle into the chamber from above, free Sam. There’s a running gun battle as the break out of the Ministry, a bomb to destroy it, triggered by a glorious old-fashioned plunger. Sam and Tuttle go on the run through a shopping centre, but the floating papers attach themselves to Tuttle, swathe him entirely, and when Sam tears them off, there is no body.

The black-clad troopers chase him to the funeral for his mother’s friend. His mother is surrounded by young men, eager for her rejuvenated body: she now has Jill’s face. Sam is surrounded and fall through the coffin into the streets of his daydreams, surrounded by nightmares. He steps through a door in a wall, finds himself back on Jill’s truck. She’s driving it. She’s alive. They drive off into the sunset, set up home in the country.

Until Helpmann and Jack’s heads appear across the sky.He’s got away from us, they sadly agree. And Sam has, in the only realistic way he could: into catatonia. It’s the ending of The Prisoner again, only this time explicit. The mind – insanity in an insane situation – is the only escape.

As I said above, the film takes a turn into a less certain reality even earlier. Clearly, Sam’s mind snaps at the moment Jack Link is ‘shot’. But Sam’s balance is lost, irretrievably, as soon as he sees Jill, and I now have trouble accepting that anything from his first knocking out until the moment he’s pleading with Jack to spare him is real, on the same level of reality as before.

If I’m right, then Gilliam has been even more subtle than I’d previously realised. The return to Information Retrieval, his destruction of the system, the lovely horribleness of Tuttle’s comeuppance for the two official Heating Engineers (Bob Hoskins in a very effective cameo), and the whole thing with Jill suddenly wanting nothing more than to be all over him like a cheap suit, that too is not real. It’s just a daydream. As Sam tried to take his daydreams into his real life, with disastrous results, now he’s incorporating his real life into his daydreams. But his success has a trap door in it: sooner or later, we always wake up.

No matter how little we want to.

Waking up from Brazil is a difficult process. Though it creates its effects by being an alternate past in an alternate future, like The Prisoner it is incredibly prescient about our real future and present. There’s a lot I haven’t mentioned, like the homages to The Third Man, and even Fantasia, which come in the reality-daydream sequence, and Battleship Potemkin, after that. And apparently Gilliam was unhappy with Greist, who was something like eighth choice for the part, and cut or edited some of her scenes, but I enjoyed her performance.

I enjoyed it all. From the Ambleside streets long after midnight to South Reddish on a cloudy Sunday, and everywhere between and to be. And why is it called Brazil? For that, you have to wait until the film’s very last word…