See It Instead: Terry Gilliam Films.
Inspired by Gilliam’s Don Quixote, we pick three films from the Monty Python alum that spin our windmills.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Terry Gilliam’s latest film, hit theaters this week after a troubled 25 years of production. While it had its moments, the biggest take away I had was how much it reminded me of Gilliam’s classics. After referencing The Adventures of Baron Münchhausen three times, I was chagrined to discover I’ve never actually reviewed it on the site! Sure, we’ve covered most of his well known films – 12 Monkeys, Brazil, The Fisher King (several times, actually!) – but there were several great movies we had yet to touch. It felt like now was a great time to dive into some of his lesser known gems.
The Serious Pick: The Adventures of Baron Münchhausen (1988).
A fortified European city is under siege by the Ottoman Empire. The effete governor (Jonathan Pryce) believes absolutely in the gilded bureaucracy of the “Age of Reason,” and refuses to acknowledge the danger, instead relying on sternly worded letters to repel the invaders. The citizens huddle in a bombed-out theater for safety, while a troupe of performers attempt to lift their spirits with their version of the zany antics of legendary German aristocrat, Baron Münchhausen. The play is interrupted by a punctilious old gentleman (John Neville) who claims to be the real Baron, and who proceeds to regale the audience with the “true” stories of his impossible and implausible adventures.
The Adventures of Baron Münchhausen is the movie Don Quixote feels like it should have been. We have a roguish and charming old faker in John Neville, so good at telling tall tales that he believes them himself. The rest of the cast is packed with talent, from constant collaborators such as Eric Idle, Robin Williams, and Jonathan Pryce, to surprising additions like Uma Thurman and Sting. Gilliam creates a squalid but gorgeous version of 18th century Europe, filled with fantastic characters, lovely costumes, and wondrous architecture. As Münchhausen tells his tales, the world is transformed into the surreal and dreamlike confabulations of his imagination. Much like Quixote, everyone around him is incorporated into the fantasy, such that you can’t tell if the old duffer is making up characters on the spot, or if those around him are actually his heroic companions, summoned from legend to aid the Baron one last time.
For all of its sly social criticism and absurdity, The Adventures of Baron Münchhausen is also deeply moving. As our surrogate, we get Sarah Polley playing a poor urchin ripped straight from Les Miserables. She becomes the Baron’s audience of one, too clever to completely believe him, but still full of enough childish wonder to hope that he’s more than just a charming liar. As the story grows, she becomes invested in his version of history being, if not right, then better than what we really got. The Baron eventually must make a sacrifice to convince his young admirer, which actually puts a lump in my throat…right before the old faker wriggles out of it like a practiced rascal. It’s a fantastic film, with Gilliam’s signature use of fact versus fiction at its finest.
The Lighthearted Pick: Time Bandits (1981).
Kevin is a young boy, mostly ignored by his hyper materialistic middle class parents. He reads historical accounts, and imagines himself in those times. One night, a group of dwarfs tumble out of his closet, and explain that they have stolen a map of spacetime holes which allow them to go all over history. Pursued by the Supreme Being who created the map, and the embodiment of of Evil who wants the map for his own ends, Kevin and the dwarfs stumble through history and legend, trying to find treasures and save spacetime.
Time Bandits was the first film in a thematically connected trilogy, followed by Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Münchhausen. In each we see people chafe under the dull rules of society: a young boy whose imagination is the only escape from materialism, a middle-aged office drone whose flights of fantasy are his only reprieve from an authoritarian government, and a disreputable old man whose bold lies are the only antidote to a world stifled by reason. Time Bandits is probably the most subtle of the three, as all of the high fantasy elements are so exciting that it’s easy not to look much deeper than “boy goes on adventure and meets famous historical figures.”
The cast is again packed, with fellow Python alums John Cleese and Michael Palin rubbing elbows with Sean Connery, Shelley Duvall, and Ian Holm. Visually, Time Bandits feels like a merging of The Never Ending Story with Jim Henson’s more adult offerings. You get some of the nascent tropes that Gilliam became famous for, such as blending history with legends, and with characters from the fantasy world returning as characters in the real world. It’s got the same darkly comedic bite as Brazil and Münchhausen – in the end Kevin’s parents are blown to smithereens by the very status symbols they sought after. Round it out with all of the bold imagination of Gilliam’s sets, and you can see why Time Bandits went on to become a smash hit at the box office.
The Unconventional Pick: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009).
Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is the thousand year old impresario of a traveling troupe of performers. He is in a bit of a bind, as he traded his daughter’s soul to the devil for his longevity, and now the devil has come to collect. He makes one last desperate bargain – a race to see who can collect five souls first, with the winner getting Valentina’s soul. Parnassus enlists the help of Tony (Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell!) a young man whose life he saved. Tony, in love with Valentina, agrees to the wager, which is to take place inside the doctor’s magic mirror – an “Imaginarium” that offers people thorny enlightenment or blissful ignorance. If Tony can find five people who take enlightenment before the devil can find five who chose ignorance, Valentina’s soul will be saved.
Much like Don Quixote, this film had a tragic and troubled road to the theater. The leading man, Heath Ledger, died before completing his scenes. The ingenious solution was to invent the idea that each soul would see Tony a different way, allowing a different actor to appear. The three actors who replaced him had been friends of Ledger’s, so the film became a double tribute to him. The three actors even donated their salaries to Ledger’s daughter. It may be the last classy thing Johnny Depp ever did!
Parnassus is messy in its execution of plot and thematic elements, but absolutely gorgeous production wise. Gilliam used an extremely wide aspect ratio film for the project, making each shot feel like a sweeping vista. The Imaginarium is beautifully rendered, mixing computer effects and Gilliam’s usual practical effects deftly. The costuming and settings are likewise elegant, though Parnassus does not have the same indelible stamp of locality that many of his other films do. All in all, it is a film best experienced sensually instead of logically.