Friday, August 15, 2014
THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1988), THE SONG OF HIAWATHA (1997)
MYTHICITY: (1) *good,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *irony,* (2) *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
Here we have two films that exist on the verge between the marvelous and that particular species of the uncanny that I call the "phantasmal figuration."
Both films are modern-day takes on narratives that are unequivocally marvelous. The original source for the 1988 Terry Gilliam film are a group of sixteenth-century tales which portrayed the real-life Baron Munchausen doing all sorts of extraordinary things, like riding on a cannonball or climbing a vine all the way to the moon. The original source for the 1997 film is Longfellow's 1855 epic poem, in which the feats of the Native American warrior Hiawatha-- particularly fighting with an evil magician-- are also taken at face value, until the poem concludes by having the warrior meet, and endorse, the religion of the Christian newcomers.
In contrast to this straightforward fantasy-approach, both of these films appear to be hedging their bets by creating "fallacious figments" in which real-life characters merely relate fantasy-stories, after the fashion of the 1987 film of William Goldman's THE PRINCESS BRIDE.
From the inception of SONG OF HIAWATHA, the film takes the viewpoint of a group of white traders (including a Christian priest) who are traveling in the Great Lakes region to trade with the tribes. For most of the film this group is told of the great marvels of Hiawatha, but up until the ending the narrative suggests that the real Hiawatha is long gone and that these are only stories. Then, at the last moment, there is an ambivalent suggestion that Hiawatha still exists in some supernatural form. Thanks to this last-minute flourish, SONG is disqualified from being simply a story in which marvels are related in story-form. Because there is a suggestion of some marvelous presence-- even though it is left ambiguous-- SONG becomes more properly a instance of the "phantasmal figuration" trope.
Gilliam's MUNCHAUSEN seems for most of the story to be an outright marvelous narrative. It begins in an unnamed city in the 18th century, a city being beseiged by Turkish forces. An acting-troupe attempts to distract the panicky populace by putting on a free adaptation of the purported adventures of the famous Baron, full of cheesy stage-effects. The performance is interrupted by the real Baron, now an aged man (John Neville), who tries to tell them about his truly fantastic adventures. He then conceives of trying to save the embattled city by seeking out his former comrades, all of whom possess bizarre powers, like Herculean strength, super-speed, etc. For most of the film, it appears that Munchausen actually does re-encounter his supernormal allies, as well as visiting the god Vulcan and the King and Queen of the Moon. However, just as Munchausen suffers a tragic death, Gilliam reveals that the whole narrative has been related by Munchausen to the rapt theater-audience. This edges the film toward "fallacious figment" territory-- but then, in a conclusion that has left many viewers scratching their heads, it's revealed that something-- one never knows what-- has routed the Turkish troops and saved the city. Thus it too becomes a film not of the outright marvelous, but one which leaves the marvelous as a possibility that is never entirely verified-- though the possibility is strong enough to move my marker from a possible "naturalistic" verdict to that of "the uncanny."
Having spent so much time categorizing these films, I won't critique them in depth. ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN is for me Terry Gilliam's most accomplished work, but I say that as someone who was not a big fan of either BRAZIL or THE FISHER KING. The FX-work is pleasingly eye-popping, and Gilliam certainly succeeds in capturing the elusive feel of European "tall tales." The film's biggest weakness is that the script attempts to justify Munchausen's marvelous journeys in terms of altruism. But the motive of trying to save the city pales very quickly, precisely because Gilliam has portrayed it as a sinkhole hostile to imagination. The ambivalent ending, while justifiable as Gilliam's take on the conflict of reality vs. fantasy, inclines the film to the form of the "irony," somewhat undermining its own conjuration of marvels. But this remains a vast improvement over a later, very inferior Gilliam work like THE BROTHERS GRIMM.
In contrast, the sole merit of SONG OF HIAWATHA is that it is a movie of a *faux* Native American epic that actually stars a lot of Native American actors, including Graham Greene and Irene Bedard. Unfortunately, though the film retells most of the highlights of the Longfellow poem, the script is dull and the direction-- the only IMDB credit for one Jeffrey Shore-- is entirely pedestrian.