Reliving Gilliam's lavish fantasies

`Survivor' star host of `Baron' showing

Maryland Film Festival

May 04, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

If he weren't busy cavorting on the moon or getting lost in Arabian Nights, Baron Munchausen himself would command you to see Terry Gilliam's 1988 The Adventures of Baron Munchausen today at the Maryland Film Festival (in Charles' Theatre 1) - not only because the Baron's saga demands a big screen, but also because Colleen Haskell will be host of the presentation.

You probably know Haskell only from her stint on the first season of Survivor. But I can testify that she's a bona fide film buff who understands this movie to the core. A Bethesda native who majored in English and theater at the University of Georgia, Haskell currently works behind the scenes on the VH1 reality show Military Diaries. Haskell's twin interests in stage and documentaries mirror Gilliam's own two-sided temperament - he tries to bring off extravagant fantasies as if they were spontaneous outbursts.

No stranger to film festivals - she interned at the London Film Festival and has been to Telluride twice. She asked to show The Adventures of Baron Munchausen "for really selfish reasons. I wanted to see it again in a theater," she said in a phone interview from Los Angeles.

The film is a wild, picaresque fantasy about the legendary Baron, an 18th-century aristocratic military yarn-spinner. He demands that a theater company making a spectacle of his exploits inside a whale and in a sultan's palace hew closer to his own phantasmagoric "truth." But more dire issues intrude: Turkish hordes have besieged the European city where the main action is set and are now threatening to break through. Sarah, the girl in the troupe (played by the divine Sarah Polley), inspires Munchausen to save the town.

"I identified with Sarah Polley's character. And I remember loving the scene in the play when the Baron talks about getting eaten by the whale - I loved the set design and the art decoration. I still feel that what people can do with real objects, puppets or props is more thrilling than computer animation," Haskell said. "It was exciting to see the scene on the moon, where all the houses are sliding around like dollhouses. But above all, it was about a young girl going on a great adventure!"

As I rummaged through an interview I did with Gilliam in 1989, I found that Haskell had hit on Gilliam's central concerns - young Sarah's shifting relations with the Baron and the under-the-gun ingenuity of the moviemaking. Here's what Gilliam had to say; Haskell will have her full say this afternoon.

You've made a movie that defends fantasy. Why does it need defending? TV may grow more topical and realistic, but we're living in a time when moviemaking seems overrun with fantasy. How do you put your own Gilliamesque spin on that?

Everybody thinks we're in a world of fantasy, but the escape routes offered these days by most people's imagination are limited. We're living in a terribly mundane, materialistic world. These days, the heights of fantasy are really BMW sedans, and the extent of escape in a film has become merely the enhancement of what's possible - like driving faster than you can in real life in a movie car chase. What I want are worlds you can escape to or escape into.

Some reactions to Munchausen are that it's too much. But it's only too much because you offer some people all this stuff and their brains can't take it in, because the capacity of their brains to imagine has shrunk. That's why I thought I would go right for the kids with this film: to get a fresh generation that hasn't been brainwashed into seeing the world in a limited way. Children open a door, and it doesn't have to open onto a corridor - it could be a jungle. In fact, to children, my movie is like a giant picture book. You just keep turning the pages, and there's more wondrous things there. So I just say to kids, "Come and see Uncle Terry's little film. Trust me, little girl."

Parents may resist bringing their kids because the Grim Reaper is a recurring character. But when you see that figure from a distance, it has an angelic quality.

It is the Angel of Death. The whole idea was to do a 19th-century idea of death, as a melancholic and romantic being. Death was a woman - you were embraced by it. It wasn't some horrific thing from the Middle Ages, hacking people down with scythes. The Baron, to me, is having a love affair with death. After all, it's been hard work summoning up these fantastic adventures and trying to convince others of their existence. And the world has changed so much, it may not be worth the effort. Death could be more attractive.

So the girl, Sarah, becomes the true heroine. In effect she tells the Baron, "Death isn't all you're cracking it up to be."

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