second chances:
c.a. funderburg

Despite their sterling reputations, some films and filmmakers just don’t do it for us here at The Pink Smoke. This series, Second Chances, explores our attempts to grasp greatness where we’ve previously failed to find it; to actively make an effort to appreciate esteemed artworks for which we currently possess an antipathy.

We’ll give cult favorites like Escape From New York another shot and dig deep into the filmographies of beloved auteurs whose appeal eludes us (like Douglas Sirk or Nicholas Ray.) With a little luck, maybe we’ll even come out at the other end of the process as newly-minted fans…

{the SECOND CHANCES index}


The movies we like or dislike are often defined by factors unrelated to the film itself. This is a fact of any art, but one that most folks (especially critics) are loathe to admit. Sure, you’ll get a sentimentality-bathed nostalgia piece every now and again; in this now, even more again and again with sentimentality and nostalgia being the operative mode of film love. But how often do you read a critic admitting their distaste for a film because they saw it at a crummy time in their life or because it was a favorite of an ex for whom they harbor resentment?

Some variation of “I don’t like Rules of the Game because it was forced on me at the wrong moment in film school” or “some ‘too cool for school’ kids made me feel self-conscious about my lack of knowledge of Jamaa Fanaka so I actively cringe upon hearing his name” are reviews that could be written over and over throughout an endless variety demographics and backgrounds in our shared pop cultural history, like some brain-dead Joseph Campbell bullshit.

But you never read those reviews because nobody writes them.

And since they don’t, here I am trying to analyze why I don’t like Time Bandits and coming to realize it’s caught up in some teen angst about identity and maturity and setting myself in with (or in opposition to) cultures to which I felt I either didn’t belong or belonged too much. If that’s confusing, let me simplify: when I saw it as a kid, part of the reason I disliked Time Bandits was because (subconsciously) liking it made me one kind of person when I wanted to be another kind of person. More than that: liking it confirmed that I was the kind of person I feared I was.

Which was a huge Monty Python and Sci-fi/Fantasy loving nerd; the species Dorklus Malorkus, as they say in Latin. If you went ahead and said the next line from that quote in your head, you too are of the same breed and may be able to understand where I was coming from. Does this story sound familiar? By 5th grade, I loved Monty Python. By 7th grade, I had seen almost every project associated with the Pythons from A Fish Called Wanda to Erik the Viking. By 9th grade, I could (and did) quote Holy Grail from end to end, a useful way to identify me as a big honking loser.

Somewhere in that time, closer to the end than the beginning, I saw Time Bandits because of its associations with Pythons John Cleese, Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam. But I saw it at a moment when I was inclined to reject developing my identify further in the direction of dorky loser. I was still consuming the kind of dorky shit I always had, but with a growing resistance to loving it. I still tracked down Jabberwocky and The Secret Policeman's Ball, but I was critical and quick to dismiss. I didn’t have room in my heart for something as noisy and messy and weird as Time Bandits. Looking back, I can also see that having grown up with Labyrinth, The Never-Ending Story, Return to Oz, The Princess Bride and Dark Crystal I had assumed that kind of sci-fi/fantasy children’s entertainment would be eternal. In the 80’s, there was more of that stuff than adolescent me needed and its omnipresence in my life (my dad and my sister also being huge sci-fi/fantasy dorks) made it oppressive.

I wanted to be a different kind of kid. I lived in a world I wanted to escape. Oh, irony.


You’re probably saying to yourself, “well, you realized how childish and silly your reasons for disliking it were, of course you’re ready to give Time Bandits another chance” but none of what I just laid out occurred to me until after I started writing this piece. I gave it another shot for entirely unrelated reasons. Reasons derived from my root-n-tootin' sharp-shootin' Pink Smoke compatriot John Cribbs.

At this point, there are very few things my Pink Smoke co-founder John Cribbs and I disagree on. His (tempered) enthusiasm for Terry Gilliam is probably the biggest stumbling block, particularly his love for Time Bandits. It’s one of the few movies left where I can tell he thinks I’m an idiot for not liking it. We generally have a mutual respect for our differences in taste, differences which by now we’re both very attuned to and sympathetic towards. This is not the case with Time Bandits. Pure disgust emanates from Cribbs in the direction of my opinion. Might as well give it another shot for that reason alone.

But just to throw an irony your way: Time Bandits is the kind of film I want my son to like. I want my kid to be the kind of kid who likes Time Bandits. Total reversal! I want my kid to be exactly the kind of kid that I myself did not want to be! So when Film Forum was screening the Janus print of the movie a short while ago as part of their excellent Film Forum Jr. weekend matinee series, I packed up my entire goddamned family (son, dad, mom, sister (in the U.S. visiting from Korea)) and made them all go see a movie that I myself hadn’t enjoyed.

It’s called “good parenting,” but you wouldn’t know anything about that.

terry gilliam, 1981.

Here’s something: when I watched the film as a kid, I’m not sure I made it all the way through. I had zero memories of the second half of the movie: the land of fantasy, the boat on the giant’s head, the “toys come to life” battle with the evil wizard, the cages dangling over a void, “don’t touch it, it’s evil!” But I remembered the first half perfectly, I remembered every single scene and multiple details in each part right up through the sequence with Sean Connery in ancient Greece. I think there’s a very good chance I turned the VHS off halfway through and gave up on it.

And I’ll say this to start: if I turned it off at that moment when the time-traveling dwarves reappeared in the story, I can definitely understand why I turned it off at that moment. They’re a noisy and irritating gaggle and that sequence (when they’re finally shuttled off-screen for a meaningful stretch) is the best sequence in the film. With a few moments away from them, the film finally finds its footing. Watching Time Bandits this time, when the dwarves reappeared and kidnapped our young hero during a magic trick. I definitely felt a twinge of “oh fuck, we’re going back to these jabronis already?” That feeling probably would’ve been enough for me to shut off my VCR back in my youth.

It also would’ve been a mistake: this is a film that gets better and better as it goes along; the increasingly weird second half being much more my speed than the insistently cacophonous and goofy first half. The relative quiet and beauty of the Babylon sequence functions as a recalibration of the film’s tone and from there on out, it makes for a much more delightful and engaging mess - it’s pretty close to being a perfect mess (the kind of perfection I’d say Gilliam has striven for throughout his career.)

For those who aren’t up on the film, here’s the basics: a bunch of time-traveling little people have stolen a magic map from their God-like overlord with the intentions of popping up throughout “time holes” in history in order to loot and pillage their way to happiness. A couple nights in a row, they bumble their way into the bedroom of a little boy who gets whisked away from his tedious, appliance-centric home-life on an adventure that pushes the bounds of reality.

That’s an A+ concept for a movie.

The problem with the film is the problem with all of Terry Gilliam’s movies: he’s not a good storyteller. His narratives are always super fucking limp, even in his best work, and the early going of this one is a sputtering, stop-start of a mess, as badly stumbling of a tale as he ever told. The first stint of time-traveling sends the group into a sequence that presumes a knowledge of Napoleon and the French Revolutionary Wars unlikely to be possessed by a 10 year-old as well an unbridled enthusiasm for “Napoleon was short!” jokes unlikely to be possessed by a human of any age. I saw it in a theater full of kids and they were all squirming in their seats, my son as much as any.

The Napoleon sequence indulges, really just revels in, Gilliam’s enthusiasm for sly low-brow comedy, ramshackle antiquated theater shows, cinematographic appreciation of production design that forgets about the story, awkward staging of action, and cacophony. I enjoy Ian Holm as a bratty Napoleon (his performance seems to really have influenced Terry Camilleri’s take in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, a film unquestionably indebted to Time Bandits) but the whole thing made me feel like “Jesus Christ, get me out of here.” The titular diminutive history-hopping thieves talk unintelligible nonsense over each other without pause - it’s supposed to be amusingly rowdy, but it’s just so hard to take. It reminded me of Joe Bob Briggs watching Goonies for the first time as an adult and saying he just wanted to put a bucket on their heads and bang the side with a wooden spoon.

But like most Gilliam movies it beats you down - or some kind of biorhythmic synchronization happens with you and the movie. It would be impossible to say that the second half of the film is somehow objectively less chaotic than the first half but maybe the displays of imagination becoming increasingly unbridled and bizarre are all it takes for your brain to disregard all the same issues of mess and noise and narrative limpness that are still there.

And the second half of the film is a total wonder. Decades of special effects and fantasy innovation haven’t dimmed the light of Time Bandits' most imaginative passages. Even with all of Hollywood trying dabbling in the genre for years and years, there’s still nothing out there like the sequences where Evil appears under the guise Jim Broadbent as a game-show host to tempt the bandits over a maze in a black void with the promise of a top-of-the-line microwave. Even the part with a privateer on the head of a giant feels more like Gulliver’s Travels or Gargantua & Pantagruel than it does the predictable focus-grouped-for-kiddies “imagination” of the new Alice in Wonderland films.

By the time the Sean Connery wandered across screen as a fireman in the unsettling “dream of a dream” epilogue, every kid in the theater was rapt. It was a squirm-free affair at that point. I’d say by the time Connery defeated the minotaur in the desert with a spear through the ribs, there was no question that the kids in the theater were hooked. When the credits rolled, my 7 year-old son asked me if time-traveling maps were real and then, well, why not? I think he’s on the right track. With any luck, by the time he’s in 9th grade, he’ll be quoting Holy Grail from end to end. And he won’t be the fool I was, thinking loving Time Bandits is a bad thing.

john cribbs argues on its behalf

Cribbs: When it comes to Terry Gilliam, I don't exactly rush to his defense. I completely understand that people can be turned off by his over-reliance on visual cleverness that sometimes leaves a hollow shell where the heart of the movie should be (lookin' at you, Baron Munchausen). He's a director of enormous scope and vision, but when the production design overwhelms the narrative it's hard not to think of him as Patsy in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, knocking two coconut halves together to create the sound of a non-existent horse.

That said, I find it impossible not to enjoy Time Bandits. There are few movies I'd consider an all-out "adventure" but this is one of them: you've got time travel, sorcery, ogres, giants, minotaurs, machine guns, lasers, accents, deserts, oceans, labyrinths, other dimensions, a little steampunk thrown in there, knights, cowboys, Napoleon, Robin Hood, God, even a daring prison break - what more could you want? Besides the kind of dazzling eye candy we take for granted coming from Gilliam, it maintains a sense of wonder that appeals to the dormant naïf in us all while harboring adult themes to keep more cynical audiences happy.

Thanks to co-writer Michael Palin, there's a lot of great Python-esque humor, performed by one of the greatest casts ever assembled under a single movie: Palin, Shelley Duvall, Ian Holm, John Cleese, Katherine Helmond, Peter Vaughan, Jim Broadbent, Ralph Richardson, David Warner in one of his greatest roles as Evil and even Sean friggin' Connery! The main cast of bandits is equally great, especially David Rappaport and Jack Purvis. I even like the final credits song by George Harrison, whose HandMade Films (Life of Brian, Mona Lisa, Withnail and I) financed the picture. Even after multiple viewings over the years (made possible by a clear agenda of anti-nostalgia and lack of sentimentality), each scene still feels fresh, funny and unexpected. Gilliam could have made nothing but Tidelands for the rest of his career and he'd still always be the guy who made Time Bandits.

Cribbs' daughter, Odile: I LOVED it! [She was then disappointed to be informed no sequel was made.]

or what my family thought of it

Mom: “Oh… geez I don’t know. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been. I was expecting the adorable kind of little people.”

Dad: “The sixth big mess I saw that month.” [I think he’s referring only to movies, but he might’ve had some kitchen problems or been in a gas station bathroom. Or maybe he’s saying some really fucked up shit about me and my mom.]

Sister: “I’d have to look at a synopsis. I remember literally nothing about that movie except for the fact that I disliked it.”

Son: “I liked it. The wizard dungeon was made out of Legos. I think he was still in a dream at the end so his parents probably didn’t die.”

~ MARCH 28, 2017 ~