Film Review: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is like a geek version of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books. It is designed to provide comfort to those who delight in imagination and flights of fancy. It paints in broad strokes of vivid color a world in which rascally heroes laugh, love, and yearn to regain youth, though the presence of the character of Sally proves to the audience that youth is as perennial as grass. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is not made for intellectual dissection; in fact, it mocks the rational, turning the Enlightenment age of history in which it is set into an absurd parody of the twentieth century in which it was filmed. Still, despite his plea of “No doctors!”, I will attempt to dissect the good Baron. What makes The Adventures of Baron Munchausen great?

Originality/Vision

How does Gilliam come up with this stuff?
How does Gilliam come up with this stuff?

This film simply would not work if Gilliam and the rest of his creative team did not have diamond-brilliant senses of creativity. If this cry on behalf of the irrational were matched with fleshed-out explanations and logical structure, the clash between form and content would sink the picture. Instead, we get trips to the moon and oceans that meet at the center of the world and hair-ropes that can be cut at the top without falling until the oddity is commented upon. I will freely admit, I do not have the vision for this sort of thing. As the narrator of The Little Prince asserts when confronted with his inability to know from looking at a picture of a box what the sheep inside is doing, I guess I’ve gotten a bit like the grownups.

And yet…

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is not cryptic. This is not David Lynch territory, where the viewer is left confused, alone, and shiveringly vulnerable by the side of the lost highway. Exactly as much explanation as is needed for the story is provided. The explanation provided may leave the viewer guffawing and slapping their knee and/or forehead – but it’s there. If you have the capacity to suspend your disbelief, the old archetype of the Hero’s Journey will never let you down. It has the undeniable ring of emotional logic.

Themes

Let me guess.  Getting too old for this kind of thing?
Let me guess. Getting too old for this kind of thing?

The central conflict of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is, according to Psych 101 classes, as old as the human mind as we currently know it: Eros vs. Thanatos, or, Sex vs. Death. When the Baron, in his decrepit state, seeks out death world-wearily, it is the prospect of “beautiful ladies” that he cannot deny and still holds interest for him. The catch is, our heroine, Sally, is too young to understand either the attraction of sex (making the joke of the King of the Moon tickling the Queen’s feet possible) or the permanence of death (hence going to the embattled city’s wall and throwing stones at the invading Turks seems like a perfectly understandable course of action for her). So a secondary theme comes into play: call it Youth vs. Adulthood, or perhaps, Innocence vs. Wisdom.

I am not sure how long ago I first watched The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. I want to say it was right around the time the film was released, in 1988, though I didn’t watch it in the theater. At any rate, I can’t have been much older as a viewer than Sally is as a character (I was certainly too young to care about Uma Thurman’s plunging neckline during her performance as Venus!). While I enjoyed it then, found it memorable, and would have considered it a good film, it is in watching the film with adult eyes that it becomes great. In that respect, I must again draw a connection to The Little Prince. It is only after the viewer has had experience with the phenomena being described in this type of art that the chord of recognition can be struck, and the work be appreciated. This particular breed of allegory is of limited use as a caution or warning to the unwary, and frequently is not even entertaining (I’ve heard at least one person who read The Little Prince as a child evaluate it as “weird” based on that reading). The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’s feverish zaniness (Robin Williams was the perfect choice for the King of the Moon, he provides just the right touch of lunacy for the part) can still entertain the kiddies, but it’s their parents who will chuckle contentedly at the one-liners and set-ups.

Special Effects

Gets the point across.
Gets the point across.

I found it remarkable just how well the special effects for The Adventures of Baron Munchausen have held up despite advances in the industry over the past 26 years. The skeletal Angel of Death was clearly not done with CGI. When I was young, it scared me well enough. This playthrough, I wasn’t scared a jot, but I didn’t need to be. The point of the film when seen by adult eyes is not to be scared, even when there is reason to be. Baron Munchausen is a hero who can walk straight into leveled guns and come out unscathed, or be struck down by a primitive sniper only to reveal that at some point, the film became a story-within-a-story, and when you ask the real Baron to please stand up, you should discover that you have lifted yourself onto your feet. In this film, reason is the enemy, so being scared when there is reason to be scared lets the enemy win. It is enough to know that there is an Angel of Death with a skull for a head, a cloak and a scythe. All the elements are there. The viewer can choose to breathe life into them or not.

I would not recommend The Adventures of Baron Munchausen to someone who does not have a good imagination. That is, above all else, the prerequisite for enjoying this film. Imagination is critical, but creativity is not; Gilliam and his team will supply you with all the pieces you need, all the moving parts, all the tools, all the adhesives, and the workspace. But only your imagination will make this paper dragon fly off into the marmalade sunset while marzipan harpies caw at the quartzy stars. If you can’t dream, don’t bother with this romp.

Overall Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Reading Review: Skills for Simple Living – Advice, Ideas, Recipes and Reflections (2nd Edition) edited by Betty Tillotson

When I lived in Chicago, I briefly participated at the hackerspace Pumping Station One. One time when I was present, a couple of anticapitalists (it would be bad form for me to advertise for the particular organization they represented) were agitating. I went outside to take a break from having my supposed worldview challenged, and I chatted with one of PS1’s officers while he was having a cigarette. I’ll never forget his retort to what was going on: “I always ask guys like that one question. OK, let’s say you’re right, and the revolution happens tomorrow. What skills would you have to offer the new society? What can you do, besides make pamphlets and fliers and talk to people?”

The book I just finished up, Skills for Simple Living, is a collection of how-to articles originally published in Smallholder magazine. It describes in detail the myriad of practical problems that a person will encounter when trying to depend less on manufactured goods and social support, in today’s, or indeed any world; however, it only describes these problems in passing, because its focus is on techniques for solving those problems. Some of these problems are both extremely removed from the ones I am used to, and frequently encountered by smallholders. Reading about the nth proposed solution for slugs in a garden when my tiny condo plot produces no food got a little tedious. But overall, this was a very worthwhile book.

Here’s an example of one of the briefer articles reprinted in Skills for Simple Living:

ICE-SAFE YOUR SHOES
I heard recently about pulling old socks over your boots to make walking on ice less slippery. I had occasion to try it this winter, and it seems to work. I pulled a loaded sleigh into a howling wind across bared-off lake ice where in other years I had been reduced to crawling on hands and knees in a similar situation.

(That’s from the “Household Techniques” section, page 118 of my edition.)

Useful Info for Those of Us in the Chicago Burbs
Here’s a compiled list of the articles I intend on trying to put into practice:

  1. CATFACE CRADLE
  2. CLASSIC, SIMPLE HOMEMADE CLOTHING
  3. MAKING KIDS’ BOOKS
  4. HOME REMEDIES FOR INSECT BITES
  5. TREATING BEE STINGS (man I hope I never need this one, but you never know…)
  6. TESTING A LEVEL
  7. BOOT SCRAPER
  8. GARLIC AS A POWERFUL MEDICINE
  9. OILS AND SALVES
  10. MAKING LYE AND SOAP
  11. CUTTING THROUGH GREASE
  12. FLY DETERRENT
  13. SALT SUBSTITUTES
  14. SAFE ANT REPELLENT
  15. SERBIAN STRING CHEESE
  16. DRYING GREEN VEGETABLES
  17. MARJORAM VINEGAR
  18. SOY ICE CREAM
  19. ONIONS WITHOUT TEARS
  20. STOVE-TOP BAKING
  21. FRESHNESS TEST FOR EGGS
  22. HOMESTEADING WITHOUT A LOT OF MONEY
  23. HOT PEPPER SPRAY (for soft-bodied insects, not humans!)
  24. CREATING NO-DIG GARDEN SOIL
  25. GARDEN PLANTING HINTS
  26. ORGANIC SPRAY INSECTICIDE
  27. WATERING TEST
  28. GREEN MANURES

Not a bad collection of information, if I do say so myself.

Yes, there were articles on making alcohol.  Livin the high life.
Yes, there were articles on making alcohol. Livin’ the high life.

Because I am so unfamiliar with both this problem set and executing solutions for it, I did find some of the explanations that were intended to be crystal-clear and step-by-step a little hard to follow. There were some illustrations in the extra-wide margins, but more of those would have been useful. The articles that dealt with the use of tools particularly left me in the dust. I mean, I know an “adzhe” (sic) is a tool, but I don’t think I’ve ever used one and I don’t really know what they look like or do. I guess that’s what the Internet is for.

This book’s most concrete use for me at this time in my life is actually something for which it was probably not intended. Namely, I found it very useful for helping me calm down. I’ve found that media that involves a strong narrative element, whether it’s movies, music, or creative writing, usually stimulates me a lot and gives me energy. When I got anxious, Skills for Simple Living gave me something for my mind to focus on and work through that didn’t make me more tense. It kind of worked the way cigarettes do for some people – it brought me down when I was up, and up when I was down. It was cool like that, and I was grateful to have it.

Overall Rating: 4.0 out of 5.

Film Review: Nosferatu

Happy October 31, everybody!

As I noted in my review of The Artist, I have not watched very many silent films. This year’s October 31 offering, Nosferatu, dates back to 1922 and is probably the oldest film I have ever watched outside of a class requirement. Due to my involvement with Old World of Darkness RPGs in the late 1990s, I am intimately familiar with a host of cultural material pertaining to the concept of a vampire that references older works, including Nosferatu; but just as my Honors Proseminar on Gothic Literature back in undergrad discussed Bram Stoker’s Dracula without making it required reading, Nosferatu may have been in the water for material I had seen, but I hadn’t actually watched it as a primary source. These are my impressions now of this ninety-year-old film that helped usher in the vampire as the supernatural horror force-to-be-reckoned-with that we know it as today.

Soundtrack/Score

What kind of music should pair with this image, I wonder?
What kind of music should pair with this image, I wonder?

It is impossible for someone raised in the era of “talkies” as I have been to take the audio component of a “silent” film for granted and it would be inappropriate not to comment on it in this review. Above all else, the artistic choice I found most questionable about Nosferatu was its instrumental score. The opening third or so of the story, in which it would have been most appropriate for the score to sound breezy and innocuous, was actually when the score was at its most driving and bombastic. In the second act, when it was time for the score to turn chilling and foreboding, it instead turned placid and serene. By the time the third act had rolled around, when it would have been appropriate to have loud, dramatic, tumultuous sounds, I had already written off the musical score as being able to provide any useful content to enhance the narrative, and was no longer paying any attention to it. I can’t even say, less than eighteen hours after watching the film, what a single musical cue of the third act of Nosferatu sounded like, and I suspect if it had been any improvement over the first two acts, it would have caught my attention. The pairing of music to narrative and visuals for Nosferatu was neither like-to-like (blue with green or indigo) nor complementary and therefore ironic (blue with orange or rusty brown). It was just bad (blue with chartreuse).

Casting Choices

As Austin Powers would say, thats no woman, that;s a MAN, baby!
As Austin Powers would say, that’s no woman, that’s a MAN, baby!

Remember what I was saying when I reviewed The Artist, about how female standards of beauty have changed since the 1920s? Nosferatu makes it clear that the standards for men have also changed. The features of Gustav von Wangenheim, the actor who plays Jonathon Harker, are neither the pretty-boy looks of contemporary teen heart-throb bands, nor ruggedly masculine like one finds in the faces of action heroes. Harker just looks common, and the one scene in which his character is temporarily shirtless proves his physique to be unremarkable as well. Clearly the actor was selected along different criteria from today’s stars. Greta Schröder, the actress who plays Harker’s wife Nina, ends up looking like an unpleasant cross between Carrie Fisher in Star Wars: A New Hope and a drag queen. The physical appearance of these characters actually detracted from my ability to enjoy the narrative, although not to the degree that the score did.

Themes

Howdy, neighbor!
Howdy, neighbor!

The main idea that I took away from that proseminar on Gothic literature is that Gothic material is antistructuralist. The monsters that star in it are monstrous because they remove structuralist barriers between binary opposites. Frankenstein’s monster, for example, removed the barrier between life and death. Gender-bending is a common theme in Gothic literature, as the barrier between men and women gets erased (“About time,” I can hear my Third Wavers and trans readers comment). Dracula by Bram Stoker was the first published account of vampires as erotic beings, destroying the barrier between fear and love. Before Stoker came along, vampires were dread creatures of the night in Eastern European lore, walking bloodsucking corpses possessing none of the allure of an Anne Rice character like Lestat, and certainly not a source of teen romantic yearnings like Edward of the Twilight books. Rice and She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named-Aloud have just been surfing Stoker’s wave.

Knowing this about what makes horror tick, I was curious to see how Nosferatu would represent this dynamic. The results surprised me. Despite supposedly being based on an unnamed novel by Bram Stoker that one must assume is Dracula (in which case, as my viewing companion who has actually read Dracula observed, it is very loosely based on that novel in terms of plot – a quick survey of IMDB would indicate that the film was originally created with a different vampire story in mind and the names of characters from Dracula got superimposed later), Nosferatu does not present the Count as an erotic being. He stays firmly on the repulsive side of that binary. Now there is some intriguing manipulation of gender roles – Harker gets portrayed as a passive victim, a role usually reserved for women, even going so far as to escape from the Count’s castle via a rope made of bedclothes like a kidnapped medieval princess; Nina, by contrast, takes heroic action to save Bremen, even at the cost of her life. Also, my viewing companion and I joked that the Count might be gay and the requirement that he stay with a woman until morning if he is to be killed might be a symbolic “conversion” (yes, yes, I know how orientations and preferences actually work!). But actually, the barrier broken down most successfully here for monstrous results is the barrier between the foreign and the familiar.

As long as Dracula dwells in his isolated castle in the “land of the phantoms”, the viewer can feel comfortable. We know what must be done to stay safe from such beings – avoid or stay away from Transylvania. Apparently the peasants who live there know what needs to be done too if they are able to write manuals like The Book of Vampires to leave on bedside tables at inns! But put Count Dracula in the city of Bremen, and he becomes infinitely more terrifying. When Dracula announced to Harker “We’ll be neighbors!” a chill ran through me, undeniably. Nobody should have to sleep with one eye open, afraid their neighbors will stalk them in their sleep. There is supposed to be safety in numbers. Dracula’s ability to cross that boundary line, to be a bloodsucking creature of the night while slowly waving hello to Nina through her bedroom window, keeps him monstrous and ensures that ninety years later, in the midst of laughter and jeering at poor film quality and even poorer lighting technology, I will still get that chill down my spine.

I fear that most of my generation would be unable to suspend their disbelief long enough to appreciate the aspects of Nosferatu that operate on elements of the human psyche that I consider to be timeless. My viewing companion, for example, shook his head at Nina’s noble self-sacrifice and pronounced the requirement that she die in order for Dracula to be killed “lame”. In my opinion, that ritualistic formula for Dracula’s death was, like, the second-best part of the film (“We’ll be neighbors!” being the best moment). But anyone who still appreciates silent film who hasn’t seen this already would do well to check it out, as should anyone who considers themself a film connoisseur. In the latter case, watching this might be a good dose of anti-pretension.

Overall Rating: 2.5 out of 5.0.