Monday, October 25, 2010

Reeling Backward: "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" (1988)

As a confirmed Terry Gilliam fan, I'm always discovering new things in his movies every time I see them. His films are such dense cauldrons of imagination, it's easy to miss all the ingredients he puts into every strange (but usually wonderful) brew.

For instance, after seeing "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" for the first time in many years, I learned that Sally Salt, the young girl who accompanies the baron on the aforementioned adventures, was played by a wee Sarah Polley.

Polley would go on to become a well-regarded queen of indie films, along with the occasional mainstream one (like last summer's "Splice") and directing "Away from Her" (which is a lovely film, but as I've pointed out before, the story of a woman with Alzheimer's growing distant from her husband should properly have been titled, "Away from Him").

"Munchausen" was regarded as a special-effects extravaganza when it first came out (barely -- in a dispute over the changing of studio regimes, the film was only released on 117 screens). More than 20 years on, the effects already look a bit dated, but I think this only adds to the film's antiquated charm.

Like many of Gilliam's cerebral, impish films, "Munchausen" toes the line between rationality and fantasy, gleefully incorporating both into the same story. Trying to describe a Gilliam narrative is like trying to catch the amorphous tail of a passing zephyr.

The story is set in the 1700s -- "The Age of Reason," an opening title helpfully informs us. In this case, monarchs and politicians enable a 30-year-long war governed by rules and laws that only serve to prolong the suffering. Because it's Wednesday, the soldiers of an (unnamed) European city are compelled not to fight back against the Turks laying siege. The sultan and the European leader (Jonathan Pryce) argue about whose turn it is to surrender

The Pryce character, The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson, orders one of his soldiers (a cameo by Sting) beheaded for heroism, since his extraordinary actions will make the other soldiers feel bad about themselves. It's a mindset that twists rationality into a trap that further debases humanity.

Into this carefully ordered madness steps the Baron, played by John Neville in an underrated performance of wit and bravado. Neville had mostly been known as a stage and television actor until then; Gilliam casting him in the lead role while in his early 60s rejuvenated his film career.

Based on a real historical figure known for exaggerating his exploits, Baron von Munchausen is a fantastic liar who claims to be the greatest truth-teller the world has ever known. He's an emissary of imagination, urging those around him to abandon their reasoned thoughts -- even if but for a little while -- and let their minds wander.

Aged and decrepit, the baron stumbles into a theater troupe performing the story of his life and interrupts the play, howling at the inaccuracies. He proceeds to tell the real story ... or at least the one he has just made up.

It's interesting that the story, by Gilliam and longtime collaborator Charles McKeown, is essentially one long attempt to gather up the Baron's old team. The actual battle with the Turks is barely more than a coda.

There's Gustavus (Jack Purvis), a dwarf -- Gilliam's fondness for Little People is evident in the fact he always includes at least one in his movies -- with extraordinary hearing, and lungs so powerful he can blow down a regiment of enemies at a gust. Albrecht (Winston Dennis) is huge and strong, but secretly yearns to be subservient and dainty.

Berthold (Eric Idle) can run halfway across the world in an hour -- his legs are so powerful, he must wear a ball and chain on each lest he take off like a shot. And Adolphus (McKeown) is the greatest marksman in the world.

Sally is the daughter of the theater troupe director, who stows away on the baron's air balloon. As is often the case in Gilliam films, the child represents the innocent nature of mankind, not yet weighed down by rationality and workaday concerns.

The various sequences veer wildly in tone and look. There's the strange sliding cityscape of the kingdom of the moon, where the king and queen seem to be the only occupants, and whose heads tend to come unstuck from their bodies. The head of the king (Robin Williams) can't stand his body, being forced to endure crass things like flatulence and orgasms, but is flummoxed when he gets an itch on his nose.

One of the most memorable sequences is when they land in the underworld of the god Vulcan (Oliver Reed), a petulant ogre dealing with labor problems from the cyclops union. An 18-year-old Uma Thurman, in one of her first screen roles, plays Venus, emerging nude from her clam shell in a stunning, indelible moment that blends mythology, lust and bon vivant romance.

I really enjoy how the Baron ages back and forth according to how well the adventure is faring -- after arriving on the moon, he is rejuvenated back into a man in his prime. After Vulcan tosses them out of his realm, he reverts to an old codger.

It's an apt metaphor for watching Gilliam's films, which always make me feel like a child again. Would that real life could flow the way it does in "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen."

3.5 stars out of four

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