March 20, 2008 | Comments ()

By Brian Prisco | Underappreciated Gems | March 20, 2008 |


In my younger and more formidable twenties, I decided that it would be a brilliant decision to obtain an MFA in screenwriting from Boston University. I assume the part of my brain that provided this spectacular idea was the same one that thought growing my hair out from my bald head and dyeing it bleach-blonde for a part in a play wouldn’t make me look like a post-apocalyptic Ben Franklin. Now, with an ulcerated sphincter and what amounts to an extra month mortgage payment going to student-loan sharks, I am more the wiser. However, when one is going to film school, you will need a ready answer to the question “What’s your favorite film?” On the surface, this seems to be deceptively easy, but lest you forget, you will be judged dreadfully for your choice, and potentially turned into a newt. Most choices fall into the category of “something with subtitles” (Rashomon or Suspiria), “something more obscure and indie” (Trees Lounge or Bottle Rocket), “something obvious and renown” (Pulp Fiction or The Godfather) or “something with Muppets” (uh … The Muppet Movie), all of which are excellent suggestions. But for my choice, I wanted to hit people with something that would confuse and bewilder, like a baby dressed as a taco. And so my response was Time Bandits.

The looks that I would receive were almost worth my crippling credit card debt. Almost.

One eye would kind of start to shut, like their brains just received a power surge and the interior lights were flickering. Their brows would crinkle, they would start to squint, their mouths would start to frown and form a “Buh?” It was as if they had reawakened a confusing childhood memory: Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy rochambeauing at the foot of their bed over who gets first crack at eating their parents. I would leave them clutching a latte in their hands, thin wisps of smoke curling from the tips of their thick black glasses, frozen in perplexed perpetuity. Some may still be there, buried under layers of decaying leaves and snow. Punch them in the bunghole.

Time Bandits is an anomaly of awesomeness that suffers and rises on the ever-changing paradoxical aura of its creator, Terry Gilliam. Gilliam is an auteur of the most fiendish variety, often alienating his co-writers, his castmates, his actors, his investors, his cameramen, small nomadic tribes, the Shriners, and most of the population of Ghana. His films are often epic feasts of visual imagery and startling imagination, but like anything on that scale, can cause confusion, bloating, and the inability to operate heavy or basic machinery. He carries his madness like a weary Cassandra, unable to make anyone understand the genius that rests within. Then again, sometimes it’s just shit like The Brothers Grimm.

I tend to lump Gilliam in with the other Mad Hatters: Cronenberg, Lynch, Solondz, Cocteau, etcetera, etcetera. These directors slather wild Boschian nightmares over grotesquely beautiful stories, Rainbow Brite as envisioned by Rob Zombie. They tell fairy tales with all the blood and guts and sex and violence left in, because sometimes kids need to know there are ugly things that go bump in the night. A lot of times, the stories can be so ugly or so bizarre that they completely fry your brain. Then again, it might be the mewling hipster in me that so desperately wants to call this fucked-up poetry “art” because I can’t really understand it. I might be too blinded by the picture to realize it’s just a fucking schooner.

Time Bandits tells the story of Kevin (Craig Warnock), a young dreamer who finds himself kidnapped by a gang of unruly thieves who are on the run after stealing a valuable map from their former employer. Their former employer just happens to be the Supreme Being who tasked them with repairing the rifts in the Universe that sprung up after they slapped creation together in seven days. The map happens to allow them to find the portals so they can rob riches from any point in space or time, such as Napoleon’s Italy or Robin Hood’s England. Oh, and the gang of unruly thieves are a motley crew of dwarves. Who are also being sought after by Evil (David Warner).

Time Bandits is the first part in the unofficial Passage of Man Trilogy, followed by the shock-inducing Brazil and finishing with the cream of the crop, best of the bunch, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Each deals with a man coping with his imagination at various Sphinx-riddle stages of his life: youth, middle-age, and old age. Our narrator is never trust-worthy, so we are never quite certain if what we are witnessing is actually reality, or just our hero’s skewed version or maddening dream. I am a big fucking sucker for the ol’ bent and shuffled reality. It’s why my current favorite movie is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But Time Bandits came first.

This movie is chock full of an embarrassment of riches, so much so that it’s easy to overlook its obvious faults. I don’t think a Terry Gilliam movie can be made without some stress fractures. I think if he ever actually finished his perfect movie, he would seize up and suffer a severe heart attack. He’s the poster boy for “Almost But Not Quite.” Every picture he makes has some aspect about it that dims it two shades from perfection. More often than not, it has to do with a plot drunkenly weaving like Gary Busey at the Oscars. Here, the plot seems uneven, or off-kilter. We spend too long in some time periods, and not nearly long enough in others. Elements will drag on, while others whirl past so quickly we miss them. As a given, logic gets the bathwater baby hurl right out the fucking door. And yeah, the special effects suffer from Tron syndrome: what was state of the art and mind-boggling in the early 80s is now hokier than your grandfather pulling a quarter from your nose. Well, take all that and sweep it under the rug, stuff it under your mattress, kick that shit to the curb, and come with me if you want to live.

What I love most about the movie is that it features non-exploited midgets. Sure, there are a few “little fellows” here or a couple “he can reach higher than us”-es there. But, for the most part, it’s a band of inexperienced thieves who just happen to all be under four feet tall. This is unheard of. I mean, at the time, tiny actors could be either Ewoks, or Oompa Loompas, or, um, Ewoks. Which most of these six guys did. In fact, Kenny Baker, who plays Fidget in the film, played R2-D2 in all six of the Star Wars movies. Which means there was a 70-year-old beeping and booping in a plastic trash can in the Tunisian desert (which is still less of a crime than digitally editing in Hayden Christensen to the last scene in Return of the Jedi. I hope fucking Kali-Mah eats your heart, you fat tub of bearded goo). Most of the time, dwarf actors can only get roles where they speak in rhymes or caper about. In Time Bandits, they are well-defined and hilarious. Randall (David Rappaport) is one of the most devious and self-absorbed characters this side of Nick Bottom’s asshead. This movie sort of forged the way for the able-bodied little person role, for good or for naught. Without this movie, we wouldn’t have had the tragedy that was Verne Troyer’s Mini-Me, but we also wouldn’t have had his drunken-scooter driving, pissing in the corner antics on “The Surreal Life.” And there would be no Peter Dinklage and the so-fucking-good-it-hurts-ness that is The Station Agent.

The cast achieves levels of badassery that make my face melt. Say what you will about Terry Gilliam, the motherfucker can assemble talent. Ian Holm, who I think is secretly in every movie, as the greatest Napoleon that is not screaming Merde as he waterslides through San Dimas. John Cleese, that charming bumblefucker, as an overly-polite Robin Hood amidst a gaggle of psychotic vagabond Merry Men. Shelley Duvall, who when not engaged in Karen Carpentry or running from ax-wielding Jacks, is fucking hi-lar-ious as a star-crossed Pansy opposite Michael Palin, who might very well be the most underrated Python. And my personal favorite, Sean Connery, as Agamemnon, continuing his in-your-face ability to shirk ethnic stereotype and play everything with a mighty brogue. And this wasn’t bargain-basement, Oops-I-Crapped-Me-Pants Sean Connery from Entrapment and The League of Extraordinarily Bad Movie. This was Sean Connery at the height of coolness, right before his last role as Bond, right before he was to become the first Scottish head-lopping Spaniard, right as the snow was creeping amongst the cedars and the long luxuriant locks were fading into the bonnie. Apparently, Gilliam had written in the script, “The warrior takes off his helmet, revealing a face that looks something like Sean Connery.” And then Sean Connery’s agent found it and put it in his hands, and thus we’ve got legend. As Agamemnon, it’s much more of a cameo role, there’s not a whole lot of meat on the bone, so his job’s essentially to stand on parapets and look like Sean Connery. But he does a good enough job to earn his place on Charlie’s Father’s Scottish Wall of Fame.

The randomness of the story has forever warped my tender sensibilities as a writer. It quantum leaps from the Napoleonic Wars to Medieval England to Greek Antiquity to the Titanic. Oh, then it jumps to an ogre’s ship that happens to be a giant’s helmet, to a desert in the Time of Legends to the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, where Jim Broadbent shills as a sinister Wink Martindale, causing them to rush across a labyrinth only to be ensnared in a rusty cage. And then shit gets weird. Most of us are babies of the eighties, so you can share in my delight for dark fantasy and adventure. This movie belongs to the feed tube that simultaneously nurtured and demented us with Labyrinth, Monster Squad, The Neverending Story, The Dark Crystal, The Goonies, The Last Unicorn, The Black Cauldron, and so on, and so on, world without end. The last showdown between the heroes of all space and time, culled from the toys on Kevin’s floor, versus Ultimate Evil is literally a child’s dark playworld come to life. It’s the most fantastic battle since I pitted the forces of Castle Greyskull and G.I. Joe on a daring post-Mr. Rogers raid against Strawberry Shortcake, some GoBots, and their combination Lego/Construx Fortress of Domination.

And the ending is truly brilliant. It is now officially the second most horrible “fucked-up because you are laughing at it” way to end a movie, falling only behind Very Bad Things. And they had to bring in Cameron Diaz and a bastion of cripples to knock it out of place. As the final weird synthesizer soundtrack by George Harrison shambalas its honky notes, we pan back trying to figure out if it was a happy ending or not. And that’s personally what forged me as a writer. Learning as a child that not all stories have to end happily ever after and that you could bend space and time and logic to your will.

Sure, it’s not as epic as some of Gilliam’s later work, nor is it nearly as drug-induced hallucinatory as the others. It may not stand the test of time without a few hobbles. But what I appreciate about the movie is that when you scratch the surface, there’s a lot more going on there than first meets the eye. When taken in context with the other two movies, as well as Gilliam’s entire catalog, Time Bandits allows you to appreciate the mad genius behind his work. Where he can look at Watchmen and declare it can’t be done properly except as a miniseries and not as a Batman knockoff. Where he can lose a lead actor and still modify his script so that three top notch actors can step in to fill the roles. Sure, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is inevitably going to seem just a little off. But that’s the beauty of Gilliam. He’s always a little off.

Brian Prisco is a warrior-poet from the valley of North Hollywood, by way of Philadelphia. He wastes most of his life in desk jobs, biding his time until he finally becomes an actor, a writer, or cannon fodder in the inevitable zombie invasion. He can be found shaking his fist and angrily shouting at clouds on his blog, The Gospel According to Prisco.

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Underappreciated Gems

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Underappreciated Gems | March 20, 2008 | Comments ()




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