film fatales #54: shirkers (sandi tan, 2018)
opening day #40

the fabulous baron munchausen (karel zeman, 1962)

This film is known by various titles ... the most common English-language alternative to the above substitutes "outrageous" for "fabulous". Both are appropriate for this fantastic tale, which was this week's Criterion Movie of the Week. There are several versions of the Munchausen story on film, with the most recent being Terry Gilliam's 1988 movie (which I saw at the time, but don't remember much about it). I want to say that Zeman's movie is unlike any other, but I haven't seen every movie, so I'll just say The Fabulous Baron Munchausen is unique, as fabulous as the titular head. It won me over instantly, even though this is not my usual cup of tea.

It is difficult to describe what Zeman has done here. The film is a combination of live-action and animation, but it's as far from Disney as can be imagined. The most obvious influence is Méliès, but Munchausen benefits from more advanced techniques than that early pioneer had. Zeman's approach is exacting, such that when something is jarring, you assume he made it that way, rather than that the art form failed him. The look is inspired in part by Gustave Doré (disclosure: I had to read this to learn it, not being familiar with Doré, but that's a gap in my knowledge, not a mark of obscurity). Zeman makes great use of color, partly by blending it with black and white ... when a splash of color appears against a grey background, it startles. Not being an expert on animation, I found myself amazed at how Zeman got his effects, i.e. I couldn't figure them out ... he's doing things in 1962 that mystified me.

There is no attempt to hide artifice in The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, which is really the only approach to take. And while the dialogue is frequently witty (and often as unique as what we are seeing, as when the Baron begins speaking and words are replaced by musical tones), the visuals are so captivating that even this trailer entices, despite its lack of subtitles:

 

Comments