Works of JOY: Time Bandits - 1981 Terry Gilliam

Ted Keer's picture
Submitted by Ted Keer on Tue, 2006-09-26 05:29

Terry Gilliam’s live action fantasy, Time Bandits, is currently playing on Showtime and is widely available for rent and sale. This wonderful romp tells the story of Kevin, a young English boy whose parents don’t believe where that noise in his bedroom at night is coming from. Kidnapped by a band of renegade dwarves with a map of time and space, Kevin and his abductors visit Napoleonic Europe, Robin Hood’s merry old England, Agammemnon’s Mycenae and the sinking Titanic, as well as the Time of Legend and the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, where Evil himself resides. This movie is not only a terrific adventure story for children, it is a wicked satire that will please adults, and is an object lesson in false metaphysics - the movie ends with Kevin’s parents eyeing the burnt cinders of a pot-roast left to char in the microwave – pure evil as a material substance - an evil which Kevin's parents find a fatal temptation nonetheless. I could watch this movie on a weekly basis, the eye-gags and verbal play are so good. Katherine Helmond’s Mrs. Ogre alone is worth the price of the movie. The ending credits play to a George Harrison tune that embodies pure joy. Above right is Mrs. Ogre, contemplating cooking our hero & his gang of dwarves. Below, left, we see John Cleese's Robin Hood stealing with less than benevolent motives. Bottom, right we see Ultimate Evil plotting the destruction of our heroes - or at least their transmutation into vermin.

Ted Keer, 26 September 2006, NYC

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Heresy Exposed!

Ted Keer's picture

I confess, Joe is correct to question my statement. It is NOT orthodox Objectivism. But I am not an orthodox objectivist. (See my profile.) First, my stance might be criticized as hedonism, but it is not hedonism, since hedonism is the pursuit of pleasure, which is a sensation, not joy, which is an evaluation. I am an eudaimonist, not a hedonist. Second, Rand sometimes seems to be putting forth only a presrciptive aesthetic, telling us what we should enjoy, but other times (when she speaks of tastes) seems to be putting forth a descriptive aesthetics, telling us how we can enjoy.

I believe that we should have both aesthetic ideals to guide what we should prefer as audiences and portray as artists as well as aesthetic skills to enjoy what we can, given that we are often subject to sub-ideal situations. Taking pleasure from a poison is different from taking joy from mediocrity. I take great effort, through my DVR, my book and music libraries, etc., to maximize the quality of the art and entertainment I consume. But I don't stick my fingers in my ears and hum when I have to listen to mediocre music, close my eyes rather than watch a mediocre movie, or pass up hamburger when filet mignon is not available. I don't refuse to watch movies that only get 4 out of 5 stars. The next time you're stuck in a traffic jam, would you rather enjoy the scenery or sit cursing the commute?

Ted Keer, 27 September, 2006, NYC

P.S. Neither am I claiming that all joys are good, some are perverse, such as Schadenfreude and Masochism. This can be addressed at length in another forum.

"One mistake a lot of

JoeM's picture

"One mistake a lot of Objectivists make in evaluating an artwork (or piece of popular entertainment) is asking "Is this a good piece of art?" When what they should be asking is "What enjoyment can I get from this piece of art?"'

Hedonism, anyone?

Taste and movies...

Casey's picture

Having been a film reviewer and journalist for the last 12 years I find that many critics, amateur or otherwise, listen to movies instead of watching them. They listen to the script and say, is this saying what I agree with? The value in certain films is the words -- Cyrano de Bergerac with Jose Ferrer is not particularly well-mounted visually -- who cares? The value in certain directors is visual, not verbal -- Terry Gilliam is one of these directors, who says things visually, displays jokes cinematically, creates a world with its own rules that can only be perceived by the eyes. (Ridley Scott is both.) I love Munchhausen on this basis -- I dislike what it says, which is basically a huge mind/body dichotomy, but the explosion of visual invention and visual humor is jaw-dropping and beautiful. "Brothers Grimm" was a mess, like watching a blender set to frappe for an hour and a half. Barely any cohesive arc, just strained and frenetic slapstick gags with no accumulating momentum toward any discernable end. "Fisher King" was brilliant and not at all a ride I wanted to take, but one which blew me away all the same, because it wedded Gilliam's fantastic brain with the fevered phantasms of a psychologically damaged but noble mind trying to invent its way out of a seemingly insoluable real world dilemma. I hated "Moulin Rouge" until I could catch the bead under the maelstrom of lush visuals and then was carried along. "Time Bandits" is endlessly inventive in a way that defies logic but in a consistent enough way to get across the whimsey of childhood imagination, which is its whole and only point, much like Munchausen. Not a lot there thematically, but it is merely a launching point for Gilliam's unbridled visual expression and invention. Gilliam pokes great fun at his own themes in these films -- he knows his defiance of logic and causality is mischievous and not deadly serious. If he was more sinister and serious about making that point it would be disturbing and infuriating, but since it is so playful and unabashedly childlike in "Time Bandits" and "Munchausen" it plays as more nostalgiac (for childhood) and whimsical than as any claim to a serious statement about metaphysics, so they are deliberately harmless and amusing diversions. Is that the greatest thing a director can do, the most important thing one can use celluloid to say? No. Must everything be? No, and I think that is the very theme of those two movies. Gilliam is a visual genius, nonetheless, and can be appreciated for that virtue, especially since there is no serious malevolent intent to the premise other than setting up a point of departure for his unbridled imagination. One side of his brain grew up, the other did not, but it's fascinating to watch the explosion of pure human magic that results regardless of how unmoored it is to reality. I would not want to dwell in that mind myself, but it's a highwire act to watch. "12 Monkeys" on the other hand was serious, and so the seriously twisted metaphysics and the bleak hamfisted cynicism that formed the basis for its flights of fancy added a leaden and depressing seriousness that did not serve as an appropriate basis for that kind of absurdism. To justify absurdism with some pseudo-serious environtmental Jeremiad kills the suspension of disbelief for this particular seat-warmer. But that's my opinion.

Strictly Ballroom

ethan_dawe's picture

This movie is all aout individuality. It's worth watching all the way through. Try again!

Not that there's anything wrong with that...

Ted Keer's picture

One mistake a lot of Objectivists make in evaluating an artwork (or piece of popular entertainment) is asking "Is this a good piece of art?" When what they should be asking is "What enjoyment can I get from this piece of art?"

Matters of taste will often determine the answer to this question. I myself love 12 Monkeys and Brazil, both of which are dark and tragic, with doomed heroes, but also ingenious, stylized and highly witty. And I found Munchausen awful, while Time Bandits played off my love of Monty Python, Mythology & all things British. I found Brothers Grimm absolutely horrendous, and couldn't watch for 60 seconds without picking fault - in part due to my familiarity with the real Jacob Grimm and his place in historical linguistics. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with being able to enjoy Brothers Grimm. If you can do so, then you're luckier than I.


Twelve Monkeys and The Brothers Grimm

Luke Setzer's picture

I liked Twelve Monkeys and The Brothers Grimm but have not seen the other Gilliam films you mentioned.  As for Moulin Rouge, that was just freaking strange.  I only watched it on DVD because my wife wanted to see it.  As with American Beauty, she liked it much more than I did.

Thanks for the insights, Chris.

Watchable Gilliam

Chris Cathcart's picture

There are three generally accessible and watchable Gilliam movies I can think of:

Fisher King (perhaps Jeff Bridges' best role outside of the Dude and his role in Fearless?)
12 Monkeys (yum yum Madeleine Stowe)


Chris Cathcart's picture

It's a cult film. You have to be into Gilliam's eccentricities to like this, and it goes uphill or downhill, depending on your taste for Gilliam's eccentricities, with Adventures of Baron Munchausen. If you think Time Bandits is near-unwatchable all the way through, Munchausen is fully-unwatchable after 15 minutes. It's one of a handful of movies I gave up on halfway through. Spaz Luhrmann is another director with that effect; I gave up on Strictly Ballroom partway through, and Moulin Rouge was almost headed right that way for the first 10 minutes before settling into something relative sane if visually hyperactive.

Those are the only two movies I can remember by name giving up on. One or two awful bootleg-quality releases of foreign films that Netflix felt appropriate to carry (one of them being Raise the Red Lantern) are the only others I can think of right off.

I have never understood ...

Luke Setzer's picture

... the "cult" popularity of this film.  Yes, it has some fine actors and comedians and an intriguing plot concept.  But I have never considered it funny enough to qualify as good comedy, nor dramatic enough to qualify as good drama, nor fantastic enough to qualify as good fantasy.  Basically, I assess it as a long, pointless string of meaningless and barely related events leading to an anticlimax.  Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure showed a better integration than did this mess.

I remember seeing this at the age of 14 or 15 in the cinema with my parents after twisting their arms to take me.  I considered the idea an embarassment afterwards.  Watching it again as an adult after my exposure to Objectivism did not improve my assessment of it.

Perhaps fans can elucidate the virtues of this movie.

My favorite quote:

Casey's picture

Evil: God isn't interested in technology. He cares nothing for the microchip or the silicon revolution. Look how he spends his time, forty-three species of parrots! Nipples for men!

His Henchman: Slugs.

Evil: Slugs! HE created slugs! They can't hear. They can't speak. They can't operate machinery. Are we not in the hands of a lunatic?

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