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In Defense of Watchdogs of the Imagination : Film maker Terry Gilliam is one to cherish

Film, like every other art form with life to it, needs its mavericks, and apparently also needs to make their way as difficult as possible. In one of those convergences that myth-master Joseph Campbell would have understood completely, one of our great hero-mavericks has departed just as a prime candidate for the title arrives with his newest work. Who’s to say such things are accidents?

John Cassavetes and Terry Gilliam, whose extraordinary spectacle, “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” opens on Friday, certainly seem to be at opposite ends of the film spectrum. Is it insanity to talk of them in the same breath?

Kinsmen? The poet of naturalism and the great fantacist? Cassavetes--with his heroes rooted in the middle class, with awkward, hesitant Realspeech in their mouths and a three-piece suit on their backs? Gilliam--whose home turf is the imagination; whose hero in “Time Bandits” was Agamemnon and whose visual references in “Munchausen” run from Piranesi to Breughel and from the Road Runner to “The Thief of Bagdad”? Maybe it’s not complete insanity: Both men’s films glow with enormous positivism. They are film makers who have faith in something that can be called love or imagination, and in the triumph of that quality in an increasingly narrowing world. You get the sense, too, that at work and in their lives, both men generate(d) energy enough to keep even the most faltering project alive single-handedly--an energy that comes through in great crackling gusts of humor.

That quality could certainly be felt at the Director’s Guild of America last weekend, which rocked with liberating laughter as Cassavetes’ friends came to make their farewells and to add their “John stories” to his legend. Gilliam, from what one reads, is cushioned by enough of an air bag of humor to survive the perils of film making--or at least the perils that his film making has provoked, so far.

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The last sure quality these two directors share is fearlessness. “Don’t ever be afraid of anything,” was Cassavetes’ single piece of advice to a would-be film maker, who recalled it last Saturday. That, and resiliency, might be the Gilliam watchwords; “The triumph of the willful,” he has mockingly called his odyssey on “Munchausen.”

The film is very loosely based on the fantastic adventures of a now-legendary 18th-Century officer, Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, the Baron von Munchausen, who campaigned in the service of Frederick the Great against the Turks. An old man flirting with death, part Gulliver, part Don Quixote, Munchausen is both love and imagination incarnate, and in Gilliam’s hands, the tiresome old fake has become charismatic, energized, young again. As he sees himself and his exploits in a 10-year-old’s astonished eyes, Munchausen’s faith in himself becomes boundless, and pure as Cyrano’s white plumes.

There have already been floods of words on the travails of this newest production--details enough to fill whole books. Again. This isn’t one of those recitals. I’d rather consider what Gilliam has put before us instead of his production or distribution tangles.

Gilliam is a watchdog of the imagination. He sees it as “a very fragile thing,” something that needs exercising lest it atrophy in the Age of Reason. In that, he’s not exactly alone; a very few other film makers share the territory: Federico Fellini, John Boorman, George Lucas, Werner Herzog, Steven Spielberg, Carroll Ballard, David Cronenberg, the Wolfgang Peterson of “The Never Ending Story,” Ridley Scott, Robert Zemeckis, David Lynch and almost every animator you care to name, from Peter Max and Disney’s “nine old men,” to the brothers Quay. (Let us not overlook the fact that Gilliam’s first work as the American member of the Monty Pythons was as their animator.)

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Yet, even in this company, the sheer volume and invention of Gilliam’s visual largess sets him apart, and his wit operates for the most part at a dangerously sophisticated level. (I’d be willing to exempt “Jabberwocky” from that claim.) Gilliam never aims down, his films zing in somewhere at the Mensa level of reference, but he seems confident that we will catch the wit of his visual quotations and so we do. Like a film making Catherine wheel, he throws off an immoderate art history display; he plunders past film styles with a free hand to make a point.

The sets for the bureaucrats’ offices in “Brazil” owe some of their visual juice to German Expressionism. Its vast samurai warrior with his technological innards are like an homage to Kurosawa as rendered by modern Japanese artist/satirist Teraoka. It isn’t really necessary that we know all this to have fun with the film, but it’s like shared complicity with Gilliam if we do.

In the same way that “Time Bandits” and, to a greater degree, “Brazil” were carelessly rich with their images, “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” is Gilliam’s whole bag of favorite toys, spilled open for us to pick through. (It’s worth mentioning a few of the artists working with him on “Munchausen": production designer Dante Ferretti; cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno; costume designer Gabrielle Pescucci--all of whom began with Fellini, among other masters. It’s a heady crew.)

Among Gilliam’s references you’ll catch Gustave Dore’s engravings as the source for the Baron himself; Breughel’s rendering of the Tower of Babel turns up at another point; there is a vast, half-buried head on the sands of the moon that sets off reverberations from Shelley’s “Ozymandias” and an atmosphere in the Turkish Sultan’s isolated, thick-walled palace that will transport you back to “The Thief of Bagdad.” (A lot of “Munchausen,” including the clockwork, three-headed griffin, may conjure up “Bagdad,” Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger’s arrow straight into the filmic unconscious.)

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Possibly “Munchausen’s” most seductive moment comes straight from Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” as Uma Thurman’s languid, wide-eyed Venus is served up on her opening clamshell to the awe of John Neville’s Baron. Even more magical are the next moments, as the naked Venus is wrapped round and round with gauzy drapery by two flying attendants. And in the swoony sequence that follows, she and the transfixed Munchausen waltz around and around, finally soaring up off the ground in shared bliss, while fluttering cupids frame them in pink satin ribbons.

It’s art, magic, mystery, impeccable technical artistry and a plunge deep into the shared unconscious. And it’s only one image from a wealth of them. Those unwilling to surrender the moon to science and the mauling of brave, heavy-handed American astronauts can have it back, as mysterious as it was during the silent movie days of Georges Melies, and a lot less cartoony. A Gilliam moon has a surface like wet, rippling sand, and it’s set in a twinkling universe held in place by a great celestial apparatus that Da Vinci might have drawn.

That’s one example of what seems to be Gilliam’s greatest preoccupation: We have virtually no frontiers left; there is a flag of discovery stuck up almost everywhere and explanations for almost all the wonders of the world which effectively remove their wonder. Gilliam understands how frightening and how confining this “advancement” can be; he has marshaled his forces posthaste to march us straight back into the shivery riches of the unconscious.

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“The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” will take its chances with reviewers this Friday. I suspect it will generate no middle-grounders at all. But in a peculiar way, the film itself is almost a side issue; its existence is what’s important. It is one of those prodigious leaps of imagination that the screen must shelter--or shrivel.


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