**½/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras B+
starring Michael Palin, Max Wall, Harry H. Corbett, John Le Mesurier
screenplay by Charles Alverson and Terry Gilliam, from the Lewis Carroll poem
directed by Terry Gilliam
by Bryant Frazer The pre-credits sequence of Jabberwocky features director Terry Gilliam's ex-Python troupemate Terry Jones portraying a hunter collecting trapped wild animals from a pastoral forest as shafts of sunlight stab through tree branches and featherlight moths flit among the leaves. The natural beauty is subverted, ominously, by point-of-view shots taken from far overhead, accompanied by boomy, creature-feature sound design (think Jaws, released a couple years previous), suggesting the hunter is also the hunted. Jones glances around quizzically, a dopey, open-mouthed expression plastered across his face. With a jump cut, he turns suddenly towards the camera, wide-eyed and screaming in extreme close-up. The camera pulls back from the ground and carries Jones with it, still yelling and beating his arms frantically in the air. He jerks his head this way and that, his tongue lolling about in and around his mouth, delivering a death scene of such unexpected intensity that it's hard for an audience to know how to respond. Is it scary, or hilarious? Or just...goofy?
Fancier filmmakers like John Frankenheimer (in Seconds) and Martin Scorsese (in Mean Streets) had accomplished similarly tight tracking shots by ordering up specially-rigged harnesses that hung off the actor's chest, propping the camera up so it pointed at their face no matter how they moved their body. In Jabberwocky, Gilliam got the same effect by loading both the camera and Jones into the bucket of a cherry-picker planted on the forest floor, then wagging it amongst the tree branches. He removed frames, speeding up the action and lending the picture a wild, stutter-step quality. It gets the job done, but I'm lukewarm on the effect because Gilliam overemphasizes it. He's in love with it, and he wants you to love it, too, so he lets the shot go on and on, past shock to absurdity and, finally, ridiculousness. And that's the thing about Jabberwocky.
Inspired to some degree by Lewis Carroll's famous nonsense poem from Through the Looking-Glass, Jabberwocky came together as Gilliam was figuring out his next strategic move. Jabberwocky was meant as an elevation of his work beyond the Python-bound realm of sketch comedy. Perhaps energized by the success of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which he co-directed with Jones, Gilliam favoured a return to a very similar milieu. By placing Jabberwocky in medieval Europe rather than a more Wonderland-ish setting, Gilliam could build on everything he had learned to date about mounting handsome Arthurian drama on the cheap. And, even more so than the earlier film, it would give him ample space to opine on the daily life and socio-economic condition of the peasantry--a preoccupation that would shape his work for years to come. Yet it was a bad decision for a director who was determined to make a break with the past. Even though the film was unambiguously not a Monty Python project, it was widely treated as such--and often found wanting. "It's funny, but it's only half as funny [as Python]," Gilliam once said, comparing the film to the richly imaginative but disturbing work of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel. "[The critics] couldn't see what else I was trying to do."*
Part of the problem in the U.S., at least, was Gilliam's arch sensibility--irony has never been a big-money proposition in the States. He cast another Python vet, Michael Palin, as Dennis Cooper, an unambitious country bumpkin whose ascension to hero status comes through no virtue of his own. Dennis's idea of a quest is his routinely thwarted effort to woo a neighbour girl, Griselda (Annette Badland), who barely notices his existence, though a partly-eaten potato she carelessly throws to him becomes a totem of his devotion. When he visits a nearby city for the first time, Dennis seeks nothing more exciting than gainful employment, but, after a series of well-intentioned faux pas, he catches the attention of the doddering elder-baby King Bruno the Questionable (one-time music-hall comedian Max Wall, first seen sporting diaper-like bedclothes)--who is in an off-with-their-heads kind of mood--and is forced to flee. Unlikely events culminate in his impersonation of the squire accompanying a champion knight who has been dispatched to face the Jabberwock on its own turf.
A few standout sequences deliver the mix of comic spectacle and cynicism Gilliam strives for. Dennis's chance encounter and conversation with a beggar who remains chipper even after having sawn off his own foot for sympathy is an appropriately grisly (but also silly) tribute to an image from the Bosch triptych The Temptation of St. Anthony, while Gilliam makes the most of King Bruno's jousting competition by keeping much of the hard-to-stage action off-screen, conveying it through fantastic, ever-increasing quantities of blood splattered across spectators in the royal box. The climactic appearance of the monster itself, in a startling, shambling design derived from artist John Tenniel's original 1871 illustration of the Carroll poem, is an impressive showcase for affordable ingenuity--Jabberwocky is, if nothing else, a master's class in making a lot from hardly anything. But the film remains nearly as episodic in nature as Holy Grail, with the throughline of Dennis's unrequited crush on the largely absent Griselda doing too little to hold the bigger narrative together.
Instead of developing characters, Gilliam focuses on pet themes--including the pernicious behaviour of authoritarian systems, naturally. King Bruno has no incentive to kill the Jabberwock because the Jabberwock is good for business--the economy inside the walled city is booming and, as the excited bishop (Derek Francis) reports, "piety has never been higher." Gilliam has an obviously wonderful time imagining the lives of the devout peasantry in scatological detail: a pile of Jabberwock shit here, a stream of urine in the face there. And American actress Deborah Fallender, playing Bruno's unhappy daughter (the princess waiting for her prince to come), has a gratuitous nude scene that clearly delights Gilliam; he surrounds her with a small entourage of scandalized nuns who tut-tut reflexively and disapprovingly, buzzing around the frame with pieces of fabric in an ineffectual attempt to hide her body from view.
Still, despite Gilliam's aspiration to transcend the Pythonesque focus on mere hilarity, it turns out that sketch comedy was a surpassingly excellent delivery mechanism for pessimistic observations; the silliness helps the cynicism go down. There's a wild, propulsive energy to that first Python film that Jabberwocky lacks, meaning its relatively languorous running time (105 minutes) is a bad idea--get this down to 80 minutes or so and it might be a different story. Whatever his apparent devotion to historical detail and increasing seriousness of intent, Gilliam was still too much of a hit-and-run prankster to function effectively as longform auteur, though he found his own voice fairly quickly with the excellent Time Bandits and the even-better Brazil. Jabberwocky may be a big step back from the brilliance of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but it's a crucial transitional film for Gilliam and his fans.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Jabberwocky will never get a fairer shake than it does on the Criterion Collection's Blu-ray, part of a long-running love affair that began with prohibitively-expensive, feature-laden LaserDisc releases of Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Fisher King back in the day. Sourced from a 2017 BFI National Archive/Film Foundation restoration funded by the George Lucas Family Foundation, this new transfer, letterboxed to 1.85:1 and encoded at a Criterion-standard generous bitrate of better than 35 Mbps, features a picture as dark and gloomy as ever before, but now rich in colour and dynamic range, offering a clearer view into at least some of the omnipresent shadows. Many portions of the frame remain pitch black in certain shots, likely evidence of a deliberate effort to stretch production values by minimizing the required art direction in a given scene. Despite the general griminess, there is no evidence of crushing at the toe of the image. Liner notes indicate the picture was both scanned and restored at 4K, using source elements that included the original 35mm camera negative (with "image repair" carried out under the auspices of the BFI at Bologna's L'Immagine Ritrovata with Gilliam's involvement), and that the 5.1 mix, presented in DTS-HD MA, was supervised by Gilliam in 2001 at Redwood Studios in London. This is a quality soundtrack, with surprisingly robust body and a solid bassy thump across both music and effects, as well as effective (if occasionally overplayed) directionality through all five full-range channels. An original-release monaural version ought to be here, too, but omitting it is somewhat defensible when the remix is this sensible and powerful.
"Parts of it I just love and parts of it I am exceedingly embarrassed about," ventures Gilliam towards the end of an audio commentary, recycled from Sony's 2001 DVD, that also features Michael Palin. Gilliam gives typically good commentary, enumerating some of the ways the production saved money, elaborating on his pet themes, and often playing defense against the picture's many critics. (At one point, he claims that director John Boorman screened Jabberwocky no fewer than 14 times for the crew of his Excalibur--which is the kind of dead-serious medieval epic Gilliam seemed to be mocking, so it's no wonder he takes pleasure in the anecdote.) Some mildly lecherous banter on the subject of the female nude doesn't play so well in the current cultural climate, but the duo spends even more time discussing a scene where Palin dropped his trousers in front of the cast and crew as well as extras and passerby tourists on a coach tour. Palin jokes that it was "an epiphanic moment in my life."
New to this Criterion release is the fairly meaty talking-heads documentary "Jabberwocky: Good Nonsense" (41 mins.), featuring appearances from Gilliam, Palin, Badland, and producer Sandy Lieberson. Gilliam reiterates his desire to break from the Monty Python mold and goes into slightly more detail on the visual strategy--the set dressing was occasionally so threadbare that frustrated DP Terry Bedford, well-known for his commercial work with the likes of Ridley and Tony Scott and Adrian Lyne, came close to being fired. He also talks more about the inspiration for his take on medieval life, such as the time he spent on a Chevrolet assembly line in Van Nuys, California. At one point, Lieberson remembers getting a phone call from Stanley Kubrick, demanding to know how the film was made for a meagre £500,000.
A counterpoint is offered by Bedford himself, who weighs in via an engaging, insightful audio interview with David Morgan (22 mins.) dating to 1998. Most of the questions are actually about Bedford's work shooting Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but he eventually describes a more troubled Jabberwocky production than Gilliam and Lieberson seem to acknowledge. Bedford remembers the film having "an unbelievable, unrealistic schedule" and says its editor raised an alarm with him a week in, acknowledging that the dailies were uncommonly beautiful but that no story was being told. As shooting fell behind schedule, the camera and lighting departments were pushed to work faster. Meanwhile, Bedford says, Gilliam himself was under enormous budgetary pressure. "He was signing away his fees, his home, his family to get the money to get the completion people off his back," Bedford explains. After a day of particularly tricky candlelight shooting, Bedford resigned--but he was back at work the next morning. (In his memoir from the time, Palin remembers that the production had actually gone so far as to hire a replacement DP in the brief interim, but somehow Bedford was convinced to extend an olive branch to Gilliam.)
Additionally commenting at some length for this 2017 release is the designer of the Jabberwock itself, in "Valerie Charlton: The Making of a Monster" (15 mins.). Charlton remembers winning the job, losing it, and then getting it back again quite late in production, with only a week to finish the project. "I knew I could do it," she recalls, "but nobody else did." Her description of her creature work is accompanied by selections from her collection of photographs and other artifacts from the era. Criterion has also commissioned a short reading of "Jabberwocky" itself performed by Palin and Badland (1:28).
Imported from a previous DVD release (and upscaled to HD) is "Sketch to Screen: From the Sketchbook of Terry Gilliam" (7 mins.), a featurette that juxtaposes visuals from the film to Gilliam's conceptual drawings. It's OK if you're into that sort of thing, although I'd rather have the drawings and sketchbook pages to appreciate on their own, as opposed to edited into a video presentation. The disc sports Gilliam's preferred cut of the film but for comparison's sake Criterion offers the original (i.e., UK) opening sequence, which omits some Bosch imagery and voiceover narration and features a much less ornate title card. It's presented in a 1.37:1 open-matte version with pre-digital restoration picture quality and runs just over three minutes. And what collection of Jabberwocky ephemera would be complete without the movie's trailer (1:27)? It's here, it's in HD, it's letterboxed to 1.85:1, and, yes, it seems engineered to suggest that Jabberwocky is a Python flick. Lastly, the fold-out insert contains a six-page essay by critic Scott Tobias, "Through the Looking Glass and What Terry Found There," that begins by comparing Gilliam's films to Alice's experience of Wonderland and eventually mounts a concise reading of Jabberwocky as ironic magical-realist play on medieval history. It's an authoritative defense that nicely rounds out this edition.
* Nor could the studio: Jabberwocky was billed as "Monty Python's Jabberwocky" in the U.S. on its VHS, Beta, and LD releases, to Gilliam's great dismay, since he thought it prevented his own solo flight from getting a fair shake with audiences.