Friday, December 30, 2011

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989) — Going somewhere on hot air and fantasy

"Films are like flares fired from a lifeboat to see if anyone else is out there." — Terry Gilliam

The span between Christmas and New Year's Day, as the days begin crawling slowly out of the dark, has always been a nearly ceremonial week for me to indulge in guilt-free, pajama-clad viewing of favorite movies, particularly those of a science fiction/fantasy bent. And it became pretty much assured that soon after my Christmas post of Terry Gilliam's 1968 animated gonzo holiday card, at some point during the week I'd be reaching to the shelves for a Gilliam flick. Holy Grail? The Life of Brian? Twelve Monkeys? The Fisher King? Or perhaps finally catching The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus via some streaming medium? What I chose was one of my favorites, a film I dip into once every couple of years.

"I think what was funny about this thing: the making of it was very much like the story itself. This disaster, this nightmare situation, and here's this old lunatic trying to drag everybody through. I think I was getting blamed for being the old lunatic, even though I was quite young then."

That's the former expatriate Python trouper — and one of moviedom's more notorious "visionary" directors — early in the audio commentary on the DVD/Blu ray disc of one of his more notorious visionary films. Even before the last frame was shot, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen had already left its stamp as a cautionary tale of budget overruns and production fiascoes. Although it's only a coincidence that Columbia Pictures was financially and executively crashing at the time, a regime change put in place new studio heads who failed to support this enormous, outside-the-box whirligig.

So the studio further ill-treated this 1989 film by giving it an anemic U.S. theatrical release, guaranteeing its initial box office failure. The whole affair hammered a nail into the foot of Gilliam's directing career, and despite subsequent successes such as The Fisher King (1991) and Twelve Monkeys (1995), the over-publicized Munchausen experience was so traumatizing that it bronzed Gilliam's reputation for being "difficult." It's a small miracle that none of the behind-the-scenes upheaval and disruption ended up marring what appeared on the screen. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is as unruffled a movie as you'll find this side of Oz.

So it's been up to home video audiences to give this ornate, epic-scale, comedic fantasy spectacle — probably the purest expression of Gilliam's metaphysical, Rococo imagination — the reappraisal it deserves, particularly now given our society's current antiauthoritarian mood. And in this year of Scorsese's Hugo, here's a film that feels even more intimately connected to the work and spirit of Georges Méliès, who in fact made his own Munchausen film in 1911 (YouTube). While you might also fairly describe it as a grandiloquent paroxysm of a film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is one of the few "cult favorites" that, despite its flaws, positively earns the status on its own merits.

Its story is based on the tall (think Mt. Everest) tales of the historical blowhard Karl Friedrich Hieronymous von Münchausen, a German nobleman who in the 18th century fought with the Russian military against the Turks, and who became renowned for embellishing his exploits with florid details such as joy-riding cannonballs, journeying to the moon on a whirlwind, visiting the god Vulcan inside volcanic Mount Etna, and having his ship stuck in the belly of a monster fish.

Ripe material for Gilliam, as literate and phantasmagorical a director as we're likely to see working outside of animation. Munchausen concludes a trilogy with Gilliam's Time Bandits (1981) and Brazil (1985), their thematic axis being the power of imagination and storytelling in childhood, adulthood, and old age.

As personified by John Neville (who died last month), the Baron is an elderly, world-weary raconteur no longer at home in a world shifting into the Age of Reason's hardheaded rationalism, which spares little room for lyrical flights of fancy. Feeling displaced in this cold new world order, he wishes that death (given form as a hideous skeletal angel dogging his heels) would just bloody well get on with it.

Baron Munchausen: "Go away! I’m trying to die!"
Sally: "Why?"
Munchausen: "Because I’m tired of the world and the world is evidently tired of me."
Sally: "But why? Why?"
Munchausen: "Why, why, why! Because it’s all logic and reason now. Science, progress, laws of hydraulics, laws of social dynamics, laws of this, that, and the other. No place for three-legged cyclops in the South Seas. No place for cucumber trees and oceans of wine. No place for me."

Right there we witness the Baron embodying Gilliam's overarching theme here, what he has called his "message in a bottle" — "the clash between the baroque and the Newtonian view of the world." (Now, I don't believe such a clash exists any more than the "war on Christmas," but I understand what Gilliam's saying here.)

Munchausen gets his groove back when an invasion by the Turks sends him on an epic quest to gather his former team of super-friends (the strongest man in the world, a runner faster than a speeding bullet, a dwarf with super-breath, and an eagle-eyed sharpshooter) and save a European city under siege. As in Time Bandits, we follow the resulting colorful episodes through the eyes of a persistent child. Here that's Sally, played by expressive Sarah Polley, now a filmmaker and Very Interesting Adult, all of nine years old at the time.

Their adventures send them to the moon, where the Moon King's giant disembodied head (Robin Williams in fine riffing mode) is both insane and jealous of the Baron's amour with the Queen (Valentina Cortese). From there it's imprisonment in a cage (a Gilliam signature) and a long drop to the volcano palace of the brutish god Vulcan (Oliver Reed), who's inventing the "intercontinental, radar-sneaky, multi-warheaded nuclear missile." Vulcan's wife, the goddess Venus (Uma Thurman, age 17 and not yet with a high school diploma), rises nude from her clamshell. Soon she's pressing her lovely décolletage against the romantic Baron as they waltz while floating high above a ballroom floor.

After escaping the gullet of a leviathan, our heroes ultimately return to the city to confront the army of the Grand Turk (Peter Jeffrey, familiar around here from the Vincent Price Dr. Phibes films).

However, the Baron falls afoul of a calculating bureaucrat, the Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson (Jonathan Pryce, always terrific), eager to bury everything the Baron represents — the "folly of fantasists who do not live in the real world" — beneath the romance-free logic and cynicism of a new age "fit for science and reason." As the Baron ascends in a hot-air balloon sewn from women's undergarments, Pryce's officious villain sneers, "He won't get far on hot air and fantasy." Since Munchausen's production turmoil, it's a safe bet that for Gilliam "officious villain" is a redundancy applicable to Hollywood execs.

Gilliam's fellow ex-Python Eric Idle puts in welcome screen time as Berthold, whose powerful running legs must be anchored with irons or else he might jog himself into orbit.

Not one to embrace a silver lining when a dark cloud better fits his purpose, Gilliam keeps Munchausen out of merely "kids film" territory by grounding it with somber meditations on the theatrical follies of life, war, age, death, change, and political fear-mongering. There's more going on under the film's skin than a simple quest fantasy, and Gilliam at times seems like a director with his fingers more in a Norton anthology than in Variety magazine.

At first blush, Munchausen's strengths would appear to be unfettered Gilliam, abetted by a squad of European collaborators, namely cinematographer Giuseppi Rotunno, production designer Dante Ferretti (Hugo, Shutter Island, Sweeney Todd), and special effects chief Richard Conway (most recently the special effects senior technician on Attack the Block). The scenic design fills the screen with grittily realized city and battles scenes, and his witty special-effects spectacles — the Baron's beknickered balloon, the universe as a gyring geometric celestial sphere, the King of the Moon's surreal lunar court, the island that becomes the sea monster — give us photorealistic extensions of Gilliam's distinctive cartoons that punctuated the Monty Python troupe's TV and feature-film work. While the production remains notorious as a budget fiasco, you never doubt where the money went.

But blushes can be deceiving. Gilliam was very much fettered indeed, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen as it exists is a compromised vision. Unscrupulous producers, unreliable contract labor, and Gilliam's "naive" understanding of unregulated production financing while shooting in Rome all diminished his original concept.

For instance, he had planned the moon sequence as a gargantuan banquet hall filled with tiers upon tiers of giant feasting heads, rather than just Robin Williams and Valentina Cortese in a minimalist landscape. But as Gilliam and his co-writer Charles McKeown (who plays the sharpshooter Adolphus) acknowledge in the commentary, the surreal 2-D moving backdrops and re-focused strength of the final version probably worked out for the best anyway. Drew McIntosh, in his movie blog The Blue Vial, has an extensive quote from Gilliam about that experience:

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was different from my other films in that, for the first time, I was working with a producer who claimed he would provide everything I ever wanted. The fact that he couldn't and didn't created a living hell. I was, and still am, very literal about taking people at their word and holding them to their promises. However, when, as is inevitable in these situations, the shit hit the fan, we were forced to close down while Charles McKeown and I attempted to trim the script. The pain was quite unbearable at the time but, when you are forced to destroy your work in an attempt to save it, certain creative magic occurs.
Originally, the moon sequence involved thousands of giant characters all with detachable heads. It was conceived as a Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza with great crowds, much singing and dancing and feasting - all during an eclipse of the moon. The yearly eclipse provided a chance for everyone to forget everything and start again with a clean mental slate. Unfortunately, the celebration resulted in a lot of heads becoming separated from their bodies and then being unable to remember where they belonged. The sequence ended in a grandiose, outrageously spectacular slapstick chase with the Baron and friends riding and attempting to control a giant palace guard's headless body as the eclipse and the King pursue them.
Attempting to keep the film alive, we cut the moon's population down to two, King and Queen. In doing so, it concentrated our attention on the detachable head phenomenon and resulted in a very bizarrely literal interpretation of the problems of Cartesian mind/body duality. What was originally a lot of ideas jumbled together in a slightly rambling, but spectacular, sequence became one very clear and much funnier idea that was exactly to the point, and far more original.

While so much of what the final film visualizes is wonderful, the pacing is sometimes draggy. Its self-contained fantasias are often beautiful bordering on the magnificent, but taken as a whole they possess all the urgent momentum of an art gallery tour. Sometimes there's little feeling that we're heading anywhere special, even though the scenery along the way is stupendous. The script, credited to Gilliam and McKeown, doesn't make the going easier by sliding us between its various definitions of reality: Are the Baron's tales real, or merely the ramblings of a lunatic old duffer on a theater stage? Do he and his men actually defeat the Turks, or was the defeat achieved offscreen and then suppressed by Jonathan Pryce's character for his own "enemy at the gate," Fox Newspeak fearmongering ends? Is Uma Venus or is Uma the peasant girl Rose?

Gilliam being Gilliam, the ambiguities are deliberate, with our mulling them over afterward part of his plan.

It may be hot air and fantasy, but The Adventures of Baron Munchausen takes us further than most effects-heavy fables manage to do even with three prequels.

Finally, here's a movie that makes the ideal narrative and thematic double-feature with Tarsem Singh's similarly screen-filling fantastical The Fall, also about the life-shaping power of storytelling.

If you're inclined to seek out The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, I suggest Sony's 2008 "20th Anniversary Edition" in either its two-disc DVD and single-disc Blu-ray format. It delivers a lovely transfer of a nearly flawless print. Color, definition, and detail are brilliant and vivid. The newly remixed Dolby 5.1 surround audio does a splendid job with its clarity and surround effects.

On the Munchausen disc, the special features are a cut above the typical promo fluff and filler you usually find on "anniversary" editions. Besides the illuminating commentary track — now I know where to spot Gilliam's friend Sting in a quick cameo — we get one of the best "making of" extras I've seen in ages, a three-part 72-minute documentary fittingly titled The Madness and Misadventures of Munchausen.

Gilliam and McKeown host this occasionally painful retrospective that doesn't just take us behind the scenes — it kicks open the door into the ugly business and personal risks that are movie-making. The director and writer, along with actors Jonathan Pryce, Eric Idle, John Neville, Sarah Polley, Bill Paterson, and Robin Williams, plus production associates who have since recovered from the experience, speak about their loyalty to the project even when the director was "insane" and every possible aspect of the shoot was going wrong. Yet they are candid when it comes to the downside of the clashing personalities and the seemingly endless months spent on sets that might never actually get built and the money-mandated revisions at every turn. Recorded separately, producer Thomas Schuhly — who wasn't as connected and experienced in the biz as he had presented himself to Gilliam — is defensive and caustic, but accepts some of the blame for the pain and suffering. It's clear that there remains little love lost between Gilliam and Schuhly.

We also get Gilliam's storyboard sequences — "The Baron Saves Sally," "A Voyage to the Moon," and "The Baron & Bucephalus Charge the Turkish Gates." Gilliam and McKeown perform the sequences through vocal narration and commentary while Gilliam's drawings let us "see" scenes that never made it in front of a camera, never mind the final cut. "Moon" in particular is fascinating for the sheer ambition it represented in the pre-CGI era.

We also get four deleted scenes totaling a bit over three minutes: "The Rules of Warfare" (0:47), "Extended Fish Sequence" (0:50), "Mutiny on the Stage" (0:52), and an "Alternate Opening" (1:04) that revels in the film's extravagance further than the theatrical cut does.

Music: Arctic Monkeys
Near at hand: A new Dalek