03 February, 2013

Terry Gilliam's Twin Fables

[ First and foremost, apologies to any readers who have been awaiting most of the second half of the calendar year of 2012, and the first half of 2013, for new transmissions from the Observatory here at Waves of Guide. To bring you something new has been to cull what is old and rotten, shake away its stink and musk, and enliven some fresh feelings and thoughts into this tapestry of Life. And so, without further ado, a piece entitled "Terry Gilliam's Twin Fables" ]

Few films project their own light free from a theater screen through the days of my youth and upon the years of my adulthood as do Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits (1981) and his Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). Perhaps it is because of this writer's constant exposure to Monty Python's absurd antics and particularly British humour by his father's incessant tuning-in to comedy channels on the TeleVision. Or, maybe the connection made between one's impressions received in youth and an awareness created later in life by certain stories, told by certain creators (whether "original" or "inauthentic") maintain something within that just keeps nudging you, over and over again, as your life goes on. From chance encounter to deeply intimate experience, there they appear with gentleness and honesty, the children of his fables - Sally of Baron Munchausen and Kevin of Time Bandits 

The Fable of Romanticism

The children in these films go on journeys apart from their "realistic" worlds, but as one knows, if one remembers, we were born from that world apart from the real world, the imaginal world, and are gradually pulled away, forgetting its sensation. [See the Introduction to the Work of the philosopher who coined this term "imaginal" at Henry Corbin Project] Sally lives in a world of war, pseudo-rationality, and the utmost evil of these conditions - bureaucracy - in the form of a magistrate played by Jonathan Pryce, in a vastly different (and French) role than his portrayal of Sam Lowry in 1985's Brazil.

In Munchausen, the risk of death is present not only in war, murder & disease, but also in the form of the Spirit of Death itself which continually seeks the Baron. Sally still senses/lives in the imaginal world, and so she is the only one who sees Death for what it Is, and sees through what it masquerades as in the end for the Baron - modern Western medicine. Sally carries this dark gift but is disowned of her story-telling heritage as the daughter who goes unrecognized, poster after poster, in the advertisements for her father's theater troupe. She is barred from the inheritance of imagination in an increasingly unimaginative world. We meet her father's troupe performing for the city's bombarded people the unbelievable "true" stories of Baron Munchausen. Sally needs Baron as much as the people need his stories, to show the length and breadth of a life lived with the thirst for love, for honor, and for the journey through it all, even facing danger - and death. Military science and the machine of bureaucracy is a wheel spinning just above the ground, and the city of Man which it's purporting to protect is falling...

Historically, Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Baron von Munchausen, was a real figure who served in the Russian campaigns against the Turks during the 18th century. The exaggerated stories of his travels were first published in England in 1785 by German exile Rudolph Erich Raspe. Gilliam mines Raspe's stories for the action of his film, but expands upon the intrinsic value of such elaboration as an essential elaboration to counter-balance the stolid reality of a modern world. The director wryly titles the opening scene as, "The Age of Reason," before we are brought into the siege of the city. In this way, he is inviting us to compare the level of destitution caused by the grim methods of warfare, paired with the increasing capacity for an idolatrous humanity to deem itself more learned, more rational, and more ethically justified to do "good." The Mind had now been raised higher than the Spirit. This is farcically shown by Pryce's character 'The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson' condemning a Heroic Officer to death, played by a young Sting, for going "beyond the call of duty," capturing cannons and saving men. Sting is a recognizable artist, and his character's death is also a parody of the artist's death (to some folk's subjective delight, but we're leaving that aside here).

Munchausen is the spirit of Sally's world and the very quintessence of the era of Catherine the Great of Russia, the energy of the French Revolution, the European world invigorated by Classical mythology and expounding Nature's affect in poetry. The world before the Scientific era (and oddly, the spirit of the reactive artistic movement after the Age of Reason, Romanticism). Sally maintains wonder for this old way being eclipsed by the new. When Munchausen-on-stage, played by Sally's father, is flayed of his prosthetic nose by the real Munchausen, the film begins a process of pulling the seams apart between the deteriorating theater of the world (which is literally being blown apart by Turkish cannon fire) and the true substance of our life that gives living whether in a "reasonable" war or in an unreasonable story any meaning. Munchasuen takes responsibility for the play and the war, then sets out on the adventures that shaped both. His faults throughout are his virtues. Sally won't have him give up his spirit to Death, because our Spirit is what's truly under siege, and death is always out to take it from us, wearing many disguises, all antithetical to the imagination. The end of the film is a hopeful one, Sally receiving her inheritance of place and name in the troop, though she could not keep Death from taking the Baron's soul. Time Bandits offers no such gift.

The Fable of Modernity

"So we create a world that isn't true to a realistic, naturalistic world, but is truthful" - this is Terry Gilliam on his film-making practice, and on storytelling. In Time Bandits, Kevin is a modern boy fascinated by the annals of history, his walls adorned with his drawings of ancient, medieval and turn-of-the-century images. They occupy his entire imagination. His parents watch a television show "Your Money or Your Life" and eat from ready-made meals of the Microwave, disinterested in their son's young life. Kevin has a taste for what has been lost in the sands of time, lost to the immediate present, and finds only the dessicated remnants of it in his books.

Enter the little people, the common stock, the otherworldly. The bandits of the film's title steal not time exactly, but a Map of points in space-time, where they plan to steal treasure from history's notables. The troupe of 6 are joined by Kevin, the 7th, and they fall through time, which takes them further and further away from the Supreme Being, whom they stole the map from, and towards the Evil Genius (played by David Warner). Evil's intentions are quite different than the small bandits for the wealth of the world they created, or Kevin's for a life of substance - he wishes to acquire the knowledge he needs of the latest machinations made by man, to understand computers, and become as a supreme being himself. This is taking Horatio's conception of the world to its logical extreme.

It is worth noting that when Kevin and the bandits make for the Time of Legends, space between what "happened" and what is lost in story, is bridged. This is also where and when the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, where the Evil Genius dwells, is accessed from; a bridge where mythology and history meet has, from a modern standpoint, little meaning, only for archaic or faddish New-Aged knowledge. This is the trick of Warner's character, that he lures them into believing that the greatest treasure is beyond the edges of the Map of space-time, the very same intriguing idea that lures many a person to religion, mysticism, sorcery, etc. Metaphysical truths are the seeds of physical experience. The "beyond" is where they do find the Supreme Being, or rather he finds them, but his characterization is nothing more than that of a watchmaker-type God (played by Ralph Richardson) whom neatly cleans up and makes orderly where mistakes of his own were made. "Why does evil exist?" Kevin asks him. He momentarily walks off behind a broken pillar and comes back to answer, "I think it has something to do with free will." So begins and ends any theological considerations in the film. The bandits are then re-instated as the workers of the World, and Kevin is sent back...

What is most vexing about Time Bandits, if you will sympathize with my own vexation, taking notice of not my review but poor synopsis of the film's parts, is that in the end Kevin is not allowed to stay with Agamemnon in antiquity or anywhere else but ends up back in his own time - as his house is burning. One single chunk of the Evil Genius remained and traveled back with him, lodged in the Microwave. His parents touch the chunk and are incinerated before his eyes. The camera lifts away and we are left much as how we are in Gilliam's other film about time travel, 12 Monkeys (1995), with the child alone and dispossessed of a future. Where will Kevin now be sent? To live with a Munchausen-like relative who like an indemnitor gives him new hope for a coming age? Or like James Cole, will he now have the greater grief of succumbing to a human movement underground because of a new plague of our creation which wipes out most of the world's population in 1996? The questions raised in Time Bandits are unresolved, being a film about modernity's own unresolved complications. 


Complication is essential, as simplicity is co-opted by that very evil with which the modern era touts its own ideologies for the sake of any number of conveniences, to the debilitating effect of complacency and disinterest in the individual - as it was with Kevin's parents. The Imaginal world, as Corbin shows, has not a fable of its own, for the true substance of our imaginations are made of its material and are woven in this reality. Film, and I think Terry Gilliam would agree with me, exemplifies this transcendent notion of Ideas expressed in the Forms of the World, that very dear Platonic teaching. The images and sounds fabricated remind us that the actions upon the screen of the theater are as the activities of our Imaginations which manifest themselves in our worlds and our lives. The questions is: What stories are worth telling well? Gilliam has at least been consistent enough to give a thoughtful and era-appropriate answer with each one of his works, even up through 2011's web-only release of his 20-minute short film "The Wholly Family" (available to 'rent' for $2.99 at terrygilliamweb.com). There is a much different outcome for this new 21st century child Jake than for Kevin, but I will withhold my spoiling of that cinematic fruit and instead shall urge you, the receivers, to view, reflect, and make something of your own in response.



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Portland, OR, United States
For the Observatory's Grand Opening