by ANDY IHNATKO
It's the Middle Ages. More than that, it's the Middle Ages as shot by Terry Gilliam, which means that the Middle Ages are more Middle-Agey than usual. It's dark and perennially it's either about to rain or it's raining or the rain has just stopped; the castle is either monumentally pathetic or pathetic in its attempts to appear monumental; the people's skin and hair is so streaked and matted with bits of their environment that it's hard to tell where the clothes end and the bodies begin; and their teeth are the colors of the jellybeans that are still left behind in the bowl a month after Easter, when the only flavors still left are the ones that no sensible person would consider edible.
(Terry Gilliam also wishes to remind us that in an era in which toilets where nowhere, by logical extension your toilet was, well, more or less anywhere. In the most recent couple of years of teen comedies, I have naturally rushed to put the phrase "Where the hell did the Wayans Brothers [just to name one] get the absurd idea that someone cheerfully peeing on someone else's head is funny?" into a review. But I've cut it from the manuscript each time, imagining a reader emailing me and bringing up "Jabberwocky." Because I would then be forced to either frantically backpedal or redouble my arrogance, neither of which I have time for during the Holiday season.)
A "Directed By Terry Gilliam" credit also usually means that we'll be spending 90 to 160 minutes exploring the theme "Reality Sucks." The loftier (and wordier) way of summing up the theme that's consumed his career is that Gilliam is fascinated by the notion that we go out into this world seeing things through a prism formed from eternal mythologies and deeply-ingrained romantic notions, but whereas a lens focuses vision, a prism scatters light, thus preventing us from clearly perceiving and moving easily through the actual world we inhabit. But "Reality Sucks" works, too. Gilliam's greatest characters all struggle to survive in the scrubby little bordertown between fantasy and reality. "Brazil" and "The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen" and "The Fisher King" are all ambitious, thought-provoking even illuminating.
He started forging his personal identity with his first film after co-directing "Monty Python And The Holy Grail: "Jabberwocky." Dennis Cooper (Michael Palin, who plays him with eyes that are kept permanently wide-open and vacuous, and an optimism to match) is apprenticed to his father, a barrel-maker who lives in the middle of a swamp. Dennis loves the fair Griselda and, after his father disowns him on his deathbed, he goes to the City to seek his fortune and thus earn her hand.
The City's populace is terrorized by a fearsome carnivorous Jabberwock that lurks in the woods, messily killing its human prey with undercranked first-person-perspective crane shots. This dents the collective élan of the citizenry, what with all of the smoldering skeletons piling up here and there outside the city walls. Thus a champion is selected, a battle fought, and a perfect fairy-tale ending achieved.
But "Jabberwocky" is Early Gilliam. The ideas that would serve as the main engines and support structures for his later films (and make them utter freakin' classics) are merely decorative here. You can occasionally spot where Gilliam has the nagging suspicion that he's really on to something, but in his mind he's yet to rack those themes into sharp focus.
Dennis goes around the city trying to introduce modern methods to the shops of craftsmen and smiths, but his dedication to progressive methods of efficiency render him oblivious to certain practical realities...like, when two metalsmiths are working in careful synchronized rhythm to rivet together a seam in some armor, maybe there's a good reason why the guy feeding in more rivets wants to be reaching two feet away while the other guy smashes that iron mallet down. A Princess Locked Away In An Imposing Castle Tower () has her romantic fairytale perceptions of life hardwired into her skull; when the first man whom she lays eyes on obviously isn't a knight come to perform a rescue, she contorts the plain facts to fit her desired view of reality, and does it so effortlessly that you'd swear that the girl must have some Clinton blood in her.
All of these Big Ideas are palatable but embryonic in execution, like the inside of a tomato. So if there's one thing that carries your interest throughout this film, Vast Gilliam-esque Underlying Themes ain't it.
And Dennis ain't it, either. Watching the DVD, I kept thinking about what made "Forrest Gump" work as a film. Forrest is without a larger plan, a real comprehension of what goes on around him, or the ability to actively control his destiny. Robert Zemeckis compensated by surrounding Forrest with powerful, driven, and dimensional supporting characters who kept passing the ball between themselves and thus propelled you and the story all the way to the end credits. He also crafted an elegant hook (seamlessly placing Forrest inside historical footage spanning some three decades) that gave the tale real continuity and self-sustaining interest.
Dennis is just like Forrest. He has no plan, no awareness and no power, and moves through the movie swept along by Things That Happen Around And To Him. That's a problem. This is the guy who's supposed to be leading us around for the next two hours. The movie isn't propelled by an inherently compelling, driving story, either, which reduces "Jabberwocky" to the state of a couple of dozen supporting characters interesting and funny ones, but still, mere supporting characters killing time while we in the audience wait for Harrison Ford or Julia Roberts to make their appearance and really get the film started.
If only Gilliam had turned "Jabberwocky" into the story of the City instead. The City has real star power. It's populated by doomsday cults of flagellants, a merchant class that makes Margaret Thatcher look like Mike Dukakis, a birdlike little king who walks around in a nest of robes and cloaks, and machinery of day-to-day life that grinds and shudders and crashes to the ground in bits. Any fan of British comedy will delight just in seeing so many recognizable faces (if not actual recognizable names) popping up and giving their best. But as-is, "Jabberwocky" is at times vague and disorienting.
In the DVD's commentary track, Gilliam makes an offhanded remark about iMovie and how these days, any kid with a sufficiently powerful home computer can edit a film these days. Then he says that he'll probably be receiving cuts of "Jabberwocky" in the mail soon.
So kids, here's what you should do: switch the movie's first and second acts. Teach us about the world this movie walks around in first. Give us the City in all its complexity and quirkiness, lay out the vast problem that the Jabberwocky variously represents to the citizens and the merchants and the King, and start us thinking about what they're going to do to solve it.
After laying down all that groundwork, then you introduce us to Dennis. At that point, it's safe for him to make his appearance because we won't be expecting quite so much from the guy.
Go to it. And, uh, be sure to let me know how Gilliam reacts to your tape.
Features scene selection; original trailer; English, French and Spanish subtitles; Dolby 5.1 and 2.0 digital surround; 1.85 anamorphic and 1.33 full-screen presentations
Picture is somewhat shabby, but that's just the cinematography. Most of this film is sorely underlit and drab; in the commentary track, Gilliam often mentions that a scene was shot just as or just after they were losing the light. Well, duh. I think they were saving all the lighting for the scene in which they had to back-light a naked princess wearing a tentlike gauzy dress. If you're a hetero man or a lesbian, it isn't an awfully bad trade.
Sound is sometimes a bit muddy again, probably more the fault of the film than the DVD. The commentary track, though, is a little under-miked. It's perfectly clear in your living room, but following the conversation on a plane, say, might be tricky.
Bonus Materials. The "Sketch To Screen" feature helps bring the art direction of this film to life. Drawings from Gilliam's pre-production sketchbook are presented with their related scenes so that you can finally see that the cult leader's smock features a depiction of souls being devoured in the mouth of Hell in all its fury, and not just some sort of hippie tie-die design.
Commentary Track. When a commentary track consists of two friends (in this case, Gilliam and Michael Palin) getting together to discuss the film, you're already halfway there. When the film was made on a shoestring budget, that's good for another 25%; you can anticipate lots of stories about raiding other productions' dumpsters for sets and props, for instance. Overall it's not an A+ effort (there are times when the boys have simply run out of things to say) but it's definitely worth a second viewing all the way through.
Copyright ©2001 Andy Ihnatko. May not be redistributed without permission. Studio PR types wishing to send Andy tapes, promotional clothing, or high-end video gear in hopes of securing a positive review are advised that such efforts are futile, but they're free to try to determine how high Andy's price actually is. Mail any and all pelft to Box 279, Norwood, MA 02062. He already has a subwoofer for his home-theater but could probably use a good pair of casual slacks.