Episode 31: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)

Baron cover site

Introduced by Devlin

There’s a sizeable portion of this podcast which veers in to a discussion about heroes. About what they mean to us and how our relationship to them changes over the years. About the inevitability of disillusionment when people we admire turn out to be flawed and messy humans rather than the idealised inspirations we glimpse in our younger years.

Terry Gilliam was always a hero to me. An iconoclastic, unique visual artist who bucked the system and managed, somehow, to get Hollywood to pay for weird and sometimes grotesque, challenging, occasionally maddening works of art in to the marketplace of public consumption. His work was always, always ‘flawed’ by any standardised critical metric, but that’s what made me adore the films even more. I can admire technical proficiency, sound story fundamentals, and linear emotional story beats. But I find it much harder to attach myself emotionally if I feel like the guiding hand behind the work is just doing a terrific job and not a lot more. What makes me truly love something is the fingerprints smudged across the scene, the frayed edges, the wobbling plate spinning atop the pole that is still being loaded up with canapés. Feeling the Herculean effort of trying to convey ideas. And by that I don’t even mean political or social ideas per se – I mean converting the sensation of a dream in to moving pictures, of translating abstract inspiration without losing its intangibility.

There’s no point trying to remain objective about my own feelings on this film – I have the title character tattooed on my arm:

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But what I did have to reckon with was the most recent iteration of Terry Gilliam. What was once subversive very quickly became reactionary, closed-minded, self-pitying. I won’t delve further here, suffice to say I think this discussion was well-covered within our episode.

When filmmakers put so much of themselves in to their films, as Gilliam does, its inevitable that an audience, especially one well-versed in the real world facts of the director’s life, will project the events on screen on to their creator. Foolish as that may be (films are a collaborative medium), Gilliam more than most is central to the work he creates. And like the Baron himself, who only seems alive when he has a tale to tell and an audience to hear it, he desires, and possibly needs, attention. It’s just extremely disappointing that he has chosen to use his still-prominent platform to garner that attention not by arguing, as he does so forcefully in this film, for the importance of stories and fantasy and the purity of imagination, but to push a different kind of fantasy, one that is far less benign and inspiring: the disappointingly prosaic whine of the older white male that they are now some sort of bedraggled minority. That somebody who, by business metrics at least, failed so spectacularly, and so frequently, and was still rewarded by the industry with continued opportunities to make feature films cannot understand the basic idea of privilege is simply put, infuriating.

Rewatching one of my favourite films of all time, by the filmmaker who inspired me the most and was the reason I ever wanted to study film in the first place, from a different headspace regarding Terry Gilliam the person was quite illuminating. I was lucky to do so alongside Gali & Patrick, who had neither the same baggage regarding Gilliam nor had in fact ever seen the film before, and proved, as ever, fantastically entertaining and knowledgeable co-hosts. I hope you enjoy listening to our discussion.

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