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Gilliam in the Lion’s Den : LOSING THE LIGHT: Terry Gilliam and the Munchausen Saga, <i> By Andrew Yule (Applause Books: $22.95; 256 pp.)</i>

<i> Ellison is a three-time winner of the Writers Guild of America Most Outstanding Teleplay award, and author of 57 books, among them a film criticism collection, "Watching."</i>

Horrors unveiled today on “Geraldo” and “Inside Edition” notwithstanding, we can certainly balm ourselves with the probability that as a nation we’re not quite as bloodthirsty as, say, the Hittites or Visigoths. Yet it must be admitted that we late-20th-Century, sensitive and civilized types do like our debacles and disasters.

But there is a difference in the level of attention we sustain for Texas twisters that flapjack the obligatory mobile-home park, and the rich, ripe evening-news lead stories that contain a pungent, perversely human element. Gimme, gimme, we beg, the cast of characters!

Which is the essential missing brou in the brouhaha that surrounded the making of “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” a film directed by Terry Gilliam, as chronicled in Andrew Yule’s enervating tracing of “the film from golden dream to financial nightmare.”

Here is the skeleton of the story: Sometime in 1979 the former Monty Python zany and gifted director Terry Gilliam began to be inveigled by the mythology of Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, the Baron von Munchausen. Late-18th-Century cavalry officer in the service of Frederick the Great against the bestial Ottoman Empire, Munchausen (1720-1797) became immortalized as one of the greatest liars of all time in a 1785 best seller by Rudolf Erich Raspe. For a couple of hundred years, the outrageous antics, the tall tales of the baron have seduced (a word used frequently in this book to explain why otherwise sane businessmen got involved in the film) anyone with wit and imagination, whether child or grown-up.

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After the 1985 release of “Brazil,” a critically received masterpiece Universal did its best to scuttle, Gilliam turned to the Baron. And from about 1985 till its debut in 1989, the great fantasy originally budgeted at $23.5 million hiccuped its way to a final price tag of something in excess of $50 million--one of the most expensive films ever made.

The story of “Losing The Light” is the potentially fascinating study of how a pure dream of wonder was sliced, diced and priced out of rational production, leaving the demented and eviscerated in its wake. (“Losing the light” is a production term meaning: Get the shot now, there goes the sun, we’re losing the light. In the book’s context, Yule also intends it to mean the dimming of the creative vision as time and the exchequer waned.)

Early on in Yule’s telling, Gilliam is credited with an epigraph: “The problem with movies is that you’re in the most bizarre group of people.” This brings us to one of Yule’s literary inadequacies: the bewildering ability to feed us so many names of so many production functionaries in such profusion of nationalities and cinemaspeak gibberish of titles, that within 50 pages one simply tosses in the towel and reads on in hopes that context may unsnarl the knot to personnel. In this book, characters come and go with the rapidity of the Cheshire cat’s smile.

And when it all winds down, and the film finally gets made, despite all the chicanery and ineptitude and animosity and artistic accommodations, one is left with the weary sense that none of it mattered much.

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This is, sadly, a book without heart. A feat of negative energy that started out with one of the great fantasy classics of all time, a director whose wit and charm and eccentricity and brilliance have made him a talent that can lead thousands into his own dreamworlds, a cast of Eurotrash flim-flam wheeler-dealers, a project drawn on a scale that would make John Hughes go into Cheyne-Stokes breathing, and a multinational canvas against which epics could be slathered. All of it rendered in tones of olive drab and account ledger gray.

Gilliam’s film (written with the excellent Charles McKeown) was a great pleasure; a reach for grandeur; something memorable. Yule has achieved, contrariwise, a recounting of the making of the film that is flat and pedestrian, filled with people who are either fools or naifs (apart from those few, like producer Thomas Schuhly or entrepreneur Arnon Milchan, who come off as blowhard opportunists who would check that day’s exchange rate before stealing the pennies off a dead man’s eyes), and that includes Gilliam.

I cannot accept that the man who was instrumental in creating “Time Bandits,” “Brazil” and “The Fisher King,” as well as the incredible wonder of “Munchausen,” could be as blithering a dullard as Yule has managed to make him look.

This is a case of slaying the messenger and loving the message.

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1991 by the Kilimanjaro Corporation.


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