LIFE OF BRIAN
***/**** Image B Sound C Extras A
starring Monty Python
screenplay by Graham Chapman & John Cleese & Terry Gilliam & Eric Idle & Terry Jones & Michael Palin
directed by Terry Jones
THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN
DVD - Image B- Sound B+ Extras B+
BD - Image B+ Sound B+ Extras B+
starring John Neville, Eric Idle, Sarah Polley, Oliver Reed
screenplay by Charles McKeown & Terry Gilliam
directed by Terry Gilliam
by Walter Chaw Call it a rite of passage, but I'm thinking that boys of my generation memorize the Monty Python repertoire as a buttress against the terror of losing their virginity. (No colder shower than a round of "ni"s, let's face it; reciting the entirety of Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the antithesis of smooth and as such becomes the chit one trades for entry into the club of delayed experience.) Not until you get a little older do you appreciate that Monty Python earned their outsider status by being a satirical animal as opposed to a slapstick one--that the lengths to which they'd go for a joke has more to do with camouflage than with their stated goal of silliness. Owing to my knowing it almost subliminally at this point (let's just say the surprise is gone), I must confess I don't find Life of Brian that funny anymore--but I do find it to be a little amazing. This most recent viewing is the first time I've seen it with thousands of films packed dense into the rear-view, as well as the first time I've been able to appreciate that Life of Brian isn't one of dozens of films that take an irreverent run at fundamentalism, but rather one of the only ones. It's a revelation I greet with equal parts admiration for the picture and horror at the paucity of real conversation about skepticism in our Judeo-Christian culture. Always a lot of dust kicked up when another Dutch artist takes a run at Islam; the only difference in fundamentalist Christianity's response to Life of Brian is that the government didn't sanction the death threats it provoked.
Being There with a slightly sharper bite, Life of Brian is something of a high-concept one-trick pony, with our titular faux-siah born in the Bethlehem stable next to that other guy. Brian (Graham Chapman) comes to represent the mouthpiece of the skeptic forced into the role of reluctant messiah. (Interesting that the Pythons were forced into a similar position in responding to the uproar over the film's release.) To my eye, it's the more romantic, more correct version of the living Christ--the manifestation of the imperfect deity to explain the ways of God to Man, as it were (like Scorsese's Christ, for instance, or more tellingly, like his Judas), and the way the Pythons articulate this is through an avatar afflicted with the tragedy of knowing exactly how silly a concept is blind faith. He also serves as mirror and conduit to the dangerous idiocy of fundamentalism. The problems arise from taking any document without applying to it the critical facility God gave a donkey--and from the desperation that foments the need for that kind of insensate agreement in self-conflicting statements promising salvation in the life of a herd animal.
My favourite bit is a late appearance by a suicide squad protesting Brian's crucifixion ("Let's nail some sense into him!")--33AD suicide tactics being a knife to the gut and a choked "That oughta show 'em!" It's a scene that works as broad physical comedy, of course, but it also raises any number of issues about our current state of fear in the 21st century, when suicide squads wield collateral knives. What sort of madness drives unquestioning faith to the point of self-destruction? To the point of murder and obscene spectacle in the name of your peaceful religion? I think often to Kurt Vonnegut's observation that certain vocal members of our culture police stump for the Ten Commandments (Moses) in our schoolrooms while few push for The Beatitudes (Jesus). Life of Brian is funny first because it's physically outrageous, then again upon reflection because it reveals baseline truths about what we are and the mechanisms we use to rise up against our sea of troubles. The cold comfort revealed by Life of Brian--that most people want a flag to chase no matter the bearer or the slogan--is tempered by the fact that the film itself represents the counterrevolution. There's irony in that, as I initially embraced the piece as a mindless automaton worshipping at an accepted altar. There's hope, too, in that the film urges individualism and skepticism--twin concepts that one grows into over time and that, should an individual or organization object to them, engender their due portion of suspicion and disdain.
Think of the film as a line in the sand. Think of it, too, as a clarion in this age of over-information about the temptation and evils of following pundits who would promise to distil all that noise into a single unequivocal wavelength. That way lies puritanical thoughts so immaculate that they lack the possibility for subtle gradations and the splendour of civil discourse packed therein. A heavy burden for something as low-budget kitchen-sink as Life of Brian, to be sure, but consider the sequence where Brian, in telling an allegorical story to a small rabble of his followers, is interrupted every few moments with fact-finding questions--reminding of that Sunday-comics rejoinder of a mother chastising her child with "there are children starving in Africa" and the child asking her to name one. The film offers that all communication is fraught with metaphor, misunderstanding, and miscommunication. There is the idea that interpretation is the key to any subjective existence, and that attempting to impose rigid objectivity on matters of philosophy and faith is the quintessence of existential blindness. It's a shame that Life of Brian is seen as controversial by some of the faithful in the sense that its variety of curiosity and informed uncertainty should be the essence of faith, not the antithesis of it.
Faith is what appears to move ex-Python Terry Gilliam in his dedicated tilting at ramshackle cinematic windmills, chips stacked against him as the world falls down around his ears. Enough of his projects have followed this course that it's fair to wonder if Gilliam only really thrives under great adversity--indeed, if he doesn't court controversy, under the pressure of which he occasionally extrudes little gems. As I get older, I appreciate Gilliam's library less (three exceptions: Twelve Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Tideland); even the seemingly unshakeable Brazil now seems cluttered, unfocused, self-indulgent, and puerile. But I've loved each of his films (except The Brothers Grimm) upon first encountering them, marking Gilliam as something of an Alexander Payne, I think, or a Tim Burton, in that his work is curiously attuned along my personal, internal consciousness and thus dated almost immediately thereafter. Are Gilliam's pictures riding the collective wave? His is such a gifted eye that it's worth wondering whether he doesn't have a finger to the carotid of the universal soul in snapshot--and that it's only upon reflection that his deficiencies as a narrative filmmaker, as a director able to elicit human performances, become clear. Acknowledging those couple of exceptions where I think Gilliam, in spite of his visual genius, has fashioned lasting emotional pieces, it's possible to generalize his work as busy nickelodeons working out arcane purposes among Byzantine geographies.
Prime example? The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the film that arguably cemented Gilliam, once and for good, fairly or unfairly, as a financiers' nightmare--the wunderkind enfant terrible sprung fully formed from Python's thigh. The movie is a shrine to and an update of filmmaker Georges Méliès (Méliès of course did his own version of this story in 1911), though instead of neat, it's like one of those plaster tchotchkes someone's hand-painted and orphaned in a thrift store. I used to love this film and watched it countless times on bootleg VHS in high school, yet unlike Life of Brian, coming back to Munchausen is more Thomas Wolfe-ian than Proustian. That doesn't diminish the audacity of its visual accomplishments: its full-size functional props, its cast of thousands, its journey to the moon with a disembodied Robin Williams playing a head disgusted with the lascivious, carnal desires of its mutinous body. Indeed, locate in that character sketch a précis of Gilliam's own dysfunction as a complete artist, except that the lascivious body with a head for sin in his case is disgusted with the reason of his head--how else to explain except as self-critique his child-hero's coterie of empty doll-head confidants in his superior Tideland?
Based, sort of, on the English-language translation of fabulist Munchausen's memoirs as told by Rudolph Erich Raspe, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a series of vignettes tied together ever-so-loosely by a "Henry V"-like framing device of a stage production under Turkish siege. Our man The Baron (John Neville) crashes said play of his life and regales the audience with his own version of the events being satirized. He and his band of specialists (the world's fastest man, the world's best ears, the world's crack shot, the world's strongest man) travel the globe, the sky, the underworld, and the moon in search of booty and adventure, meeting Venus (a ravishing seventeen-year-old Uma Thurman) and her smith husband (Oliver Reed), a sadistic sultan-cum-composer ("A eunuch's life is hard and nothing else"), a whale, and on and on. Neither comedy nor melodrama nor fantasy nor satire, Baron Munchausen is a chimera with no other reason for its existence than to be flamboyant to no great end. It's a monument to what's possible in film: Werner Herzog's jungle adventure without the attendant weight of cumulative existential dread. The picture isn't about anything (again, you could say the same for practically any of Gilliam's films)--even Brazil at its end isn't a cautionary tale about love in the time of Big Brother so much as it's a cumulative joke (a bug gets into a typewriter) with a bleak punchline and a helluva backstory. Baron Munchausen is, in moments, astonishing in the manner of a steamship getting pulled up the side of a South American mountain and compulsively watchable in the manner of performance art involving a cutter and a roomful of sharp-edged objects. It's interesting to me that Gilliam is paired with Robin Williams here (and once more in the infuriating The Fisher King), because if there's anything that two people in desperate need of leashes don't need it's their doppelgänger looking at them over a camera.
Life of Brian returns to DVD courtesy Sony after a ballyhooed Criterion release in a jam-packed, two-disc "Immaculate Edition" that recycles the previous incarnation's two commentary tracks (plus its deleted scenes and radio ads) while adding a 110-minute, Gilliam-storyboarded cast read-through of an earlier edition of the script and an invaluable hour-long retrospective documentary, "The Story of Brian". Gilliam, as always, is a wonderful raconteur with an interesting self-effacement that tends to defuse--at least while you're listening to him--the various tales of his solipsism spiralling into financial apocalypse. Increasingly, the only tale told about Gilliam's Hollywood projects (including his current one with the late Heath Ledger) is the same one of broken dreams and arrested development. (It's Hearts of Darkness as modus operandi.) Any ancillary fan of Life of Brian will have already heard most of the anecdotes (of how financiers dropped out at the eleventh hour to be replaced by George Harrison, etc.) contained herein and in the aforementioned yakkers, one teaming Gilliam, Eric Idle, and director Terry Jones, the other Michael Palin and John Cleese--but the benefit of distance lends a little extra spice to Palin's recollections especially of the brouhaha surrounding the film.
Life of Brian proper is presented in a new, HiDef-sourced 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that optimally renders a notoriously lacklustre source without sacrificing the low-budget charms of the piece. A DD 5.1 remix is extremely limited by the picture's lo-fi origins, but whatever. The second disc houses the abovementioned documentary along with recent interviews and reminiscences featuring the surviving Pythons in fine form, going on candidly about disappointments (Cleese had wanted to play Brian) and tensions, although the highlight is archival footage of a British chat program wherein the Pythons score points on a pair of Catholic assclowns. For someone to not understand the humour of people struggling to hear while sitting in the cheap seats for the Sermon on the Mount is astonishing and telling. It makes the point.
Less pointed are the supplements arrayed on The Adventures of Baron Munchausen's long-overdue Special Edition. The movie is a bore (and a boor) but it deserves its Burden of Dreams and gets it in the form of "The Madness and Misadventures of Munchausen" (72 mins.), a remarkably bitter doc brimming with paranoia and old resentments. Idle contributes the most trenchant observations* and dares discuss how limited Gilliam is as a narrative director, something that harks back to when Gilliam was voted out as the director of Life of Brian by the other members of Python in favour of the more story-solid Terry Jones. A rueful Sarah Polley nevertheless offers the rare positive comments in remembering how kind Thurman and Gilliam were to her between takes. (Still don't like her.) The second disc continues with five narrated storyboards that rekindle the conversation Gilliam and co-writer/co-star Charles McKeown start on the first disc's yakker--another bitter diatribe about how financiers pulled out, how evil German producers sabotaged the whole thing, and how the final vision was undermined by studio heads without vision of their own. The 1.87:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer of the film itself is spotty, a reflection of the source and its on-again/off-again nature, I suspect, with one scene dazzling in its brightness and the next disappointing in its murkiness. The DD 5.1 audio is logical and fulsome. Both platters launch with forced trailers for "Seinfeld", that Water Horse movie, and The Final Season.
THE BLU-RAY DISC - THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN
by Bill Chambers Wringing every ounce of detail it can from a challenging source, Sony's BD release of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is far from perfect but still a good sight better than the standard-def alternative(s). The biggest problem occurs in the opening sequence, which not only flattens detail in darker areas of the 1.85:1, 1080p image but also lacks anything approaching black, so faces and objects swim around in pools of grey. Grain is prevalent but at least consistent, and I'm hesitant to complain about the ruddy skin tones, as they seem in tune with the movie's renaissance colour scheme. Optical noise draws superfluous attention to the special effects, but that's the nature of the pre-CGI beast. While the 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio is much more dynamic than what you hear on the DVD, the mix itself is somewhat insurmountably limp. All of the belowmentioned extras surface here as well--in 480i, alas, but conveniently housed on one platter instead of two. HiDef ads for the Blu-ray format plus The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep cue up on startup. Originally published: April 9, 2008.
*Idle on Hollywood: "If you like liars and psychopaths, only 98% of the people you meet in Hollywood are like that." On his old mate Gilliam: "Two rules: never work with Kubrick, never work with Terry Gilliam." On Gilliam again: "He's an artistic genius, but I'm not sure that makes him a good director."