Meeting The Criterion: TIME BANDITS On Blu-ray
Time Bandits (1981) is often called Terry Gilliam's most accessible film, which has always seemed like a back-handed compliment to me. Is there a more neutral term than accessible?
Gilliam's work is characterized by anything but neutrality. It's a narrative resume full of strong points of view and a nose-thumbing, even middle-fingering, disregard for authority. His films are often the epitome of high concept, a term that's always made Hollywood bean counters cower. Thematically, especially, Gilliam doesn't settle for challenging adult authority. He demolishes it, rebuilds it and sends it back out into the world with a whack on the bottom.
Least neutral of all is his absolute dedication to a singular, if visually sprawling sense, of innocence trapped in the land of evil. In Brazil (1985) a man challenges dystopia and bureaucracy through self-centered daydreams. In Twelve Monkeys (1995) Bruce Willis' character does the one thing you should never ever do in a time travel film; go back to try and fix the mess. In both cases the characters want good things, things that seem simple They want to see good and evil starkly defined and find their own version of heaven.
They're also dwarfed by their physical and emotional surroundings in a way that makes viewer empathy more or less certain. It would be banal if Gilliam wasn't ready to make an example of them. What Gilliam is really doing is so subversive it's as easy to miss as the fragment of evil that get's left over at the end of Time Bandits. He's redefining innocence, asking for a broader definition of what is worthy of our empathy.
Time Bandits has an even more unlikely group of heroes. There's the band of little people (thieves no less) who think they can put one over on God, a little boy completely in over his head, a satano-tech figure who naively believes himself all powerful and lastly God himself, all business man and threatening Wizard of Oz inspired bogey on the outside and such a softy on the inside that he sets everything right for everyone, albeit with a poker face, in a redemptive gesture at the end, even as he misses (deliberately?) the bit of evil that punctuates the narrative with a final twist of dark satire.
It's as if Gilliam wants to remind everyone that he doesn't see love as being separate from judgement especially when it comes to governance of these silly self important humanoid types who run willy nilly causing chaos. You can be innocent and still deserve to be blown up or at least get a good spanking.
Of course I haven't mentioned the parents at all here. The plain truth is they are barely characters in the film standing in as the commercial lifestyle that gets parodied in Time Bandits set pieces. The little people all want to be rich but end up on the Titanic. Kevin wants to sit at the right hand of the king but gets carried off by the very gifts laid at his feet, Napoleon eats in drab opulence surrounded by the devastation he's caused, and Robin Hood is just another politician serving as an empty headed figurehead for thugs.
The parents? They wouldn't know a heroic or noble aspiration if it bit them in the keister. They are every bit as asleep as Kevin may or may not be but they have lost all their imagination. Like the Satan character's minions, they live covered in plastic, and like Og they are blissfully unaware of the world of ideas.
It seems to me that Time Bandits is one of Gilliam's richest films. It simultaneously invites the viewer to be twelve years old while warning of the dangers of daydreaming about wealth, fame and "freedom" from morality. Most of all it's drenched in the hope that if we tell enough stories we might actually learn something and avoid getting blown up by our own stupidity and techno-hubris or the bit of evil that only needs to be touched in order to wreak devastating havoc.
The emergence of Time Bandits on Criterion Blu-ray this late in the physical media game seems par for the course for a director whose projects have often required long gestation and pre-production periods. Absolutely no skimping on the extras here. The new 2K digital restoration, supervised by Gilliam offers uncompressed stereo soundtrack for the Blu-ray. There's also an audio commentary featuring Gilliam, co-writer/actor Michael Palin, and actors John Cleese, David Warner, and Craig Warnock
A short documentary narrated by film writer David Morgan, features interviews with production designer Milly Burns and costume designer James Acheson. The anecdotes, and behind the scenes shots bring to vivid life how the team managed to create so many historical periods on a budget.
There's also a lengthy conversation between Gilliam and film scholar Peter von Bagh, recorded at the 1998 Midnight Sun Film Festival. Gilliam isn't exactly a raconteur but he is fascinating to listen to most precisely because in the midst of his madness he reveals such an intense desire to connect with others. His stories reveal a deep philosophic aspect to his character but he is mostly a man among other men, building, drawing, painting, gluing, shouting, and even a little amazed that anyone wants to play with him.
Also present on the disc is Shelley Duvall's appearance on Tom Snyder's Tomorrow show from 1981, a gallery of rare photographs from the set, the trailer and a fold out with a copy of the universe map from the film on ones die and a new essay by critic David Sterritt on the other. Lastly the whole thing comes packaged in a nifty little lenticular sleeve.
Time Bandits, spine number 37, is available on Blu-ray and DVD.