No Excuse


In the first film I directed, I was lucky to have a Distinguished Thespian, from whom I learned crucial stuff (“Never ask for effects, because if you do, that’s all you’ll get”). And I heard some good stories, though alas I missed a lot of them while setting up shots. I would walk in to fetch our star and catch him in the middle of a sentence like “The crookedest film I was ever in was A TOWN CALLED BASTARD.” One time I caught the line, “Of course the best films to be in, for drugs, were the Disney films.” Some surprised looks. “Because you got these cool Californian guys coming over…”

But no chemical intoxicant can really excuse this — a broken-down toy robot with the voice of Slim Pickens. I like Slim Pickens, but make him play a cute robot with sympathetic cartoon eyes and you really are thumbing my vomit button very hard indeed. Stuff like this makes you actually respect how restrained George Lucas was — his cute robot was essentially a fat bullet with legs. No anthropomorphism at all, and no voice. The audience does the humanizing.

If rampant hallucinogen abuse can’t excuse the film’s robots (Roddy McDowell voices the other one, FFS), it may at least explain the deeply bananas ending, probably the most batshit crazy ending to a kids film ever — even more disorienting than TIME BANDITS. As the heroes plunge into the titular singularity, TV director Gary Nelson spins his cast in a tumbrel, replays their dialogue at them through an echo chamber, dilates them with an optical printer and otherwise confuses the young audience, Maximilian Schell floats by in dreadlocks as if attempting a very special James Bond title sequence, seemingly mates with his hulking Gort-substitute robot henchman, then finds himself INSIDE the robot looking out, then he’s on a papier-mache promontory in heavy metal Hell — the weirdness is so extreme it even wakes composer John Barry from his movie-long slumber to offer up some swooning arpeggios, as he does.


And then it’s Heaven, which is of course far more skeletally imagined, and then there’s more normal outer space and the cast look very confused and then the movie kind of stops.

Obviously they were thinking of 2001, and obviously they weren’t able to handle the visual abstraction and so needed to show some kind of solid imagery. And their ideas were thoroughly confused. I think Professor Hawking would refute their depiction of an event horizon.


It couldn’t happen now, and it shouldn’t have happened then. But, after a movie that just recycles 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA in space with a sticky STAR WARS paste slathered over everything, an ending so batshit crazy has to be welcomed. They tried something, finally.


12 Responses to “No Excuse”

  1. Like or loathe 1941, you got to give Spielberg credit for putting Pickens, Mifune and Lee in a scene together. My favourite part is how Lee speaks German and Mifune speaks Japanese but they understand each other perfectly, presumably by reading the subtitles.

  2. “1941” is my all-time fave “Film Maudit.” Being pre-CGI it was shot the old-fashioned way. That means the main Hollywood boulevard set was replicated to three different levels of scale. The dance sequence is beyond superb and problems (along with the opening of Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom) that Spielberg’s lost calling is a director of musicals.

    I wish he’d give up the “Prestige Problem Picture” racket and bring Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along to the screen.

  3. Time Bandits has a wonderful ending- what a brave intelligent child needs more than anything else is for his horrible parents to be destroyed! I’m surprised there weren’t questions in the House of Commons.

  4. And Gilliam had to threaten to burn the negative to get away with it. Still, he’d already softened it a little — when they first mixed it, they had a cold wind blowing…

    I’d certainly like to see a Spielberg musical. His films are rather rigorously choreographed already.

  5. “Black Hole” would have been a lot better if it WAS a “20,000 Leagues” remake. The early drafts must be fascinating: They ended up with a film featuring two comically human robots, one of whom has ESP, and the first big plot point is how suspicious it is that presumed robots are holding a funeral. And in the end, the zombies who supposedly have that much humanity left are completely on autopilot when the ship hits the fan. Finally, what the hell is a sleazy reporter doing here? Some editor couldn’t get the nerve to just fire him?

    They have a great-looking gothic spaceship and a handful of amazing visuals (that funeral, and the moment the seemingly dead wreck lights up). Also an obligatory “Star Wars” style march randomly underscoring a shootout in the zombie-making room.

    I see no reason to remake “Black Hole”, but it might be fun if Roger Corman were giving permission to build a B around the effects footage.

  6. Paul WS Anderson’s Event Horizon is an even dumber, more Gothic remake, with an idiot’s idea of Solaris grafted on.

  7. I get the Time Bandits ending now, and I see what it’s doing, but I have to say as a child, I hated that ending. Didn’t just disturb me, It upset me and made me never want to watch the film again (how childish)
    And it wasn’t just me- on more than one occasion since, I’ve mentioned the film to people my age, and they go “Oh I remember, didn’t it have *that* ending?” and their faces go all dark and haunted.
    It was bold, and I love Gilliam, but I still kind of wish he hadn’t done it. Or at least followed it up.

    Then again I remember when I was really getting into films, aged about 12, saw Withnail and I, and I knew it was from the same company as TB. I remember thinking “Ah so that’s Handmade’s style: grim brown British films with funny wild characters and miserable downbeat endings” If only they’d made more like them

    Seeing Zero Theorem tomorrow. It’s had a mixed reaction, but most people I trust recommend it, And even those that don’t say it’s better than Grimm and poor old Parnassus

  8. By that definition, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is the ultimate Handmade film, though the setting is Irish, not British. Beyond bleak, very brown, and the ending, though a kind of grace note after all that despair, rips your heart out.

    Still to catch Zero Theorem. Feel bad about missing it at the multiplex. But I feel he owes me at least one after basically lying to me about Grimm (clearly butchered by Weinstein) and Parnassus (clearly less of it had been shot before Ledger’s death than they claimed).

  9. Well I still think Time Bandits has a happy ending
    There’s a Charles Addams cartoon depicting a cinema audience weeping helplessly at what they see except for one sinister little man who’s laughing like a drain (why “laughing like a drain” anyway?). He’s obviously one of my ancestors.
    I quite enjoyed Zero Theorem, but it was a five-finger exercise- Gilliam practising on a low budget and not really pushing himself.

  10. I heard the visual gags are good?

    I presume “laughing like a drain” refers to the gurgling noise water makes going down the drain. Does that spoil the surrealism of it? The poet Gavin Ewart wrote that the British fund of saying like that was one reason we don’t need surrealism.

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