The Limits of Imagination

Terry Gilliam’s star has declined in recent years. For one thing, he’s made some rather clumsy and ill-considered comments about #metoo and the plight of the white man. There’s a lot to dislike in that interview, but for me the final nail in the coffin is where he talks up a female character in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote as a young woman who “takes responsibility for her state”, which firmly places him as one of those libertarian dorks who puts such a high stock on the right to take responsibility for oneself he outright ignores all the respects in which someone’s situation might genuinely not be their responsibility or meaningfully within their control.

Even if you set that aside and exclusively look to his films, his recent output has faced a muted critical reception. His often self-indulgent visual schtick seems to impress people less, and of his most recent three movies, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is perhaps more interesting for the catastrophic earlier attempt to film it chronicled in Lost In La Mancha than it is as a finished product, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is more famed for being the movie Heath Ledger died in the course of making rather than on its own merits, and The Zero Theorem is kind of grumpy and horrible.

This is a far cry from Gilliam’s prime, when even if his films had mixed commercial success he was at least a critical darling. Perhaps his most revered body of work is what is sometimes referred to as his “Trilogy of Imagination”, which consists of his three projects that saw release in the 1980s – Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. It’s these three films which put Gilliam on the map and helped him get out from under the shadow of Monty Python; although they were preceded by Jabberwocky, his first post-Python movie and the first film he was sole director on (he co-directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail with Terry Jones), that Lewis Carroll-inspired number isn’t exactly held up as a top-tier example of his work.

Is the Trilogy all it’s cracked up to be – or have we all just been imagining better films than were actually appearing on the screen? Let’s revisit and find out.

Time Bandits

Kevin (Craig Warnock) is an ordinary suburban kid in a stultifyingly dull suburban home, when one day, just as he’s going to sleep, an armoured knight crashes out of his wardrobe and vanishes again, leaving no sign of his passing. Told off by his dad (David Daker) for making noise, Kevin resolves to be ready the next night, and is duly in place with a torch and a camera to capture what else might emerge.

What comes out next is a party of dwarves – a clique of the Supreme Being’s little assistants, led by Randall (David Rappaport), who’ve gone a little rogue; having “borrowed” a map of the cosmos, which points out holes that allow for instantaneous travel between time periods, they’ve gone on a cross-time crime spree – and Kevin ends up coming along for the ride. Randall and crew’s mucking-about isn’t without consequences, however: the Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson), after all, has his adversary, an anthropomorphised Evil (David Warner) who could make terrible use of the map if he can just take it from Kevin and his new friends…


Time Bandits is a film about a kid on a wild adventure with his maybe-imaginary friends; Randall and his gang are infamously inspired by the personalities of the different Monty Python team members. The film itself was also the product of Gilliam getting a bunch of help from his pals. For one thing, the movie was funded by best Beatle George Harrison via his HandMade Films company, which Harrison, as a Python superfan, had set up to finance Monty Python’s Life of Brian when the original backers yanked the funding. (Harrison’s catchy Dream Away provides a lovely upbeat credits song to set against the sardonically downbeat ending.)

This is not the only respect in which it’s a partial Python reunion. Michael Palin and John Cleese show up onscreen, Palin appearing as the wimpy Vincent, star-crossed lover of the equally rubbish Pansy (Shelley Duvall), whilst Cleese has a memorable turn playing a Robin Hood with the mannerisms of Prince Philip. Palin also co-wrote the script with Gilliam, and the gently satirical tone of the early portions of the film make it tempting to think of it as a Monty Python continuation – applying the Life of Brian treatment to a broader range of historical scenarios as Kevin and the crew blunder from era to era.

The movie isn’t too subtle about highlighting the role of imagination; right from the start we see that Kevin’s been enthusiastically reading about ancient Greek warriors, which sets up a memorable role for Sean Connery as Agamemnon, and the knight seems taken directly from an illustration he’s pinned to his wall.

More specifically, Gilliam seems to be pushing the idea of imagination as a sanctuary from an unfavourable social context, but I think his social commentary here is going for soft targets a little. The observations of generic middle class suburban life in 1980s Britain – right down to the furniture in the living room still wrapped in its original plastic – are apt, but at the same time it feels like if the worst criticism you can level at that particular social bubble is “it’s rather boring and a bit too keen on fancy appliances and cheesy game shows and a bit light on imaginative stimulation”, then at best I think you’re soft-pedalling things, at worst you’re actively ignoring a hell of a lot.

The declared theme of the trilogy is the role of imagination as providing an escape from an awkwardly ordered society – but in these opening sections it doesn’t seem like there’s that much in the way of stultifying order for Kevin to escape from. Kevin is basically allowed to get on with things by his parents, except they make sure he eats his meals and enforce a sensible bedtime on him, and then burst in when a terrifying noise is heard from his room. Such tyranny! Don’t tread on me, parents!

Beyond this, the film barely really touches on the society Kevin is escaping. (Evil’s machinations sort-of kind-of go there, but are too ultimately cosmic and fantastical in their scope to really work in that respect.) Furthermore, all the societies he escapes to are awkward in their own way; there is, perhaps, a different and equally interesting theme here, about how escapism is all very well but romanticised glorification of the past can’t really survive scrutiny of the thing itself and ultimately in the long run you actually need to work on yourself and confront the difficult problems, which imagination can potentially help or can potentially be an excuse to avoid.

This is an interesting lens to examine the film through, but it’s clearly not one which Gilliam was intending or the film entirely supports. Evil’s rants about his fascination with modern technology and disregard for nature might be considered as having an ecological bent, but it seems more framed as a romantic screed against modernism. Indeed, the big-picture conclusions of the movie – that subverting God’s plans and purpose for the world is the curse of modernity and that good lies in adhering to the cosmic plan – are basically reactionary in nature.

(It’s notable that Kevin is depicted as being very against the imaginative journey to the Time of Legends which central to Evil’s plan, but very into the idea of being the adopted son of Agamemnon – which seems to set up an idea that there are good, properly structured, acceptable uses of imagination and dangerous, perverse ones which open the door to superstition and folly. If Gilliam’s view is that imagination is alright but needs to be channelled down very particular directions, and is best when applied to envisaging a putative golden age based on the sort of culture public schoolboys are taught to look up to, that’s not something I am keen on; if that isn’t his view, then the film does a good job of fooling me into thinking it is.)

Time Bandits goes out of its way to provide memorable dialogue and colourful character to the bandits themselves, which places it in the same league as Willow when it comes to great casting opportunities for little people in 1980s fantasy movies. (Willow has it beat in quantity of roles going, but the little people on the cast get more spotlight time shared among them than in Willow, where Warwick Davis is the only Nelwyn hobbit of relevance after the first half hour or so).

However, the American fantasy movie of the era I’d actually compare it to is Labyrinth, particularly since it has much the same structure – ordinary young person in ordinary suburbia has feelings of discontent, goes on a fantasy adventure in which they discover hidden reserves and new confidence, and then return to the world, and though they have their regrets about leaving the fantastic realm they’ve journeyed through there’s signs at the end that they’ll carry something of it with them going forwards.

The time travel conceit allows the film to largely bounce around various incidents for its running time until it’s time to wrap things up, and to provide some fun stunt casting for various historical and mythological figures. Some of the scenarios end up a bit thin, but Gilliam makes up for this with the visuals; the costumes, sets, and the occasional special effects might not necessarily be all that fancy or expensive, but they are always deeply atmospheric. Ian Holm’s turn as Napoleon is largely based on jokes about Napoleon being short (he was average for his era, but Napoleonic-era British propaganda has proved pernicious over the years) and Holm using an outrageous fake accent, but somehow it works, largely because of the extent to which Holm commits to it.

The weak point in the film for me is Kevin himself. He’s just a bit passive and lacks much personality, and is somewhat annoying when he does express personality. This sort of makes sense in that he’s in the audience viewpoint role – he’s the character the viewer is supposed to identify with as the kid who gets to go on this amazing adventure, but for the first half of the movie he doesn’t do very much beyond get lost on a side adventure with Agamemnon which ultimately has no major implications for the plot and take some photographs which later become important. Things pick up once he pitches in with tricking the ogre Winston (Peter Vaughan), though again, aside from the photos he doesn’t actually do much which one of the bandits couldn’t have done.

If we are to interpret the action of the film as potentially just a flight of fancy on the part of Kevin, it feels like he’s got a great imagination for places he wants to go and things he wants to see, but doesn’t have much of an idea of what he wants to do. He particularly disapproves of the dwarves’ roguish ways, but this just exacerbates how irritating he is because the angel-dwarves are easily the most interesting and likable characters.

I still appreciate Time Bandits, but I appreciate it on the basis of the entire non-Kevin portion of the cast, and the gorgeous visuals and atmosphere. At the same time, it also feels like a story I enjoy more for the sort of thing it suggests rather than the sort of thing it is: in particular, the shift to the Time of Legends about halfway through means that the film sort of gives up on the whole “time” part of Time Bandits and ceases offering the sort of fun array of historical locales that the early part focuses on.

More generally, I’m always left wanting more adventures and always slightly disappointed that we only got the two hours we did, so at least the “leave ’em wanting more” principle is in effect.

Brazil

In a vaguely Anglo-American dystopia located “somewhere in the 20th century”, an authoritarian and incredibly bureaucratic government presides over a general omnishambles brought about because its wide-ranging systems aren’t nearly as foolproof as they’re purported to be, as well as fighting a terrorist threat whose ideological program seems to be poorly defined, under-reported, or just plain non-existent.

One day, in a computer room serving the all-powerful Ministry of Information, a dead fly ends up falling into the server (which runs on automated typewriters and ticker tape machines). As a result, an arrest warrant supposed to go out against guerilla heating engineer Archibald “Harry” Tuttle (Robert De Niro), wanted on suspicion of carrying out unauthorised repair work, ends up being served on the totally innocent Archibald Buttle (Brian Miller).

Buttle’s upstairs neighbour, Jill Layton (Kim Greist) just wants everything sorted out. Equally invested in fixing everything is Ministry of Information functionary Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), who’s been tasked with sorting out the mess. To the annoyance of his mother Ida (Katherine Helmond), Sam has little desire to advance his career. Instead, he’s more taken with his dreams – his idle nocturnal fantasies of being a winged superhero, and his waking-life attraction to Jill, who he spots as she tries to get answers about Buttle.

Alas, there are no reassuring answers to get about Buttle; after being subjected to the Information Retrieval specialists’ techniques, his heart gave out and died. As a Department of Records drone, Sam can’t accomplish very much – but maybe this will prompt him to take the advice offered by Jack Lint (Michael Palin), an old friend of his, who now works as an affable, friendly-mannered torturer for Information Retrieval, and apply for a transfer. But as Sam comes closer to the centre of power, the peril and scrutiny he must face increases…

Brazil is justifiably revered for its brilliantly well-accomplished aesthetic, drawing fashion inspiration, technological paths-not-taken, architectural styles, and other concepts from decades ranging from the 1920s through to the 1980s, with a definitely emphasis on the more totalitarian aspects of those time periods, to evoke a setting which seems both instantly familiar but at the same time can’t be pinned down to any particular time period.

This is very much a dystopia, and dystopian fiction is very much a vehicle for political polemic. People like to hype up Brazil as this bold depiction of the individual being crushed by the system, and there is that aspect to it, but far from being a revolutionary strike against the status quo it’s very much in keeping with the mindset of the laissaiz-faire 1980s. The libertarian tendency to assume that any large, government-controlled, organised system is basically going to fuck up a lot and barely work, which overlooks the extent to which a plethora of small, private, competing systems with no wider organisations would often end up creating bigger problems, is very much in effect here.

With the whole Harry Tuttle angle, Gilliam is kicking back here against the era of stronger unions, when in some fields it would have been genuinely more difficult to just get some independent operator in to get a job done due to the extent of unionisation, but he’s overstating the case here and also positing a world where the unions and government work hand-in-hand, which given events of the 36 years since the film’s release seems positively quaint. (For that matter, it was an era which was largely done with for years by the time the movie was made.)

That said, the Ministry of Information takes on some aspects of a profit-seeking public-private partnership: Mrs. Buttle (Sheila Reid) is provided with a receipt for her husband, and the Ministry insists on charging people through the nose for the costs of their interrogation. Nonetheless, I think the movie wants to present this stark political vision, but it’s very much based on the political conversations of the 1980s and has gone stale in the intervening years. If you are aware of Gilliam’s griping about #metoo and complaints about white men being blamed for things, it particularly damages the reception of the film. After all, if you are going to oppose hierarchical authoritarianism, then it kind of behooves you not to make knee-jerk reactionary comments condemning movements which are specifically pushing against existing hierarchies.

If the underlying vision of Brazil has worn thin, the execution remains highly impressive. The entire cast – which includes both a healthy dose of returnees from Time Bandits and an unexpected proportion of big names – present performances which stand out as career highlights for any of them. As well as those I’ve mentioned already, Ian Holm is wonderful as the ineffectual, worry-ridden Mr. Kurtzmann – Lowry’s boss in the Department of Records – and Peter Vaughn’s take as the distant and faintly clueless Eugene Helpmann, Deputy Minister of Information, is also great. De Niro is clearly having the time of his life as Tuttle – part offered to him after Gilliam decided he was wrong for Jack Lint – and Bob Hoskins’ appearance as Spoor, the work-to-rule jobsworth of a heating engineer, is a lot of fun too.

The standout member of the case, for me, is Palin. He isn’t in the film extensively but his performance as Jack Lint is great, simply because he doesn’t tone down his essential Michael Palin-ness one bit. Palin is very much the most friendly-seeming and easily likable of the Pythons, but he’s not an incapable actor; it would have been entirely possible for him to pull off a more sinister performance if he wanted to. However, Gilliam and he are 100% going for the whole banality-of-evil thing here, intent on presenting a character who is committing officially-sanctioned atrocities but seems like an absolutely lovely chap in every other respect, and there’s really nobody better suited to dialling this angle up to 11 than Palin.

Unfortunately, the film’s presentation of women feels somewhat lacking. Jill is probably the most rounded female character in the dramatic personae, and we don’t get as much of her as perhaps we should because Gilliam cut a bunch of her scenes. Out of what remains, she starts out as a determined blue-collar worker trying to resolve a legitimate grievance with the government, but by the end of her arc she is literally reduced to the status of a fantasy figure for Sam. Mrs. Buttle is essentially a cardboard cutout, there to be a victim and wail a bit. (To be fair, Sheila Reid is really good at this – her anguished wail of “What have you done with his body?” cuts right through to you – but she’s basically tasked with hitting one note.)

The remainder of the women in the film are largely accounted for by Ida and her buddy Mrs. Terrain (Barbara Hicks), and their subplot largely focuses on their narcissistic pursuit of plastic surgery perfection; Ida’s course of treatment goes much better than Mrs. Terrain’s, due to a series of “complications”. Between the way the plastic surgery stuff is portrayed as a vapid quest for physical perfection, the way older women wanting to appear physically attractive is portrayed as grotesque and demeaning and predatory, and the extent to which both women fit a fairly generic “interfering upper middle class mother” archetype, the subplot has at best dated poorly, at worst felt a little stale even by the standards of the time. I think a lot of people overlook this because it’s ultimately a minor part of the wider tapestry – and others ignore it because on some level they agree with the somewhat retrograde premises involved.

Getting back to Jill, there’s another issue here which is less to do with her characterisation (though she seems to warm to Sam unusually suddenly) and more to do with Sam’s responses to her. Sam notices her because she looks like the fantasy woman he sees in his dreams, and then exerts a bunch of effort in pursuing her. Some comedy arises from the fact of how creepy this comes off, but the fact that the romance does pan out after a fashion (they bang right before everything goes to total shit) ultimately means the movie sends a mixed message.

The best case scenario is that the film was a little confused on whether Sam’s behaviour is creepy or sweet (it’s intrusive and creepy). The worst case scenario is that Gilliam intends us to take Sam’s behaviour as being genuinely endearing and appropriate, and thinks that the comedy lies in his behaviour being mistaken for creepy, rather than recognising that it’s actually creepy.

Where does it sit in the supposed Trilogy of Imagination? Well, there’s plentiful thematic and aesthetic links with Time Bandits, not least in the dream sequences (suspended cages, strange ragged figures with unusual heads and gaits, etc.) The role of imagination here seems deeply ambiguous. In the end it allows Sam an escape from the horrors which are being inflicted on him, but it is a solipsistic escape which accomplishes nothing beyond making sure he’s out to lunch. (It seems unlikely that a government which forces people to pay for the costs of their interrogation are going to keep him alive much longer in the state he ends up in.)

Sam’s dreams seem to be an outlet for his frustrations and a means of attaining a freedom he doesn’t feel in real life, but they don’t really seem to prompt him to try for a better world at all. At most, they inspire his pursuit of Jill – a dodgy prospect, as I’ve laid out above – and prompt him to commit crimes which don’t really seem to have negative consequences for anyone other than him (and certainly don’t seem to offer much in the way of effective resistance). One could even read Sam’s dreams as, prior to his encounter with Jill, an opiate dulling his resistance on the basis that if he just keeps his head down during the day he can live this much richer life at night.

To be fair – it’s a dystopia. Resistance gets crushed, hope is absent, the whole point is that it’s a society already gone past the point of no return. Fine. Nonetheless, it’s a dystopia which, whilst richly executed, feels to me to somewhat miss the point. Sure, government bureaucracy is annoying – but it’s also the basis of any sensible system of checks and balances and ethical oversight. The blatant corruption of the current Tory government in the UK is an illustration of what happens when you slash that back or short-circuit proper processes.

Furthermore, Brazil is ultimately a story of a system which is totally impassive and impartial, where unless you are within the inner circle you are basically subject to being crushed on a whim and it’s just a matter of a roll of the dice. Gilliam’s recent comments reveal that he doesn’t realise that the dice roll is on a bell curve, and sexism, racism, homophobia are factors which feed into that bell curve as well as class politics, and as a result of that some people are at much greater risk of being crushed than others.

Though it has a rich vein of fantasy in it, Brazil is ultimately a science fiction political satire. Satire can only land if you are confident that the author of that satire has a cogent political point to make, and I no longer feel that way about Gilliam. And with the pendulum now swung as far as it has in the libertarian direction, the world of Brazil feels like the wrong dystopia for the times, an idea whose time might have been more relevant in the past (and particularly in the 1970s) but had already kind of come and gone by the time the film was released (was the peak Reagan-Thatcher era really a time when widespread bureaucracy was the big danger in Anglo-American politics?) and feels increasingly irrelevant now.

Moreover, the movie is astonishingly heavy-handed. In interviews Gilliam has spoken of the film’s horrifying tonal shifts as “cinematic rape”, which in retrospect might not be a brilliant choice of words, but aptly sums up its sledgehammer-like beating on the audience. Once upon a time, I quite dug this, because it felt like a daring and defiant presentation of a powerful artistic statement. However, over time I find the statement feels increasingly threadbare. The bold and well-executed manner of its presentation can cover these sins so far, but eventually I find I have grown out of it.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

In a European city under siege from the Ottoman empire, the terrified inhabitants must face both the ferocity of the assault and the unsympathetic ways of their government, who proclaim that this is an age of reason and rationality and egalitarianism (and therefore harshly punish anyone who does anything extraordinary due to their effect on morale). Still, in the midst of all this some forms of entertainment cling on: the theatre company headed by Henry Salt (Bill Paterson) is putting on a play based on the infamous boasts of Baron Munchausen, the infamous fantasist and liar.

Salt’s doing his best in very trying circumstances: all of the stagehands are dead, his precocious little daughter Sally Salt (Sarah Polley) is grumpy about the company being billed as Henry Salt and Son (because it’s more traditional than “…and Daughter”), and the mayor of the town – the Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson (Jonathan Pryce, in a more malevolent version of his character from Brazil) – is lurking in the audience, signing paperwork and ordering the execution of soldiers as he watches.

What’s worse is when an old man (John Neville) blunders into a performance of the play objecting to it as a farrago of lies. This elderly gent couldn’t possibly be the Baron Munchausen – adventurer, lover, and cause of the war to begin with – could he? That would be irrational and unreasonable… but it’s certainly what he claims to be. When he blunders backstage into the Angel of Death, only to be saved by Sally’s belief in him, Baron Munchausen sets off on a quest for his lost youth with Sally in tow. Could it be that, after all, there’s actually some truth in the Baron’s outrageous claims? Or might the power of imagination be enough to see off the Grand Turk?

Brazil had a troubled release process – with Universal, who had the US distribution rights, pitching a fit over the downbeat ending to the point where Gilliam was eventually taking out full-page adverts in Variety in order to openly feud with them. By contrast, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen had a troubled production process and a troubled release. Sure, sure, it wasn’t as troubled as the legendary ordeal he underwent trying to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (as chronicled in Lost In La Mancha), but there were still issues.

Gilliam went over budget, and the shoot itself was rushed through in something of an ordeal for the actors involved; Sarah Polley has said that in retrospect it seemed a very traumatising process to put a 9 year old child actress through, and Eric Idle has been on the record as saying that watching Terry Gilliam movies was always a treat but actually working on them was “fucking madness”. Then Columbia made a pitiful number of release prints, severely limiting the movie’s reach and more or less dooming it to badly underperform at the box office.

According to both Gilliam and Thomas Schühly, much of this was down to the new regime at Columbia being outright hostile to any remaining projects greenlit by David Puttnam, the former CEO who exited partway through the production process of Baron Munchausen – leading to Columbia allegedly reneging on verbal agreements about the budget and the aforementioned burying of the release.

That said, despite getting a fair amount of critical acclaim, the movie is undoubtedly the weakest entry of the Trilogy of Imagination. Don’t get me wrong, it has its good points. The conceit of Eric Idle, Charles McKeown, Winston Dennis, and Jack Purvis simultaneously playing the Baron’s servants and the actors from Henry Salt’s company who are playing those characters is fun. (McKeown would also co-write the script with Gilliam.) Visually, it’s a nice mashup of Gilliam’s flair for the fantastic with the style of 18th Century cartoons and illustrations, though to say a Terry Gilliam film is a visual feast is like saying that the ocean is damp – he’s always going to go out of his way to put as much on screen as he can.

That said, some of the things he puts onscreen could have done with somewhat more careful handling than they receive. Taking as much inspiration as it does from the original stories, the movie ends up regurgitating a lot of stale 18th Century Orientalism in its depiction of the Ottomans which, though it successfully encapsulates the spirit of grotesque 18th Century cartoons, either doesn’t acknowledge or doesn’t have a problem with the fact that these are deeply racist 18th Century cartoons – cartoons, indeed, which arguably contributed to framing the terms of racism as we experience it in the present day.

A chunk of Munchausen’s adventures seem to be accomplished through his reliance on various servants, rather than him doing anything specifically himself. These servants accept their subaltern position more or less by default. One could see there a spoof of aristocracy, but I’m not sure Gilliam sheds much light on that. This historical setting, though clearly inspired by the Siege of Vienna when it comes to the Ottoman presence, seems more intended to inspire comparisons with the French Revolution, what with the commitment to rationality being paramount and the various announcements about the “Defence of the Republic”, which I guess ties into Gilliam’s libertarian leanings.

The political side of things is not particularly significant though outside of the beginning and end of the movie; at the conclusion, Munchausen has arbitrarily made the Grand Turk army’s disappear by making the story he’s told in the theatre real. Arguably this is fair enough – after all, this is the Trilogy of Imagination, not the Trilogy of Realism, However, surely in the 18th Century the rationalists were the imaginative ones, envisioning a world not hidebound by superstition and freed from the yoke of inherited aristocratic power?

This is not the only respect in which Gilliam’s claims of some sort of thematic unity between the three films in the Trilogy seems threadbare. This is meant to be the part of the trilogy which shows the role of imagination in old age, but it accomplishes this by having the Baron regain his youth. The more imaginative path might have been to consider how retaining one’s imagination can allow you to remain relevant and still accomplish things in old age whilst evading the risk of becoming an old man yelling at clouds.

In addition, with Sally in a similar role to Kevin from Time Bandits, it’s very easy to see her as the actual protagonist of the film that the audience can actually identify with, and Munchausen as the force which enters her life and prompts her to go on an adventure. Certainly, whilst Kevin in Time Bandits is believably a bored suburban kid, and Sam in Brazil is believably a flustered bureaucrat, Munchausen is not really a believable old man – after all, he’s the very archetype of unbelievability. And because he’s a cartoonish archetype rather than a rounded individual, he can’t really tell us very much about the role of imagination in old age, because he isn’t providing an emotionally believable depiction of old age.

If Brazil was a cinematic sledgehammer bashing you over the head with depressing shit, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a riot of colourful nonsense which is wearing in a different way. A lot of the movie just ends up terribly shrill and overbearing – the Robin Williams bit on the Moon being a particularly irritating example of this. Though it is in some respects a return to the jolly family-friendly fantasy terrain of Time Bandits, it feels like it lacks the cohesion which that film enjoyed. Out of all the entries in the series, it is the one I am least interested in revisiting.

Ultimately, Munchausen’s reverse aging over the course of the film suggests that the role of imagination in the elderly is to permit a reversion to youth. Maybe, in this respect, I am ahead of my years: I increasingly feel that I’d rather just go back and watch Time Bandits again than subject myself to the later episodes in the sequence again.

Gilliam the Changeling: a Trilogy of Finite Imagination

Taking the trilogy as a whole, what does it seem to be saying about this crucial quality of imagination? To address that, I’m going to take us on a little diversion into territory more frequently covered by my other major blog.

Changeling: the Dreaming is a modern-day fantasy RPG from White Wolf. It’s part of the World of Darkness series of games, but it’s very much the odd one out – it’s a bright, colourful, and ultimately hopeful game that intentionally offers a glaring counterpoint to the dark, gothy subject matter of the other games in the range like Vampire: the Masquerade. It’s a game where player characters are fairy folk living in the corners of the modern world, and part of the gameplay involves resisting the creeping force of Banality – the cloying forces which suppress the joy and wonder of life and risk causing Changelings to forget their true nature. In opposition to Banality are the forces of genuine imagination and creativity.

This is a fascinating concept which is rendered risible in the hands of many writers for the game due to their tendency to fall into one glaring mistake – a mistake which, to be fair, is backed by the core rulebook text in early editions, though the recent 20th Anniversary edition of the game makes an effort towards dialling this back. This error is the tendency to assume that dragons, wizards, and fairies equal “imagination”, and anything which doesn’t fit into that mould is anti-imagination. It’s an error because, of course, that whole dragons-wizards-and-fairies thing isn’t automatically original and imaginative, and in fact often it isn’t – frequently, it’s bland and generic and just as banal as anything else which the game cites as a source of Banality.

Gilliam’s Trilogy of Imagination is in some respects a more apt blow against banality. Visually speaking, the imagery that Gilliam presents onscreen often shares a Gilliam-esque aesthetic, but when it takes in the storybook fantasy of Time Bandits to the dieselpunk nightmare of Brazil to the Enlightenment cartoon of Baron Munchausen, you can’t really accuse Gilliam of getting into a narrow aesthetic rut.

The problem I have with the trilogy is a bit more subtle than that. Gilliam is certainly creative when it comes to depicting the many and varied manifestations of imagination. However, he’s decidedly un-imaginative when it comes to the actual role of imagination, since in all three movies it is basically serving the same essential purpose – namely, distracting someone from unfortunate circumstances they are not in much of a position to do anything about. In Time Bandits it’s distracting Kevin from his boring suburban life. In Brazil it’s essentially maladaptive until Sam is in the interrogation cell, at which point it’s his only escape from the awful thing Lint is about to do to him. In Baron Munchausen it distracts the Baron from impending mortality and allows him to relive past glories.

That’s fine – but isn’t the truly imaginative thing to explore whether the imagination can do more? Sure, sure, the Baron’s story makes the Ottomans go away in Baron Munchausen, but this feels like a personal triumph for the Baron, not a step towards a better society going forward. (The rationalist regime may be undermined by this, but someone’s going to still need to repair the walls and roads after the siege…) A stultifying and unimaginative social orthodoxy is presented as the enemy here, but there’s little consideration of how imagination can allow us to imagine better societies; Gilliam knows what he doesn’t like in that respect, but doesn’t seem to offer a clear vision of what he does like.

As a result, I come away from revisiting the Trilogy of Imagination feeling like it’s rather solipsistic, prioritising the personal over the social. Maybe that’s the point – daydreaming is solipsistic by its nature, after all. Nonetheless, if you call a major chunk of your work the Trilogy of Imagination, you kind of invite people to exert their imaginations in respect to it, and to try and see the territory which is beyond that your material has charted.

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