Jean-Luc Godard’s zany, English-speaking quasi adaptation of the Shakespeare play has the most complex and densely layered use of Dolby sound in movies, and this screening offers one the first chance in Chicago to hear it properly. The “itinerary” of the film–one can’t quite consider it a plot–involves a post-Chernobyl view of culture in general and Shakespeare’s play in particular. Among the performers, mainly used by Godard as a painter might use colors, are stage director Peter Sellars, Molly Ringwald (as Cordelia), Burgess Meredith (as Lear), a semiincoherent Godard (as someone called Professor Pluggy), and, in smaller parts, Norman Mailer, his daughter Kate Miller, film director Leos Carax, and Woody Allen. The film certainly qualifies as a perverse provocation on more levels than one, but one of these levels–believe it or not–is Shakespeare. It may drive you nuts, but it is probably the most inventive and original Godard film since Passion. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, March 31, 6:00 and 7:45, 443-3737)
From the Chicago Reader (March 24, 1989). —J.R.
LAWRENCE OF ARABIA
Directed by David Lean
Written by Robert Bolt
With Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Jose Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy, and Omar Sharif.
Thanks to a meticulous restoration carried out by Robert A. Harris and Jim Painten, working with a team of specialists that ultimately included director David Lean himself, Lawrence of Arabia has been rereleased in all its original glory in a version that includes some footage that wasn’t even seen by most of the film’s earliest audiences (the original road-show version, released in late 1962, was cut by about 20 minutes before it went into general release). I won’t dwell upon the complex detective work carried out by the restorers, except to note that in order to make the version currently playing as complete as possible, the original actors even redubbed some of their lines, which were then electronically altered so that their present voices would sound like their voices 27 years ago. Lean was also permitted to make a few minor modifications in the editing, so that the definitive version of this epic about the enigmatic T.E. Lawrence and his unorthodox military career is actually a “final cut” that incorporates practically all of the material that was in the original version.
Having seen the film only twice — once around the time that it first came out, and again recently — I find my feelings about it even more strongly divided than they were in the early 60s. To put things in perspective, 1962 was a year in which other prominent English-language releases in the U.S. included John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Howard Hawks’s Hatari!, Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town, Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate, and Sidney Lumet’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
All of these movies seemed superior to Lawrence in one way or another back in 1962, and even today, I would still probably rank them all higher. Looking back at the spring 1963 issue of Film Culture — the same issue, incidentally, where the first version of Andrew Sarris’s highly influential auteurist manifesto, The American Cinema, appeared — I see in a chart of critics’ ratings of current releases that Sarris gave the lowest possible rating to Lawrence (”poor”), Peter Bogdanovich ranked it only a notch higher (”fair”), two other critics deemed it “very good,” and only William Everson and Dwight Macdonald considered it “excellent”; no one at all gave it the highest rating, which was “exceptional.”
This was of course during a period when the French New Wave was nearing the height of its glory, when Antonioni and Fellini were first acquiring mass appeal in the U.S., and when the New American Cinema was just beginning to make a pronounced impact — to cite only some of the excitement that made Lean’s achievement look relatively staid and conventional. Certain critics of this period like Macdonald, Stanley Kauffmann, and John Simon clearly thought otherwise, but because these same critics tended to disparage the majority of the movies that I cared most about (ranging from Ford and Welles to Godard and Resnais), it wasn’t difficult to take sides against Lean as the epitome of academicism, literary cinema, and “good taste” in the worst sense — all the signs of old-fashioned squareness that the best new movies were fighting against.
I find it hard to disavow the essential tenets of that position today. But something vital about the state of creativity in the cinema has changed since then, and compared with most recent releases, Lawrence of Arabia can only properly be regarded as a towering achievement (with certain reservations, which I will get to shortly). If its spectacular, formal use of 70-millimeter has none of the sense of the new to be found in such superior big-screen blockbusters as Tati’s Playtime and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (both of which surfaced only five or six years later), it still marks a major step forward for the ambitious personal epic compared to such preceding examples of the period as Cecil B. De Mille’s The Ten Commandments, Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, Otto Preminger’s Exodus, Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings, and Lean’s own The Bridge on the River Kwai. In addition, Lawrence of Arabia has proved to be an enormous influence on subsequent epics. The ambiguous positioning of its central character clearly paved the way for Patton, the use of a naive reporter as an expositional device was later adopted (albeit clumsily) in The Green Berets, and still other aspects of Lawrence of Arabia have found their way into subsequent epics ranging from Star Wars to Apocalypse Now to Dune.
Part of the unusual achievement of Lawrence of Arabia in its time, later emulated by such would-be successors as A Man for All Seasons and Becket, was to combine the purely sensual virtues of a scenic and pictorial costume epic like one of De Mille’s with the more literary and “classy” cultural values of the English theater. (When Lawrence compares himself at one point to Moses crossing Sinai, the reference to The Ten Commandments becomes explicit; a little later, the film parodies this notion when Lawrence mistakes a dust storm for a “pillar of fire.”)
Ironically, although detractors such as Sarris called the film “impersonal” in the 60s, it can be seen today as one of the prototypes of the contemporary “personal” blockbuster in which the director’s own will to power is reflected in the ambiguous megalomania of the central character. This is a tradition that actually goes all the way back to such silent classics as Stroheim’s Foolish Wives as well as to The Ten Commandments and Hawks’s underrated Land of the Pharaohs. But Lean gave an increased intellectual respectability to this position that countless later directors have cashed in on, including, among many others, Werner Herzog (Aguirre: The Wrath of God), Francis Coppola (Apocalypse Now), Steven Spielberg (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and more recently Martin Scorsese (The Last Temptation of Christ), John Milius (Farewell to the King), and Terry Gilliam (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen). Thanks in part to Lean’s example, these films are about more than their ostensible subjects — they are also about the positions of their respective directors in leading hordes of people, dreaming big dreams, and reflecting on the metaphysical ambiguities of their power, all of which has tended to make most of these blockbusters bear an annoyingly monotonous and narcissistic resemblance to one another.
It is to the credit of Lean and screenwriter Robert Bolt, however, that Lawrence of Arabia has a historical density and political and psychological nuances that go beyond those of its numerous successors. This is all the more surprising when one considers that, apart from Lawrence’s death in 1935 from a motorcycle accident, which opens the film, the time span covered in 216 minutes is only about two years — from the end of Lawrence’s stint as a lieutenant and mapmaker in Cairo in 1916, when he was dispatched to meet with Prince Faisal, until his return to England in 1918. Apart from the occasional allusion to Lawrence’s background, this leaves about 45 years in his life unaccounted for.
From the outset, Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is perceived as a grand enigma: well-educated, self-assured, remote, oddly masochistic, and passionate about Arabia. Before very long, he emerges as a visionary leader of Arab independence against the Turks — winning the confidence of both Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) and Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) — and so impresses the bedouin army with his courage and endurance during a long trek across the desert to capture Aqaba that they garb him in Ali’s white burnoose, which henceforth becomes his identifying costume. He even wins over the wily and primitive Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), drawing him and his men away from their loyalty to the Turks and into the bedouin army.
My knowledge of the real-life counterparts of these characters and events is spotty at best, but it seems to me that the film’s mythic dimension in relation to the third world is very closely allied to that of Apocalypse Now – the white man lording it over noble (or ignoble) savages, who look to him for guidance. This is certainly reflected in the characteristic decision to have two of the three leading Arab characters played by whites (Guinness and Quinn), and my reservations were recently seconded in an interesting and not entirely unsympathetic article about the film by Edward W. Said — literature professor at Columbia, author of Orientalism, and a member of the Palestine National Council — in the February 21 issue of the Wall Street Journal entitled “‘Lawrence’ Doesn’t Do Arabs Any Favors.”
Describing Guinness’s Faisal as “a cross between his rendition of Fagin and T.S. Eliot’s Confidential Clerk, with an annoying admixture of oiliness thrown in for good measure,” and Quinn’s Auda as “a semi-moronic thug out of West Side Story,” Said also argues that, contrary to the film’s depiction of its hero, “Lawrence was a British imperial agent, not an innocent enthusiast for Arab independence,” and a Zionist to boot. Focusing on the scene of the Arab National Council Meeting in Damascus, occurring near the end of the film, which Said rightly calls “the film’s political payoff, its climactic argument about the Arab revolt,” he persuasively concludes that Lean’s “unmistakably imperialistic” vision is that “serious rule was never meant for such lesser species, only for the white man.”
None of this should imply that Lawrence of Arabia is necessarily any more imperialistic or racist in its implications than other big-budget war epics; on the contrary, I would argue that it more or less goes with the territory. (In fact, one can find a pretty close equivalent to Lean’s depiction of the Arab National Council Meeting in Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata! made ten years earlier, when the “nonwhites” who are shown as unfit to rule themselves — including the same uncouth Anthony Quinn — are Mexican peasants.)
Having acknowledged this serious limitation about Lawrence of Arabia, which may have contributed as much to its success as its more defensible virtues, I should mention what makes the film a major work in spite of these nagging problems. Freddie Young’s Super Panavision, 70-millimeter cinematography, for starters, is conceivably the greatest desert photography that we have in movies, and some of the film’s greatest moments are elongated meditations on mountains, camels, and mirages — moments that give us a sense of space, history, and even psychology that goes beyond any of the particulars found in Bolt’s extremely literate dialogue. (Another central visual reference point is the blueness of O’Toole’s eyes, which becomes all the more striking in relatively monochromatic desert settings.)
Excepting the minstrel-show casting of Faisal and Auda, the performances are virtually flawless: O’Toole has certainly never been better, and arguably Sharif and Jose Ferrer are at their best as well. (On the other hand, whether or not Ferrer’s depiction of a Turk is as objectionable as Guinness and Quinn’s Arabs — an issue that Said seems content to overlook — is a question worth raising.) At the same time, the performances are enhanced by the broader context created as the film alternates between actorly dialogue scenes and large-scale spectacle without giving the impression that either of these is padding. Even if some of this film’s strength comes from the acting and dialogue of the English theater, it can never be accused of looking stagy.
Returning to the question of Lawrence’s character, the film manages to suggest his ambiguous sexuality without ever committing itself to a specific reading of it. Some of this is no doubt due to actual or anticipated censorship restraints circa 1962. While little is known conclusively about Lawrence’s sexual orientation, most accounts agree that he was obsessed and traumatized by what happened to him after he was captured by the Turks in Deraa, which apparently included torture and homosexual rape. The film manages to be unusually explicit about the sexual interest of the head Turk (Ferrer) in Lawrence, but then it goes to great lengths to suggest that all that Lawrence suffered at the hands of the Turk and his henchmen was beatings. Much earlier, there’s a fairly strong suggestion of an amorous relationship between Lawrence and a young Arab servant, but this too is allowed to go nowhere.
The latter portion of the film charts a steady deterioration in Lawrence’s stability and self-confidence after the episode in Deraa, but both the nature of this change and the reasons behind it are left ambiguous, apart from Lawrence’s dawning recognition that he is more a pawn of British interests than an autonomous leader of the Arabs. This multilayered portrait suggests that Lean and Bolt are trying to at least partially demystify Lawrence as a hero, but the fact remains that the ideological baggage carried by the White Man’s Burden theme is a lot stronger than any amount of irony that the filmmakers can bring to it.
Indeed, some of the film’s irony has a sense of self-protection about it. Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy), the American journalist modeled on war correspondent Lowell Thomas, is sufficiently disingenuous and cynical to imply a certain amount of anti-American satire in the portrait. But as Said points out, Bentley’s role in publicizing Lawrence isn’t all that different from the role of Lean and Bolt (are American newspapers any more “commercial” than big-screen blockbusters?) and Bentley seems to be used as a scapegoat to distract us from the comparable simplification being perpetrated by the filmmakers.
“They hope to gain their freedom,” Lawrence says to Bentley about the Arabs. “They’re going to get it, Mr. Bentley. I’m going to give it to them.” The irony here may be rebounding on Lawrence, and it’s worth noting here and elsewhere that the question often arises as to who is simplifying what and whom. (Bentley’s interview with Prince Faisal, by the way, which occurs shortly after the intermission, is one of the longer scenes not previously seen in its entirety in all the shorter versions of the film; it is also one of the few moments in the restoration when the sound seems slightly off.)
Magisterial, intelligent, handsome, mysterious, proud, brilliant, imperialist, bombastic, narcissistic: the film, like its hero, is all these things. Paradoxically, it is not really a film that admits hidden depths — the ironies and ambiguities are all there on the surface, which is one of the reasons I doubt that this is a masterpiece that can be combed indefinitely for buried treasures.
Lawrence prancing about on top of a captured train makes for some fine images, but not ones that tell us anything new or different about him; Lawrence half-crazed and soaked in blood may make us think of Shakespeare, but it’s the Classics Illustrated version. When we last see him riding off in a jeep toward his trip back to England and a motorcyclist passes him, reminding us of his eventual death, the effect is anything but complex; it suggests, rather, the kind of Profundity 101 that some English professors love to foist on helpless undergraduates.
On the other hand, it is pointless to complain that the charge of the bedouins on horses and camels into Aqaba is ahistorical (apparently the port fell to the Arabs without a single shot being fired) because a more accurate depiction would have deprived us of a stunning extended pan across the city to the sea during the battle, with a cannon grandly appearing in the center foreground as the camera comes to rest. I haven’t the foggiest notion of whether Lawrence’s grand entrance at the officer’s bar in Cairo wearing his white burnoose with his young Arab servant in tow is historically accurate, but it makes for a terrific scene, and Lean manages to stretch it out for maximum effectiveness. There are many such showstoppers all the way through, which prompts me to concede that as a grand, old-fashioned entertainment, Lawrence of Arabia qualifies, warts and all, as the best new movie around.
From the March 17, 1989 Chicago Reader. Reposting this now is prompted in part by the unjust ignoring of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus by critics late last year. At least in memory, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen continues to remind me of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics. — J.R.
THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Written by Charles McKeown and Gilliam
With John Neville, Eric Idle, Sarah Polley, Robin Williams, Oliver Reed, Uma Thurman, Jonathan Pryce, Winston Dennis, and Valentina Cortese.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Emile Ardolino
Written by Perry Howze and Randy Howze
With Cybill Shepherd, Robert Downey Jr., Ryan O’Neal, Mary Stuart Masterson, and Christopher McDonald.
I can no longer recall whether any of Rudolf Erich Raspe’s late-18th-century best-seller The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen was read to me as a child. But there’s no question that these tall tales of comic extravagance — based on stories told by one Karl Friedrich Hieronymous (the Baron von Munchhausen) to his German poker buddies during the same period — have held a special place in children’s literature ever since. Reportedly about a dozen and a half film versions of the stories precede Terry Gilliam’s current entry, although I presume that most of these are silent and/or European, because I can find only one listed in Leonard Maltin’s extensive TV Movies (The Fabulous Baron Munchausen by Karel Zeman).
Calling Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen noncontemporary almost sounds like an understatement. Set in the late 18th century, when the original stories were written, its main influences and counterparts — the silent fantasy films of Georges Méliès and the comic strip “Little Nemo in Slumberland” by Winsor McCay — are found a little over a century later, i.e., 80 or 90 years ago. Even if one views time in terms of decades rather than centuries, Terry Gilliam is anything but an 80s personality; his particular brand of antiauthoritarian fantasy and adolescent humor belongs much more to the 50s (Mad comics and The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.) and the counterculture 60s than to anything in the last 20 years. Even his controversial reputation as an auteurist overreacher, which seems to be responsible for much of his recent mixed press, finds few genuine contemporary parallels, and critics who call him self-indulgent are missing the point that excess is essential to his vision (as it is to such legendary — albeit very different — overreachers as Erich von Stroheim and John Cassavetes).
Part of what’s disconcerting about all of Gilliam’s movies, in fact, is the combination of metaphysical aspirations with small-scale slapstick, almost as if he were combining the contrary impulses of two other American directors who have spent most of their careers in England, Stanley Kubrick and Richard Lester. His Baron Munchausen, to take one example, is made up and often even framed to suggest the figure of Don Quixote, but it’s not a reference that carries much weight because he’s a comic-book Quixote without a Sancho Panza (unless the little girl who accompanies him on his adventures dimly qualifies). The film offers three separate views of hell — a war-torn European city, a red-hot (and anachronistically conceived) nuclear missile plant straight out of Hellzapoppin within the crater of Mount Etna, and the inside of the belly of a gigantic sea monster — but no single discernible thread allows us to link up all three. The film is also preoccupied with the aging baron’s proximity to death, but here again there’s a tendency to contradict or at least complicate this serious element with a certain nose-thumbing irreverence. In short, what Gilliam’s Kubrickian right hand lays on like a trowel, his Lesteroid left hand usually scatters, leaving the viewer to pick up all the pieces.
Thanks to such contradictions, the movie’s overall movement often seems closer to that of a boiling cauldron than to any logical progression. But this wild spectacle has an energy, a wealth of invention, and an intensity that for my money still puts most of the streamlined romps of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to shame; and it never gropes after the formulaic moves that make even a delight like Who Framed Roger Rabbit seem relatively hidebound and lacking in danger. A fantasy in which literally anything can happen at any moment runs the serious risk of flying apart without a center; and there is hardly a moment in this movie’s 126 minutes when Gilliam isn’t taking that risk — both eyes open and full speed ahead.
He even doubles the odds against his safety by insisting from the beginning on a certain amount of self-acknowledged artifice in both his story frame and his visual design. In an unnamed, besieged European city being torn apart by cannon blasts from Turks, a very Méliès-like stage production of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (with charmingly and precariously floating and sliding backdrops) is being performed in a half-destroyed theater, when the real baron (John Neville) suddenly turns up, protesting the way he’s being represented and claiming to the skeptical crowd, “Only I can end this war . . . because I began it.” Promising to “reveal the true cause of the war,” he launches into an onstage monologue that leads straight into a flashback. But to confuse matters, his servants in the flashback — including Berthold (Eric Idle), who can run faster than a bullet, and Albrecht (Winston Dennis), who can carry all the sultan’s treasures on his back — are played by the same actors impersonating these characters in the stage production.
A comparable kind of doubling of artifice occurs after the flashback ends and the real baron sails away on a balloon made out of bloomers (with Sally, the real daughter of the false baron, as a stowaway) to recover four lost servants. His first stop is on the moon, where the shifting and floating scenery explicitly recalls the stage machinery in the theater; and throughout his other adventures, the notion of what is “real” fantasy and what is bogus — and whether the baron is lying or telling the truth — becomes purposefully and intricately confused. It’s on the moon, in fact, that the picture really comes to life, entering a free-form Lewis Carroll universe ruled by the giant disembodied heads of the Moon King (an uncredited and very funny Robin Williams, with an Italian accent) and Queen (Valentina Cortese) and their randy independent bodies, leading to metaphysical (and physical) divisions that are as skewed as the conflicts in Gilliam’s directorial personality. The film’s most beautiful shot is the mysterious moon landing, which proceeds like a series of overlapping optical illusions — stars become watery reflections of stars, which become in turn churning sprays of moon dust as the baron’s vessel gradually comes to rest — and the displacements formally and perceptually reproduce the overall Chinese-box construction of the plot.
Some of the movie’s confusions, then, are conceptual as well as integral. Others are no doubt due to scenes that were eliminated from the script when the film’s budget began to escalate and perhaps still other scenes that Gilliam may have had to remove from the rough cut (although he hasn’t made any disavowal of the release version). Even more problems may be ascribable to flaws in Gilliam’s conception from the beginning. But because Gilliam, like Stroheim, has imposed his personality so forcefully on what is there, our inclination is to assign all the blame to him for what went wrong as well as all the credit for what went right. Gilliam has, after all, described this as the third part of a trilogy after Time Bandits and Brazil, dealing with old age after treating childhood and adulthood in the earlier parts; from this point of view, it seems possible that some of the confusion in the movie may be a deliberate reflection of the confusion between memory and imagination that crops up in old codgers like Munchausen. (I must confess, however, that Brazil strikes me, for all its virtues, as a singularly sophomoric view of adulthood.)
The problem is worth dwelling on because some of the film’s confusions are delightful while others are merely distracting, and still others exist in an ambiguous zone in between. One of the movie’s best scenes occurs in the ornate 18th-century drawing room of Vulcan (Oliver Reed), who presides over the missile plant in the volcano crater — a seemingly large drawing room that Gilliam somehow contrives to make claustrophobic thanks to a manipulation of scale, which he utilizes effectively throughout much of the film. In this case, the confusion seems to derive from several sources, including the abnormally small teacups that the baron and Sally are drinking from, as well as the way the overall space seems at different times to be both open and closed. At one point, we glimpse a cow standing in a corner of the room and beyond the cow an outdoor pastoral setting that recedes far into the distance — a bizarre and unexplained detail, completely out of kilter with our overall spatial orientation (the scene is supposedly set far underground, near the center of the earth), and a good example of Gilliam’s capacity to give some of his settings a dreamlike illogicality. (Comparable games with space occur in the sultan’s treasure room, on the moon, and in the sea monster’s belly, among other places.)
In the same drawing room, we witness an enormous seashell emerge from a sizable body of water and open up to reveal the lovely figure of Vulcan’s wife, Venus (Uma Thurman, who also appears as Cecile de Volanges in Dangerous Liaisons), accompanied by two female angels who proceed to drape her in white fabric. She invites the baron to dance with her, and they wind up waltzing in midair in an adjacent “ballroom,” moving up into the clouds from a cavernous space below surrounded by fountains and grottoes. Much later in the film, back in the besieged European city, the same character reappears, without explanation, as one of the actors in the theater group.
“A string of pearls without a string” — Sergei Eisenstein’s description of the writing of Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky — applies pretty well to most of Gilliam’s efforts in Baron Munchausen, although it must be added that some of these pearls prove to be fake as well as genuine. The superficial characterization of the main villain, Horatio Jackson (Jonathan Pryce, the hero in Brazil), as a “man of reason” who both licenses the theater and conducts the war in progress — an all-around bad guy — seems especially puerile. But given Gilliam’s unusual talent for peripheral detail (which he shares with Mad comics from the 50s), this is a movie in which there’s literally as well as figuratively more than meets the eye, and I look forward to seeing it again; I also suspect that it’s a work that will grow in stature in the years to come.
The word is out: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen isn’t as good as such fantasies as the 1940 The Thief of Bagdad, The Wizard of Oz, or Gilliam’s own previous Time Bandits and Brazil. In point of fact, Emile Ardolino’s Chances Are, another fantasy-comedy that was released the same day, isn’t as good as any of those classics either, but nobody seems to be complaining.
Personally, I find Gilliam’s movie a lot more interesting than Ardolino’s, but it sounds like most critics, distributors, and exhibitors think otherwise. After all, Chances Are, a moderately budgeted picture, opened at almost a dozen venues in the Chicago area, including some of the biggest and best-equipped theaters. Baron Munchausen, which cost about $46 million, opened on only one screen — not one of the largest, and a rather dirty one at that — at the Fine Arts, where the projection and sound were far from ideal. (Fortunately, the film has since moved to a larger and cleaner screen at the same theater, and will eventually open more widely.)
The irony is that Gilliam’s wide-eyed and imaginative adventure would seem to have a much broader appeal; Ardolino’s, by contrast, mainly offers a series of titillating laughs, many of them based on incest fantasies. Chances Are – which has an intricate plot that is nonetheless pretty easy to follow — is the latest entry in the recent cross-generational body-exchange cycle, and its plot revolves around a stock notion of heaven that is also currently quite popular. Baron Munchausen – which has a relatively simple plot that is at times difficult to follow — makes no such appeal to familiarity, and it is one of the only recent movie fantasies (apart from the forthcoming Parents) that is more concerned with hell than with heaven.
To its credit, Chances Are has very likable performances by Cybill Shepherd and Ryan O’Neal, both of whom seem to improve with age in the depth and range of their personalities, as they move beyond their ingenue origins (although from this standpoint, their costar Robert Downey Jr. still has a long way to go). I can’t really say too much about this movie because its principal pleasure derives from its labyrinthine plot twists, which can’t be described without giving them away. But I can make the point that any movie that depends this much on plot alone is likely to wind up being as disposable as Kleenex, and I suspect that a few years from now, when The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is being revived as a flawed classic, Chances Are won’t be much more than a dim memory.
Chances Are may have a cleverly constructed plot (written by sisters Perry and Randy Howze, who also scripted Maid to Order and Mystic Pizza), but artistically it’s much more of a mess than Gilliam’s film. The overlit cinematography by William A. Fraker, which suggests linens that have been soaked in too much bleach, is consistently tacky and ugly. The film opens in 1963, at the wedding of the hero (Christopher McDonald) and heroine (Cybill Shepherd) in Washington, D.C., then cuts to their first wedding anniversary, when she announces her pregnancy. Shortly after that he dies in a car accident, goes to heaven (where he’s processed for reincarnation, although an angel forgets to blip out his memory), and is then reborn in Cleveland. The remainder of the story occurs 22 years later, when the baby, now grown up (Robert Downey Jr.), comes to Washington after graduating from Yale. But the movie does almost nothing to give a sense of period — not even the title song, whose lyrics have no discernible relation to the plot, belongs to the early 60s — and its contrived handling of coincidence and destiny has the congealed quality of a comedy sitcom, which appears to be more or less what the audience expects from it. (For the record, Ardolino was more adept at handling 1963 in his only previous feature, Dirty Dancing.) Despite the pleasant presences of Shepherd and O’Neal (as well as Mary Stuart Masterson, who plays Shepherd’s daughter Miranda), the upscale characters are basically stock figures; there’s even a cameo by bandleader Lester Lanin, who appears at a fancy Smithsonian Institution party — the embodiment of nostalgic squareness, which the movie cheerfully revels in.
The movie’s heaven is 80s standard issue: quaintly bureaucratic, with orderly lines of people (all of them white, of course, and apparently upscale) milling through the cloudy mist at knee-level, with the notion of reincarnation as usual sitting rather oddly with cliched notions of a Christian afterlife. There’s even a lovable angel who later comes to earth à la It’s a Wonderful Life to make sure things work out.
Chances Are is an agreeable enough movie if you have the low expectations a lot of people seem to bring to movies nowadays. Ringing a few bright changes on the cross-generational body-exchange theme — complete with a familiar contrivance that might be labeled “deus ex amnesia,” and that further permits an audience to have its titillating cake and eat it too (incest is OK as long as you’ve got amnesia) — it certainly holds one’s interest, and manages with its highly symmetrical plot to give a kind of narrative satisfaction that is superior to that found in most of the other cross-generational body-exchange comedies.
I might even go so far as to boldly assert that Chances Are is the best cross-generational body-exchange comedy to date. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, by contrast, isn’t even the best Baron Munchhausen movie. (I’ve only seen one other, but this happens to have been Karel Zeman’s extraordinary 1961 Czech version, combining animation with live action — a masterpiece that I caught quite by chance on European TV last fall.) It also isn’t the best Terry Gilliam movie, and is certainly inferior as story telling to The Wizard of Oz and Michael Powell’s The Thief of Bagdad.
But let’s try to keep a little bit of proportion about this. Chances Are is charming and watchable but irredeemably inconsequential. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a failed visionary masterpiece with ambitions (and some achievements) so large that it is worth any number of successful pieces of treacle. I also had a better time watching it.
Subtitled A Rustbowl Fantasy, this very agreeable and funny low-budget documentary by Tony Buba, set in a steel-mill town just outside Pittsburgh, follows the decline of the area as the mills shut down, as well as Buba’s own 15-year activity as a local independent filmmaker. Concerned with union organizing, his temperamental and eccentric star “Sweet Sal” Carullo, his dwindling finances, and his own soul, Buba has a lot of interesting things to say and show, and this witty and intelligent portrait of him and his community has charm to spare. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, March 18, 4:00 and 7:45, 443-3737)
David Lean’s 70-millimeter spectacle about T.E. Lawrence’s military career between 1916 and 1918, written by Robert Bolt and produced by Sam Spiegel and released in 1962, remains one of the most intelligent and handsome of all war epics. It is also one of the most influential–films as diverse as Patton and Apocalypse Now, and even The Green Berets, Star Wars, and Dune, have all borrowed liberally from it. And as one of the first “thoughtful” blockbusters built around ambiguity, it also helped pave the way for such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey. Combining the scenic splendor of a De Mille epic (enhanced by Freddie Young’s remarkable desert photography) with virtues of the English theater–including literate, epigrammatic dialogue and superb performances–Lean endeared himself to English professors and action buffs alike, and the film won seven Oscars, including best picture and direction. What seems apparent more than a quarter of a century later, however, is that the ideological crassness of De Mille and most war epics is not so much transcended here as given a high gloss: the theme is still basically the White Man’s Burden–despite all the ironic notations on the subject–with Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, and Omar Sharif called upon to represent the Arab soul, and Jose Ferrer embodying the savage Turks. The all-male cast helps to make this one of the most homoerotic of all screen epics, although the characters’ sexual experiences are at best only hinted at (it being 1962). Maurice Jarre’s score is excessively bombastic and repetitive, but in most other respects the craft here is a bracing rebuke to 80s filmmaking. This new version, beautifully restored to its original length as well as fine-tuned in the editing by Lean himself, is 216 minutes long, not counting the overture, intermission, and exit music. (McClurg Court)