A friend once asked me to name a book, an album, and a movie that explains who I am. The book would be Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino. The album would be Loveless by My Bloody Valentine. For years, the movie would have been Brazil or Magnolia, but the answer now is Terry Gilliam’s 1988 film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
It took a long while for me to realize this. I remember watching the movie in theaters as a seven year old. I wasn’t aware who Gilliam was even though I’d seen and enjoyed Time Bandits on TV. I wore down the family’s VHS copy, and I played out my DVD, and slowly it became my favorite movie. But maybe secretly it’s always been my favorite movie.
Looking back, I realize that The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a sort of nexus of my creative and intellectual life, a spot where all the interests of my childhood and all the obsessions of my adulthood converge. This is everything I care about in the form of a dazzling wonderment, one so rife with mischief; a mix of anarchy, structural play, narrative tomfoolery, quixotic folly, cartoon logic, and, most importantly, life-affirming madcap joy.
I wish I could say I have vivid memories about the first time I saw The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. I want there to be a moment when young me had his eyes light up when he realized the possibilities of storytelling as a kind of noble, inspired flimflam; I want young me to reach his hand (not yet aching and carpal-tunneled) up to his eyes to adjust the non-existent glasses he’d need to wear in the future; I want young me to cry at the same moments that adult me cries at now: the airship’s stormy journey to the moon, the Baron’s dance with Venus, the opening of the gates.
But if I were to say that any of that happened, it would be a lie. For years, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was just a movie I watched in the theater when I was a kid. It was as fondly remembered as An American Tail and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but it wasn’t an objectively different viewing experience than The Pound Puppies and the Legend of Big Paw, Short Circuit 2, or Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. I sat, I watched, I was entertained, I (maybe) wouldn’t have minded watching the movie again.
My fond memories of the Baron mostly come from watching it on VHS. I think it’s the rewatching of the Baron over the course of 20+ years that helped me realize how much that movie spoke to me and how many gears it set to motion in my mind. There are certain films that wind up in heavy rotation in different phases of my life, the sorts of things I’d put on to pass time or fill silences. As a little kid, it was stuff like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Goonies, The Love Bug, and Infra-Man in the background while I played with LEGOs and used storybooks as ramps for toy cars; as an adolescent and teen it was Pi, Evil Dead 2, Drunken Master II, and Cemetery Man as I sketched and painted and convinced myself I was going to be a great horror novelist; in college it was Eraserhead, American Movie, Rushmore, and The Holy Mountain while I tried to convince myself I was a legitimate intellectual.
The one constant in the rotation, though, the film that I could pick up and play at any age with unqualified pleasure, was The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. I may have changed with age and the film may have facilitated these changes in its own invisible ways, but whatever the case, my attachment to the film has only grown stronger.
So what’s contained in this movie that’s changed me or at least says something about me? There’s obviously my love of Gilliam. Even in his misfires (I’m one of the few Gilliam diehards who just couldn’t get into Tideland, sorry), I find an originality that I salute regardless. I also find a creative spirit that refuses to die. Like Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was created out of great struggle. Over-budget (skyrocketing from $23.5 million to supposedly $46.6 million), Gilliam soldiered on in the face of adversity to create one of the most wonderful box office bombs of all time. And he continues to work. It’s not the movie itself but the soul of the movie that can be loved as well: to fight against impossible odds can be worthwhile.
The Baron also explores ideas of fiction and fact, which have become important to me as an adult. I love hybridity, whether it’s essays taking on the techniques of narrative or vice versa. The form can be abused, of course, but when handled right, I can’t get enough of it. These kinds of stories feel more essentially true. Maybe my love for Jorge Luis Borges and W.G. Sebald can be traced back into The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, or even my love of mockumentaries; perhaps even the trickery of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire or the ecstatic truth found in the documentaries of Werner Herzog. (Which reminds me, I still need to watch Sarah Polley’s The Stories We Tell. To think she was just nine years old in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen when she played Sally.) What the Baron has to say about truth at the end is something I’ve come to believe: truth is something other than mere facts, and that under the right circumstances, fiction can get us closer to the truth than just the facts themselves.
And there’s more. My love of specialized teams of experts–whether in The Goonies or Doc Savage or The Fantastic Four–can be found in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen: swift and speedy Berthold, keen-eyed sharpshooter Adolphus, superstrong heavy-hitter Albrecht, ultra-attuned blowhard Gustavus. There’s the beautiful absurdity of the whole film, where women’s silken bloomers can be used to make a patchwork hot air balloon, or where prisoners can be tortured into adding accent to arias, or where Oliver Reed can have a dainty cup of tea. The battles–because I still love a good battle scene and always will–have the scope of Cecil B. DeMille and the personality of Tex Avery. The film is anti-authoritarian. The film is anti-cliche. The film is a morbid children’s adventure. Even my favorite television show of all time, The Prisoner (the original 1967-1968 one, not the crummy remake), is linked to The Adventures of Baron Munchausen via producer David Tomblin.
Terry Gilliam once said that with Time Bandits he wanted to make a movie that was intelligent enough for children but exciting enough for adults. I’ve used that quotation way too many times on the site, but I need to use it again when writing about The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. The film’s longevity and importance in my life has everything to do with that Gilliam line. I wasn’t a precocious or brilliant child, but the movie appealed to my imagination and engaged me on that level–unbridled imagination is its own kind of bizarre intelligence, and I admired that quality so much as a little boy. Similarly, I’m not (that much of) an immature adult, but the zaniness of the Baron gets me excited in the possibilities of the world, as if the whole of existence is still a new thing. It’s as if Gilliam tapped into the nascent adult-me in the carefree mind of the child-me; and, in two-hour sessions with the Baron, Gilliam helps me locate the extant child-me that’s buried under all the neuroses of adult-me. When I watch the movie, I feel as carefree as I did as at age seven–in flight like the Baron and Venus, weightless enough that I can hoist myself up out of the water by my own hair (nevermind that I don’t have hair).
I watched the Siskel & Ebert review for The Adventures of Baron Munchausen a few days ago and they both said that the story was hard to follow. I picture child-me standing up and shouting at them, “It’s easy! Let me explain it to you!” It still is easy to follow for adult-me since the divisions between the the past and the present as well as the theatrical performance and the memory are distinct. Ditto the voyage from Earth to the moon and back, and then through the center of the world. I think what throws people off is the film’s three different endpoints that come in quick succession, the final one discarding logical plot progression to deal with something more fundamental that was on Gilliam’s mind:
- There’s the triumph of the final battle against the Turks
- There’s the death of our hero after the triumph
- There’s the opening of the gates
The victory in battle that culminated in the parade is the glorious imagination overcoming impossible odds. The death of the Baron is both an evocation of JFK in Dallas as well as a memento mori; a high-profile 20th century assassination and an evocation of the downer endings found in many myths of the past. (Again, fact and fiction, transformed, blended.) The opening of the gates is the film’s final statement, a capper to its thematic and metaphorical space–we’ve reminded you that the imagination can lead to victory, we’ve reminded you that you will eventually die too, but here’s what we want you to take away from this whole experience.
I think the reason it took so long for The Adventures of Baron Munchausen to become my favorite movie is because the third endpoint didn’t mean as much to me until I hit my late twenties. I moved from San Diego to New York with some nebulous idea of becoming a writer. It’s such an irrational thing to do, especially when no one can afford to live in New York anymore, especially if you want to be a writer. I’ve just started my seventh year in the city, and the struggle continues, though it’s arguably worse now than it’s ever been. There’s rent, there’s student loans, there’s competition, and mostly there’s self-doubt that gets reinforced every minute of every day. Wherever I go and whatever I seem to do, there’s a reminder not of death but of failure. How many rejections can someone take before they finally break? How much writing needs to be discarded to get to something good? And why try when talent and persistence don’t necessarily matter? The rational thing would be to give up.
But then there’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
Yes, it would be rational to give up writing and to get a real job that didn’t make me feel like a loser all the time, but the world needs its irrational men and women to continue to fight against the stultifying conformity of reason. It’s not an accident that Jonathan Pryce’s rational leader in the film (credited as The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson, emphasis my own) delivers his final lines like a caricature of Hitler. Reason and facts can be their own kind of fascism. People get reduced to cogs in machinery, to functions, to parts of a system, to mere numbers. Even wars can get reduced to tidy affairs (though in the film they’re also treated as bizarre political/business transactions that abide by no rational rules). There’s the atom bomb prototype in Vulcan’s factory. With it, you can obliterate people without having to look them in the eyes.
“Where’s the fun in that?” Berthold asks. Fun has nothing to do with logic and efficiency taken to their worst ends.
The Baron arrives as a complication to the Age of Reason, a reminder that there is a place amid all the arithmetic for the human capacity to dream, i.e., to make stuff up, to dazzle, to trick, to flimflam into ecstasy. He is the rogue and the rebel, a square peg, an idea of the past screaming out into the future, and he’s yelling a staunch refusal, like Number Six from The Prisoner, “I am not a number, I am a free man!”
Open the gates.
Maybe it’s just irrational to want to be a writer, but I can’t see myself doing anything else. It’s not for a lack of training, but simply out of a lack of interest (the same reason I almost failed Trigonometry, now that I think of it). One of my favorite living writers, Jim Shepard, said the following about being a writer, and it seems like the most honest assessment of an irrational impulse:
The best way to know whether you should be writing fiction is that you need to do it to feel good about yourself even though doing it almost never makes you feel good about yourself.
The Baron seems like a stand-in for Gilliam, but I think that’s just one part of it; Gilliam, or at least the higher-minded part of him, is really Sally. She’s just as important to the adventure. The Baron isn’t getting any younger, the specter of Death and failure stalks him wherever he goes, and it seems like the days of this kind of anarchic imagination are numbered. This isn’t the age for unreasonable people who don’t have pragmatic ideas. He should just quit, and there are many times that’s all he wants to do. But the kid at his side is pushing him to continue. It’s Sally’s concern and innocence that coaxes the Baron onward even when hope seems lost, because, as irrational as it seems, all hope is not lost, at least not yet.
When I’m down, I can hop into the Baron wherever I need to and the Baron will save me. When I feel like I’ve worked too hard for so little, I’ll be reminded of how spectacular the little things can be. When I feel isolated in the world and have been stuck with myself for too long, I’m reminded that I have plenty of friends around me who’ll see me through those most difficult and darkest times; and their numbers dwarf the Fantastic Four and Doc Savage’s Fabulous Five, and their talents are so varied and so exceptional that I feel fortunate simply to know them and blessed to know that they care. And when I’m most down, I sometimes think of myself as a kid and what he would say. Probably not much (I wasn’t necessarily talkative as a child), but he’d probably lift me up somehow–maybe with a balloon made of underwear–and drag me forward. He has no reason to give in, and I guess I can’t let him down.
The Turks don’t stand a chance. But then again, they never did.
Sally’s last line to the Baron, the last line in the entire film: “It wasn’t just a story, was it?”
No, Sally. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is the reason I wake up every morning and write.