13 April 2008

Terry Gilliam (Jabberwocky | Time Bandits)

1977 | Jabberwocky
Even though I'm skipping the Python films in this chronocinethon, it would be impossible not to mention Monty Python and the Holy Grail as it relates to Jabberwocky. Both are comedies set in the Middle Ages starring (all or some of) the Pythons and directed (partially or completely) by Gilliam. Jabberwocky is often called "pythonesque" and was advertised in America as Monty Python's Jabberwocky until Gilliam protested. There are certainly Python-style bits here and there: the flagellant whipping himself with wet noodles, the game of hide-and-seek to find the champion knight, the man pretending to be one of the princess' nuns.

Yet, there's a large difference in tone between the two films which I think illustrates how Gilliam's style and sensibilities differ when detached from his comedy troupe-mates. Holy Grail is purely silly. It has a killer rabbit, discussions of bird flight velocities and men clapping coconuts in lieu of actual horses. Jabberwocky begins with a man being eaten down to the bones by an unseen beast, his corpse causally dropped into the underbrush of a wood. Gilliam is dark; much darker than Monty Python. His version of "it's just a scratch" involves blood splattering across the faces of the king and princess as a knight loses a joust. His silly humor is a man cutting off his own foot in order to be a more successful beggar.

Does it work? Well, Jabberwocky is nowhere near as funny as Holy Grail. I don't think it was meant to be. Other than the humor, Gilliam's also busy playing with ideas of fate and capitalism. Maybe just capitalism. I don't know if a comedy of errors plot counts as an exploration of fate or not. But he was definitely trying to say something about capitalism. Well, maybe the only interesting bit on that subject was the part where the king and the merchants decide that the jabberwocky is good for the economy because it drives people into the city. Mostly, the movie feels chaotic and slapdash. Maybe Gilliam had something he wanted to say, but I have a feeling the enormous task of making his very first solo movie served as a distraction from this.

Most of the energy for the moviemaking seems to have gone into the production design, which is excellent. The Middle Ages are depicted as realistically filthy and decrepit. The castle is packed with details, from guild signs to a family living in a barrel to the unique pennants for each of the knights. I love the king's throne room, cloaked in darkness due to a lack of windows and candles, and constantly raining plaster as the castle rots. It would be worth watching this again just to pick out more of the details stuffed into the background.

Outside of the production design, the movie never worked for me. I didn't care about the main character. The humor was only ever able to elicit weak smiles from me. I wasn't even really interested in seeing how Dennis would inevitably fumble into killing the jabberwocky and marrying the princess. Still, it's not a bad first movie and shows plenty of signs of the director Gilliam will become. (6/10)

Watched: NTSC DVD released by Columbia Pictures/Sony in 2001. Terrible transfer. White speckles -- probably caused by dirt on the negative -- abound and I saw a hair or two dancing on the bottom of the frame towards the end of the film. Compression artifacts and banding are also common, probably partially caused by squeezing this 105-minute movie onto one side of a DVD-10.

1981 | Time Bandits
The first time I watched the movie was when I was already an adult, so I lack any nostalgic childhood memories of it. I wish I had those; I think I would've been nuts about this flick as a kid and would enjoy it more today. As it stands now, I have a hard time fully getting into the film.

The pacing never seemed right to me. It's either that the bandits spent too little time in each historical period, or that they didn't visit a good enough variety of them. Let's see, we got to visit:

I suppose that's a pretty good variety of time periods and places (though, unsurprisingly, all in Europe). And, maybe, spending more time in each of them would've dragged the movie down. But, due to the rapid pace, we never really got to know any of the characters the bandits ran into other than Sean Connery's Agamemnon. Blink and Ian Holm's hilarious Napoleon or John Cleese's aloof Robin Hood are already gone. I don't even think Evil had enough screentime to be established very well. Perhaps Time Bandits would've worked better as a TV mini-series, or even a trilogy of films? It would've been nice to see the bandits robbing Genghis Khan, the Great Pyramid of Giza before it was finished, or Aladdin of his lamp.

Gilliam comments on the pacing of the movie in the interview found on the Anchor Bay special edition DVD set. He observes that kids never had a problem with it. They were along for the ride and trusted where it was going. I guess I'm not in the right demographic for this movie anymore. I'll have to see what my daughter thinks of it in seven years or so.

Another problematic bit of the movie for me was that there were too many main characters. Six dwarves and a child were more than I was able to keep track of, or, frankly, care about. Randall, the leader, and Vermin, who would eat anything, are the only two dwarves I really remember after finishing the film. I think the number of dwarves could've easily been cut down to three or four without harming anything. Though, I did enjoy watching how Gilliam would stage all seven of these characters in his frames. No small task, to make a pun.

Despite all of my complaining, I like the movie. It's funny -- much funnier than Jabberwocky -- and clever and imaginative. The characters are fun to watch. I love the anti-consumerism / anti-lazy parent message conveyed through Kevin's parents. Their plastic-covered furniture and obsession with appliances were both hilarious and disturbingly real. I'm looking forward to seeing that idea expanded upon in Gilliam's next flick. (7/10)

Watched: NTSC 2-DVD special edition released by Anchor Bay in 2004. No complaints about this set. The audio and video are miles better than the non-anamorphic Criterion edition it replaced.