Film Nerd 2.0: 'Time Bandits,' 'Mars Attacks,' and letting go
I travel a lot.
It's that simple. In the last fifteen years, I've averaged at least 10 trips out of town a year, and in many of those years, I'd say it's been twice that many. I've traveled to other countries, other continents. I've traveled so much that at this point, packing and getting to the airport is a matter of pure muscle memory.
I'm not fond of it. I don't enjoy being on the road. I enjoy many of the things I've done in those various destinations, and I'm certainly grateful for every single experience I've had during those travels. But I don't particularly like being away from home. I'm a creature of habit, and I've worked very hard to make my nest just the way I like it. It's been even worse since I got married and had kids. The day my first son, Toshiro, was born was the same day my first film, "Cigarette Burns," started principal photography. My wife, god bless her, sent me to Vancouver the day she got home from the hospital, so I got to be there for the last four days of the shoot. That split focus has defined my life for a while now, and it shows no sign of getting any easier to balance as I get older.
What I'm not used to is having the family travel while I stay here. And especially not for a full third of a year.
My wife's been planning this epic Argentina trip for a while now, and I've been thinking about it as an abstract. In the last few week, though, I finally had to start grappling with the notion of my family leaving the country for four solid months. That means no direct contact with the boys. No hugs. No besitos. No time spent together doing all the things we love to do.
And no movies.
I don't think Allen will particularly miss the movies. He loves to sit and watch with us, but at the age of two, he's not really digesting what he's watching beyond a certain surface fascination. For Toshi, though, this will be a real endurance test, and the eight or nine DVDs he took with him are things he's already seen so many times that he barely registers them at this point. By the time I see him again, he's going to be starved for the new.
So in the last week, I tried to set aside a couple of blocks of time where we could close the office door, pick whatever it was that Toshi wanted, and watch a couple of special movies. As permissive as I seem to be in terms of showing Toshi things, I'm pretty careful about what I think is appropriate for him, and even trying to be very aware of it, I've still made a few mistakes. He's a big fan of Universal monsters in theory, for example, and we'll spend hours going through the monster books he has in the house, looking at pictures of "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" and "The Wolf Man," and he will spend hours discussing them, happily. He asked to see the actual movies for months, and I spent months stalling him, not sure he'd be ready. I finally came up with what I thought was the perfect solution, the gateway drug to the Universal monster universe. "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein." It's funny and it's got the monsters, right? The silly will negate the scary, right?
Nope. Not remotely. It scared the tap-dancing hell out of him, and at about 44 minutes into the film, he turned to me, shaking, and said, "Daddy, I think we should watch this when I'm seven."
I figured out why, too. It goes back to the developing empathy I've written about as part of this column before, and when a kid is watching "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein," they're going to naturally identify with Costello. He's a big overgrown baby, a kid in every way. So when they're watching the movie, what they're watching is a kid they identify with in direct peril from the monsters. The scene where Costello walked into the hotel room, unaware that Lawrence Talbot has already turned into the Wolf Man, was enough send him scrambling behind a chair.
So okay… there are things I veto right away just because I know we're still a little ways off from him being comfortable watching them. It's one thing to be scared during a horror movie, and it's another thing to be terrified on a base animal level, unable to process that fear properly. One's fun, a thrill, a choice. The other is damn close to abuse. I'd rather err on the side of being too cautious than err in the other direction. And when Toshi and I started picking the last few movies we were going to watch together, I could see him eyeballing the stack of "things Toshi will be ready for soon," itching to try something from the forbidden pile.
That led to us examining the stack together, talking about each of the titles, me asking him questions designed to check on his responses to certain ideas. And finally, after more careful negotiation than went into the signing of S.A.L.T. II, we picked two last movies to watch together: "Time Bandits" and "Mars Attacks!", both new to Blu-ray.
He was sold the moment he saw the cover of the new Image Blu-ray release of Terry Gilliam's 1981 classic, the painting of the giant's head with the boat on top emerging from the water with the mountain poking through a hole in the sky, more holes in the background, a crazy world in disrepair. That was my first exposure to the film, too, standing in a theater lobby at Christmas time, just before we were walking in to see "Popeye." I was hyped as hyped could be for the Altman film, already owning the making of book, the book with the script in it, and the soundtrack. "Popeye" was a big deal to me, and for weeks, it was all I'd talked about. That and "Flash Gordon" dominated pretty much all my waking thoughts, the two big December movies for me, and so it took a lot to knock me off my approach to that theater. I was finally seeing it, and I was on my way in, and then boom… there's this poster. That painting. For a movie coming next year. And it rang some bell in me, because I've been hooked on Terry Gilliam ever since. That poster was a promise for a ten-year-old, and considering how many posters outclassed the movie they were selling, we'll get back to the idea of that promise later in this piece.
Point is, the cover of the Blu-ray thankfully uses that same key art, and it was a kick to see that same lightning bolt moment happen organically when Toshi saw the cover. The notion of a giant wearing a boat for a hat blew his mind. He needed to know immediately what sort of a movie would have that sort of thing in it. When I mentioned to him that Robin Hood was also in the film, but very silly, he was even more intrigued. One night last week, my wife was out with her mother and I set up the table for the boys in my office so we could have dinner and watch "Time Bandits" together. Toshi was so excited that he didn't even care what we were eating, and if you know Toshi, you know that it's rare that he's unconcerned about food. As much as I adore the film, I haven't seen it in about a decade, so I was just as excited. Allen was into it because Toshi and I were into it, so basically, it was a party before we ever pressed play.
It's interesting that even thirty years later, I'm still noticing new things in the film, and that's a testament to just how pure and well-realized Terry Gilliam's vision was. The story of Kevin, a young boy who gets pulled into a remarkable adventure with a band of former assistants to the Supreme Being who have stolen a map of all the holes in the universe which they plan to use to become fabulously wealthy, "Time Bandits" is funny and scary and freaky and even sad. It is one of the most enduring of Gilliam's films, and despite being very much of its moment technically, it seems to have a timeless quality that makes it feel fresh and exciting no matter when you discover it. The early scenes of Kevin's home life are duly oppressive and dissatisfied, painting Kevin's homelike as a suffocating nightmare. Craig Warnock, the little English boy who played Kevin, was perfect casting, a non-professional who didn't really go on to much else. He seems less cuddly than the average screen kid, smart and a little troubled, quiet, curious. His parents are awful, totally uninterested in him, materialistic and hypnotized by their TV. Everything in the house is wrapped in plastic, and their favorite show is all about the accumulation of more stuff. Kevin's escape is through the books he reads, the fantasy life he enjoys. His room is a marvel of production design, and the key to the whole rest of the movie. If you look carefully at the walls, and the toys on the floor, and the things he's got all around him, you'll see things that will continue to show up throughout the rest of the movie. The final battle in Evil's fortress is all made up of toys and figures that appear on Kevin's desk and floor, and it's no coincidence that the things Kevin loves and reads about are the places they end up going in time over the course of the adventure.
The casting of the "time bandits" could easily have just been a stunt: "oh, and they're all dwarves." But Gilliam put together a cast of some of the best vertically-challenged actors of the day, guys who were used to being buried under a suit or behind make-up, seen but totally disguised, props, production value in the form of an actor. David Rappaport, Jack Purvis, Kenny Baker, Tiny Ross, Mike Edmonds, and Malcolm Dixon are really wonderful and rowdy and unhinged as Randall, Wally, Fidgit, Vermin, Og, and Strutter. Their constant fighting and their prickly relationships on-camera (and off, from what I hear) give the film an edge that keeps it from ever being cute. I always found them to all be thrilling because they seemed dangerous, and watching the film with my sons, they had the same reaction. There were scenes where they were afraid of the guys, scenes where they laughed at them, scenes where they thought they were mean. They learned their names quickly, and Allen in particular would squeal, "Fidgit!" every time Kenny Baker appeared onscreen. I think he just plain liked the word.
The benefit of making a film like this is that you have lots of short sequences with guest stars, so you can get a big name for just a few days worth of work. John Cleese, Shelley Duvall, Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm, Michael Palin, Ralph Richardson, Jim Broadbent, and the great David Warner and the even more great Sean Connery all turn in excellent work, all of them seemingly in tune with Gilliam's voice. It's amazing how much the rest of his filmography owes to "Time Bandits." In many ways, he's been chasing this one film, playing with ideas from it, images from it, things he enjoyed, things he wanted to try to do better. The script, by Gilliam and Michael Palin, is clever and coarse, broad and yet very real at times. There are little touches of English wit that strike me as somewhat Python, very pointed. I mentioned all the plastic that covers the furniture in Kevin's house in the film. It was only this time, this screening, that I noticed that everything in Evil's fortress is also wrapped in plastic, suggesting that it is evil to own something you're afraid to actually use. I love that Evil is banal. Middle-class. That seems like Hell to Gilliam, Hell to most artists. "Time Bandits" is really a story of a little boy who hates his life who escapes into history and legend, dreaming of a day when his parents are gone and he's free. All the little people and Napoleon and Robin Hood and the Titanic and the magic and the spaceships and the Indians and all of it… it's just the grand metaphor, Terry dressing it up and having fun. But there's a broken-heartedness to the film that is what gives it real heft, I think.
When we got to the scene where Kevin takes a different door than the Time Bandits, and he ends up in ancient Greece with King Agamemnon, played by Sean Connery with his cool charisma turned up to high, Toshi really got involved. We've been reading a lot of mythology lately thanks to his interest in Harryhausen, and Toshi started asking questions about the Minotaur and kings and geography. Finally, when Agamemnon decides to adopt Kevin, Toshi thought the movie was over. He thought that was the happy ending that Kevin deserved.
And then the Time Bandits showed up.
And, holy shit, did Toshi get angry.
When they grab Kevin and make the next jump, leading to their stay on the deck of the Titanic, Toshi was actively livid at Randall in particular. Yelling at him. Outraged at the idea that Kevin had to leave such a perfect situation. I love that. I love the idea that he was so invested in what happened that he turned on the characters. It worked perfectly. After the boat sinks (a very funny and low-budget solution to the problem of how to show something that cost James Cameron $100 million), they end up getting pulled through to the Time Of Legends, and that's when they get caught in a net, pulled up onto the deck of a boat. A very familiar boat, I might add, that Toshi recognized right away. He flipped out when he realized what was about to happen. And because he flipped out, Allen flipped out. And by the time they got through the Mr. and Mrs. Ogre sequence, which was a big hit, and the Giant, played by Ian Muir, comes walking out of the ocean, it was this Burning Man-sized release for the boys. Toshi loved the way they defeated the Giant and thought it was gross and hilarious. I love it when both of the boys think a movie is funny and they get the giggles and they're getting sillier and sillier… it's an ecstatic state for pre-schoolers, and it's so much fun to witness and, whenever possible, encourage.
And Evil was presented as such a delicious idiot that he never once scared Toshi or Allen. Allen's quick to tell me, "Daddy, I scared!" whenever a movie upsets him, and "Time Bandits" never really got there. They both let loose some simultaneous "ewwwwwwwwww!"s during the film, but that was frequently followed by a new round of laughter. The only moment that seemed to penetrate at all was the very ending, when Kevin's parents are blown up after touching the chunk of pure Evil in the microwave oven. After that happened, Toshi came over and climbed up into my lap to give me a hug.
"Dad, you know how come you say to me that I have to do what you say, and it's so you love me and want me safe?"
"You gotta do that, too, okay? If I tell on you, you gotta do it, because little boys can be the hero, and they can help you, okay?"
"His mommy and his daddy didn't listen to him. And they got all blowed up."
"That's a very good point."
"So you have to do what I told on you to do."
"So you have to read me two stories tonight."
This weekend was spent enjoying and savoring a lot of "lasts." Last time going out to dinner with them. Last time going to a movie with my wife. Last time making breakfast with the boys. Last time going to the park with them. And through it all, I did my best to enjoy the time and not betray to the boys just how sad I was. I think I pulled it off for the most part. But Sunday, after we packed the car with the 147 suitcases my wife took with her, after we had a lovely late-afternoon lunch together, after we went to the park, I had some time with Toshi by himself. And I told him to pick whatever he wanted to watch. "Mars Attacks!" was on the stack of things he was not allowed to see, but he picked it anyway, hoping I'd forget.
And so, indulging a little-boy's boundary-pushing request out of an acute sense of wanting to spend my last few hours with him as happy ones, I told him okay. He's a fan of "Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers," so he gets the type of film this is, but he had no idea it was a comedy or that it was played as extreme as it is. He didn't really know what he was asking to watch.
He climbed up onto the chair with me, and that's how we sat while we watched, him hugging me, him laughing like a loon at every weird left turn in the film. I have a huge fondness for the film, while acknowledging that it takes a looooooong time to get going. It should have been much tighter before getting to the good stuff. Once the Martians actually set foot on Earth, though, the film gets going, and I love pretty much everything from that point on. "Dicks From Space" would be a good alternate title for the film, since that's pretty much all it is… a bunch of little green assholes running loose all over the world, with no moral hesitations of any kind. It is big and dark and wicked mean in places. Toshi was a little scared at first when the Martians arrived, but that ended the moment he heard them talk.
You remember I talked about how great it is when a little kid is helpless laughing? It's infectious. There's a moment where Jack Black charges into battle and bellows, "Die, you alien shithead!" before ejecting the magazine from his weapon. When the Martian fries Black in response, Toshi started laughing, and he imitated Black's bacon sizzle death, laughing, and the more outrageous the mayhem, the more he made me laugh. The whole movie, the weirdest moments made him laugh. The Slim Whitman stuff. Tom Jones, whose first appearance actually got Toshi to jump up and dance for a few bars until the Martians showed up onstage.
Both films have just become far more important to me for nostalgic reasons than ever before, so thank god both of them are presented at their absolute best quality so far. I've owned "Time Bandits" on VHS, Criterion laserdisc, Criterion DVD, and now again on Blu-ray, and this new Image release (oddly mastered in 1080i) is the very best print of the film I've ever seen. You can see the wires. You can see the seams of Gilliam's world. And maybe because of that handmade charm (and the rest of the Handmade Films stack that Image just released will also be written up here soon), "Time Bandits" plays like magic. Toshi's already a Beatles fan, so when I told him George Harrison did the song at the end of the film, it was just icing on top of the icing on top of the cake made entirely of icing. And looking at the detail of things is what led me to suddenly make that connection on the joke about all the plastic covering the globes and the books and the evil cauldrons at Evil's fortress.
And "Mars Attacks!" was ambitious for the day, and the CGI is hardly what we would call state of the art today. Still, Burton wanted an intentionally fake look for the Martians. He originally tried to do them as stop-motion, but was told that Warner wanted them to be more modern than that. So he ordered the CGI guys at ILM to do the animation so it would look like stop-motion. There are some sketchy effects in many of the film's sequences, but I don't care. There's so much personality in the work that I don't care if the composites are perfect. The Martians are so rotten, so weird, that I love them. I love the scenes of the Martians hanging out on board their spaceship dressed only in red bikini space underwear, while carrying around abducted cows and other science experiments.
For the next four months, memories like that are going to be the things that get me through my time away from my sons. The two of them in a feedback loop over the appearance of a Giant, or Toshi snorting because he laughed so hard at a Martian with a translation machine endlessly repeating, "Do not run. We are your friends." Watching a movie with one or both of the kids curled up on my chest or my lap, the hugs more important than anything onscreen. That quiet time, the questions, the chance to pass along my ideas, my values, my sensibilities… that's what I'll miss. And it's what I'll treasure. And I love that even though my wife doesn't really get what Toshi or Allen might get from watching some crazy SF film or some weird fantasy from my childhood, she made room for Toshi and Allen and I to enjoy a few last indelible moments before the time apart.
In the end, its not what you watch, although I certainly enjoyed both of these experiences, and Toshi's told me already that he loved both of them. It's just that we had these two moments, and that the whole time he's there, he'll have these as the last memories of his time here with me. When he gets back, it'll be a fairly radical case of culture shock just because he'll have adjusted to a life with basically no new movies to watch, and I look forward to picking this column up at that point.
134 days to go. And counting. Definitely counting.
So trust me, dear reader... this column's not done.
But the wait until January just might kill me.
Film Nerd 2.0 is an irregular column, in every possible meaning of the word.
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