They say that Terry Gilliam was truly angry post-getting absolutely royally screwed over by a distributor that had no interest in his mind-melting glam rock drunken rant on the internal contradictions of the literature dealing with totalitarian government (not to mention the contradictions in the US of 1985 that loved to thump their copies of Orwell at the Soviet Union and conveniently pass by the same arguments, and Orwell’s democratic socialism, when the oppressions of the US came to the conversation).
If “they” are right about Gilliam’s rage, it had clearly subsided in the three year interim before his next film. Or, if they hadn’t, Gilliam had at least developed an ability to poke fun at himself while mocking the censors in the process. This work, 1988’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, passed by the censors with much less eyebrow raising. And it’s easy to see while: although it is, in its own genial way, as radical as Brazil, it is much less obsessively difficult and intentionally obtuse, and it is less proud and open-faced about shouting its own radicalism right in the faces of the censors and rubbing their noses in it.
Munchausen is decidedly less “adult” than the post-structuralist Brazil preceding it, but it finds as much maturity in its explicit analysis of old age by way of childhood. It rather clearly aims for the fractured fairy tale vibe that its once-removed predecessor, Time Bandits, lovingly brought to the screen (the best way I can describe it: Monty Python with the burning adult snark traded in for childlike whimsy). It’s an altogether silly yarn, a self-conscious attempt at recreating the fantastical tribulations and general disregard for any narrative sense so smitten with the fantasy-adventures serials of a gentler, more psychic time in film history: the silent era. Like those films, Munchausen is less interested in cohesion or logic than in “pressing forward my good sir” in its stuffiest, most cartoonish British accent and having a right time while at it. It is, at a base level, a most ripping yarn in the classical British fantasy tradition.
Yet, for all the film’s glee and lighthearted episodism, there’s a melancholic woe under-riding the core of the weightlessness. If it seems on the surface Gilliam has de-aged and gone back to his old stomping ground, the truth is that he, like his Baron Munchausen, has aged too much, realized the limits of adult maturity, and receded into the safety of childhood once again. The net effect is something that undercuts its whimsy with a realization, after all, that whimsy tempers hard realism and lives struggling to stay afloat. Munchausen loves a good joke, or a jolly venture, but in the stifled expression of John Neville’s face or the way he meanders without explanation, the whimsy seems more pitiful, like an attempt to escape from the facts of life, rather than to re-visualize them.
It’s not quite a critique of everything Gilliam stands for – the whole thing is genial after all – but it’s a knowing realization that it’s all a fiction meant to pass the time while life goes by us un-addressed. It’s also a fairly smirky rib at the whole idea of quirk in film to begin with, something far more prescient today for the holier-than-thou vague pop-humanism of the indie quirk brigade. Gilliam’s tomfoolery hints that quirk is a defense mechanism for a brittle, hollow human center, and that’s a statement and a half coming from one of the most regularly and commitedly quirky English language directors working today. Maybe he was hurt after Brazil, and he’d receded into forced happiness to hide it from himself. That’s certainly the case for his main character here, and the increasingly aged Gilliam could probably relate.
If Munchausen is meaningfully anti-Gilliam, however, that does little to decimate the power of the man’s visual prowess and sense of whimsical wonder. The fact is, Munchausen is one of the director’s most kitschily satisfying motion pictures on a purely aesthetic level, wrecking about from left to right like the mess it is but in undoubtedly high fashion. Everything from the physical made abstract to the otherwordly made concrete and tangible is on fine display, the film’s deep focus sets brimming with detail and simultaneously constructing a world and inverting ours. It’s easy to look at the film and say it’s essentially fluff decked out in its Sunday finest, which of course fails to capture the central reality of any Gilliam film: the visuals are the story; the mangled top hat and twisted, cut-up tails are the meat of the being wearing them. If the visual fluff conveys depth, this depth is intimately tied to how lovingly fluffy the visuals are in the first place.
Of particular note: everything looks kind-of fake, more-so than in any other Gilliam film. And because all Gilliam films are fakery, the visuals here feel honest in a way many of his latter films don’t. They call on cinema itself, in fact, with several bits recreating the look of something that would have had Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn as its headliner. Other scenes go even further back, recalling avant-garde silent cinema; Melies receives an unforgettable evocation, implying that Munchausen is not simply distracting from his real life by looking to his imagination, but that we, and Gilliam, do so by turning to the imagination of cinema.
In fact, the claim that Munchausen is all about storytelling isn’t much of a stretch, for the film states as much: it is the story of Baron Munchausen (Neville), an adventurer turned possible dementia sufferer, who finds himself caught up in his own proposed past when he has to prove that he has truly committed the fantastical, nonsensical adventures he claims ownership of. The film opens with a performance of these tales, assumed to be fake but seen by only Munchausen as real – he jumps up and insists they are his own life experiences, and he is the real Munchausen. The entirety of the film deals specifically with him “putting” his anti-rationalist claims on trial to an audience of viewers. That it is based on the assumed tall tales of another famed storyteller sharing the film’s name only adds yet another layer to this meta-textual fabric – it is indeed a commentary on storytelling, with an emphasis on visual storytelling, it’s innate fakery, and the power and potency this fakery yields in the right hands.
Even if this is a critique of the Gilliam form, it is also his most fully realized, caring, humanist statement to the power of his films, and the power of imaginative cinema more generally as an art form that deeply understands and empowers the cinema more generally. In other words, Gilliam knows cinema is fake, but he loves it for this exact reason. He has fun with cinema by recreating the emotion-before-logic sense of its earliest incarnation in the silent era. Without breaking a sweat, he finds a way to explore how well it attuned itself to the limits of the human imagination. If Munchausen’s imaginative world is deeply brittle, so too is it true that all happiness hiding something worse. But if all happiness hides a mournful center, then sadness is part and parcel with happiness, and that only makes the false happiness all the more meaningful. If movies distract us from our problems, well, by golly something has to, and movies sure do a good job of it. Maybe distract us is all something can do, and that elevates cinema to the moral in its sweet-and-sour nihilist cocktail.
Admittedly, this all makes it sound a bit depressing. Bittersweet is more like it, but the bitter is only sprinkled in lightly and with the most delicate of touches. In fact, it’s almost not even noticeable in the face of the effervescent cotton candy playfulness of the product as a whole (the film’s heaviest weight or brightest success depending upon which Gilliam you prefer). Perhaps more than any film by the former Python, this is his most balanced work, existing perilously on the knife’s edge between sweetness and snark, between gentle humor and cutting drama. It has faults aplenty – it’s often haphazardly scripted for one, some of it is intentionally distancing, and none of it really congeals as a whole or a proper narrative with form and rigor– but it’s undeniable verve carries it to hell and back. Thankfully, Gilliam didn’t feel the need to take it quite that far, for his ambition often had a habit of getting the better of him. This is him at his most balanced, a sky high recreation of cinema at its most ebullient and cast-about sitting snugly beside a grounded, close-to-the-heart understanding of human emotion, his reach and his grasp in perfect harmony. He exposes cinema, and his own filmmaking as anti-rationalist, and in the process he viciously and slyly critiques the entirety of rationalism without anyone even noticing. It’s a light film, a tribute to the tallest of tales, but it has a caustic kick, and it’s Gilliam at his most playful.