A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 238 – The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen – October 24th, 2010

Watching this movie tonight I was put in mind of Emperor Norton. Now, Norton was a real person, but he created a persona and a world around himself where he was the star. And for some reason, people went along with it. His personal currency was accepted by businesses in trade for goods and services. Tens of thousands of people showed up for his funeral. Yes, he was delusional, but there was something about him that made people willing to run with his delusions, at least for a bit. And so we have Baron Munchausen, a real historical figure with a wealth of tall tales built up around him – many of which are apparently at least partially based on tales Munchausen himself told. And in this movie he manages to charm a number of people into believing in him, pulling them along with him for a series of fantastic adventures.

We begin in a theater, with a troupe of players performing a version of Munchausen’s adventures. The city the theater is in is under siege, with the sounds of battle clear from outside. Munchausen himself appears, striding on stage and denouncing the performance before commandeering it to tell his own version. And here is where the movie makes a departure. This is the point where we go from slight magical realism to full-on fantasy. It’s a little difficult to describe, mostly because the ending leaves it to the viewer to decide just how much was real and how much was imaginary and whether it matters in the long run. Because it seems to me that the whole point of it is that the power of one’s imagination is greater than anything else.

Much like in Time Bandits there is a child at the center of this movie. Yes, it’s all about the Baron, but it’s also about young Sally Salt, the daughter of the lead player. Sally is played by a very young Sarah Polley and is the driving force behind much of what happens. She’s determined to save her father and friends and the town and prods the Baron into helping out even when he’s more interested in other pursuits, like sex. Or death. Sally, as the child who hasn’t yet lost her imagination, insists that the Baron not give up. In the movie it’s literal in that the Baron sometimes gets carried away with a woman, or allows himself to be drawn into a game of cards with the grim reaper. But it’s also figurative in that at the beginning Sally demands the rest of the story. And she continues to demand that, even as the story happens around her.

The adventures in the story are suitably outrageous. The Baron and Sally head off out of the town in a hot air balloon made of ladies’ undergarments. They go to the moon, fall into a volcano, get swallowed by a giant fish and eventually – after meeting up with all of the Baron’s old friends – defeat the army besieging the town from the beginning. What’s fascinating about it all is how it begins close to home, in the theater, with a battle raging outside, then travels far away, and then pulls back again. Making things go from realistic, to semi-realistic, to fantastic and then back in reverse. While defeating an army with a small group of elderly adventurers is certainly unlikely at best, traveling to the moon and climbing down from it on a braid of the Queen of the Moon’s hair is an entirely different level of unlikely.

There’s a sort of layered reality going on here. Yes indeed, the town is under siege and ends up saved, with the besieging army mysteriously destroyed. Was it the Baron, who appeared to have been telling a tale all night? Did the act of telling the tale transport everyone in it, putting some of the players into dual roles within the story (like Uma Thurman playing both one of the players and the goddess Venus) and affecting the reality a level below? Or was it something else? The movie doesn’t really bother to tell you. The movie doesn’t seem to want you to know. And the movie doesn’t seem to want you to care. It happened. The how and the why aren’t as important as believing in the story and in the extraordinary.

October 24, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

October 24, 2010

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

I did see this movie during its original run in the theaters – on opening night. I remember meeting some friends of mine coming out of the movie while I was in line waiting to go in and how they enthused about it. Many of my high school friends were Python and Gilliam fans, and I had been reading about this movie (well mostly about its production problems) in the weeks leading up to its release and was very much looking forward to it. I enjoy it a great deal, and always have done, but I’m also slightly unsettled by it. I’ve just never been able to express exactly why.

Part of the problem is the movie’s steadfast refusal to ever tell the audience what is real and what is fantasy. I realize that this deliberate confusion is most of the point of the movie but it always leaves me feeling a little discombobulated. I have a strong fondness for fantasy. I love to visit other worlds and learn to understand them. It’s like Terry Gilliam too the “It was only a dream – but maybe not” ending from Time Bandits and did an expanded riff on it. This is a movie about tall tales and the fantasies that have faded from our world, but it has a sort of undertone of belief that if you want the stories to be true hard enough they actually can be.

Another part of the problem is that the movie has some pretty rough edges. I’m not talking about the extensive miniature work and occasional moments where you can see the wires. I find the technique used to bring the fantasies to life in the movie charming – especially after the fantastic stage show at the start of the film with all its clever practical effects you get the feeling that it’s okay to know how the fantasy was created. No, I’m talking about a couple parts of the movie where the humor is so broad and strange that it makes me wince a little and throws me out of the fantasy mood. In particular there’s the “Torturer’s Apprentice” opera that the Sultan plays on his musical torture device and Robin Williams’ almost vulgar performance as the king of the Moon. The torture/organ has always stuck out to me as too dark for the kind of tale that Munchausen is telling and taking part in. In the same way I completely understand the dichotomy between body and mind that defines the king and queen of the Moon here but as the king’s body Williams is given complete freedom to be as crazy as he could want to be and I just don’t want to see him with fruit smeared all over his face burping and farting. It’s nasty and I just want to skip ahead to the absolutely breathtaking scene at the end of the Moon sequence when the Baron, Sally and Berthold descend through the heavens on a silvery strand of the queen’s hair.

For the most part this movie is a “getting the band back together” movie. It starts out in a little walled town sometime near the end of the eighteenth century that is under siege by a vast army of Turks. In a decrepit tumbledown theater an impoverished troupe of actors are amusing some of the townsfolk with a tall tale of the adventures of Baron Munchausen when a doddering old man claiming to be the actual Baron himself shows up and demands to tell the story his way. (There’s a fantastic moment when the story takes over and one of the actors is shooed from the wings of the theater onto the actual palatial Turkish harem where the Baron’s story starts out.) We get treated to a grand tale that introduces each of the Baron’s miraculous companions and their abilities. Then “reality” bursts in as the theater is destroyed in a volley of cannon fire and the elderly Baron sets out (with a young girl who stows away in his airship because she believes his stories) to find his lost companions and return and lift the siege.

There follow a series of episodes as the Baron slowly finds each of his old servants. He flies to the Moon. He falls in a volcano and encounters Vulcan and Venus. (This is probably my favorite sequence because I’ve always loved the tragic cuckold character of Vulcan and his impossibly perfect wife.) He is swallowed by a colossal whale. Ultimately he and his companions arrive back at the town and lift the siege. Or maybe not. The movie is very deliberate in its refusal to offer any answers about how much of what you just saw was “real” and how much was “fantasy.” Ultimately that’s most of the point – that the two are interchangeable in this universe. Maybe they’re interchangeable in Terry Gilliam’s brain, which must make it rather interesting to be him.

I have never read any of the many adaptations of the tales of Baron Munchhausen. Nor am I familiar with the fold tales they’re based upon. I do love this kind of magical universe though and this kind of story. Tall tales and folk stories and legends and myths are all fascinating to me. The problem is that although there are parts of this movie that capture that spirit of wonder there are other parts that spoil it for me.

There are so many things about this movie I love. The soundtrack is a fantastic celebration with blaring trumpet refrains that stir the blood and raise your spirit. The effects are full of charm and style (I want to play with some of those miniatures or visit those forced-perspective sets.) The cast is superb, especially John Neville as the Baron himself and Eric Idle as Berthold, his speedy companion. I love how the actors and audience find themselves getting caught up in the Baron’s ridiculous stories. Ultimately however I never love this movie as much as I think I’m meant to. It loses me somehow and leaves me wanting more. I just wish I understood why.

October 24, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment