Tuesday, June 14, 2016
A Crisis in Confidence: The Economic Underpinnings of Time Bandits (1981)
"In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose…”
-President Jimmy Carter, July 15, 1979.
“God isn’t interested in technology.”
-Evil Genius (David Warner), Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981)
One of my favorite genre movies from childhood is Time Bandits (1981), which I saw with my father, Ken Muir, at the Royal Theater in Bloomfield, New Jersey when I was just eleven years old.
The Terry Gilliam film is a rip-roaring, time-hopping comedy fantasy, and a story dramatized from a child’s perspective. The movie is droll, naughty, and like no other time travel film in sci-fi history.
Well, for a film that so meticulously diagrams a hierarchy or order to the universe, Time Bandits is, actually relentlessly chaotic. In short, it's about destroying or overturning systems of order, not merely mapping them.
But the irreverent Time Bandits is more than that description suggests, as well.
Above, I quoted President Carter’s famous “malaise” speech of 1979, and in many ways, Time Bandits absolutely feels apiece with that historical context.
Gilliam’s film concerns a child of great imagination and dreams -- Kevin (Craig Warnock) -- who lives with parents that are enthralled with -- nay enslaved to -- “things,” like new appliances.
Where Kevin’s bedroom is filled with objects that spark his unbound imagination, like toys and books, his “zombie” parents simply tune out before the TV set watching brain-cell destroying programming such as “Your Money or Your Life.”
Kevin’s parents you see, must possess the latest tech toys so as to keep up with some external yardstick of success. That's the only way they can feel okay about themselves.
Like President Carter suggested, however, this obsession with things doesn’t seem to make them happy, or even fully alive.
If you’ve seen the film, you’ll remember well what comes next.
Kevin takes a rollicking trip through the space-time continuum with a group of renegade dwarves.
Their physical dimensions conveniently permit the audience to “see” the world at approximately eye level with Kevin, and therefore to experience the adventure not as a jaded, consumption-concerned adult, but as an imaginative child who questions the way things are.
To Kevin, life is wondrous, baffling, occasionally terrifying…but never dull. He is all about "tuning in," not tuning out, like his parents do.
Importantly, the film’s (anti)-heroic dwarfs, much like Kevin in his particular domestic situation, are also rebelling against a parental figure or societal structure: The Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson), or God, and his imperfect realm of Existence; the universe itself.
In some ways, the film even seems to suggest, rather boldly, that Authority is always the same, regardless of specific ideology.
God and Evil (David Warner), are, in a way, one-in-the-same. They are both part of the same (corrupt?) system. Why? They both exist within the boundaries of a corrupt, unequal economic system.
Kevin travels with the bandits, and the film finally involves his reckoning, perhaps, that a rebellious, imaginative and independent mind-set is a quality that one should never surrender, or allow to be chipped away at; one appliance, one game show, one paycheck at a time.
“Dead? No Excuse for laying off work…”
Young, middle class Kevin (Warnock) is surprised when adventure comes to his humdrum middle-class life.
A group of renegade dwarfs in defiance of the Supreme Being (Richardson), have stolen a map to all the “time holes” in creation. The time bandits travel from time period to time period not to learn or grow, but to loot and pillage, partly out of feelings of resentment towards their Maker, who has not given them proper credit for their contributions to Existence.
Kevin travels with the Time Bandits and is drawn into a remarkable adventure. He visits the deck of the Titanic at sea, France of Napoleon (Ian Holm), the Sherwood Forest of Robin Hood (John Cleese), and meets King Agememnon (Sean Connery) of Ancient Greece.
Unfortunately, Evil (Warner) also desires to possess the Map of Creation, so he can use the time holes for his own, malicious purposes. Kevin and the Time Bandits must there confront the madman in His Fortress of Ultimate Evil…
“The fabric of the universe is far from perfect.”
The crux of Time Bandits seems to be mankind’s uneasy relationship with material things, and therefore, by implicit logic, wealth.
It’s a story, in some manner, obsessed with economics. Economics, after all, is defined as the study concerned “with the production, consumption, and transfer of material prosperity.”
Kevin’s parents are hyper-focused on the things they can own in the technological 20th century. They covet things, like a two-speed hedge cutter, or a brand new toaster.
Ultimately, those things, symbolized by the toaster, literally kill them.
From the beginning, they are held rapt by the idea of owning new things; things that their neighbors (The Morrisons) do not.
On TV, an announcer talks about “Moderna Designs and the latest in Kitchen Luxury: The Moderna Wonder Major All Automatic Convenience Center-ette” which “gives you all the time in the world to do the things you really want to do.”
What do they want to do? Watch more TV…
The Bandits themselves seek to rob and steal from all of Creation. Why? They are God’s workers, and he has not treated them well, or fairly. The bandits work long, unfulfilling hours, and get no credit for what they create.
To the Supreme Being goes all the glory.
So whether the bandits actually loot time and space to be rich, or to thumb their noses at God and his unequal realm is ultimately immaterial. Their status as unhappy workers is the thing which motivates their rebellion.
At the film’s conclusion, their transgression is also punished, on explicitly economic terms. The Supreme Being threatens them with “a 19% cut in salary…backdated to the beginning of time.”
The Establishment always wins, right?
This idea of inequality plays out in the film in a wicked visual fashion too. Behind reality itself is the realm of Evil (and by extension, Good). This realm is hidden behind an "invisible barrier," or, to coin a term, a "glass ceiling." In other words, it is an unseen barrier that prevents those outside the Establishment from entering the Establishment. You don't know it's there, but it's omnipresent.
"So that's what an invisible barrier looks like," one character quips.
Robin Hood too is contextualized, amusingly, in Time Bandits as a figure associated with economics. Traditionally, we note that this hero steals from the rich and gives to the poor. The film describes his action differently.
Robin Hood is a man who believes “there is still so much wealth to re-distribute.”
And the Evil Genius, of course, is obsessed with material things like lasers and tanks. He champions technology, specifically, and believes that his understanding of it will make him a master of the universe.
He understands, for example “digital watches,” and claims to have growing knowledge of “video-cassette recorders and car telephones.”
Ultimately, and prophetically, he wants to understand computers. “when I have an understanding of computers,” he dreams, “I shall be the Supreme Being.”
In short, the control of the production of material things that people desire transform a captain of industry into…God. At least in the Evil Genius’s eyes.
Each one of these characters sees ownership of things, control of things, as the reason to exist. They are all flawed characters in some ways, and they echo the line of dialogue that the fabric of the universe is far from perfect.
Kevin is an exception, of course.
He is loyal and loving, imaginative and curious. He doesn’t see life as an opportunity to accumulate wealth, or to possess things. Kevin's bedroom exemplifies the fact that he lives in an economy of ideas.
Toy soldiers, books, posters and other things are all around him there. They are not products, however, for consumption, in the strictest sense. They are avatars, instead, for imagination itself. They help Kevin seek not things, but knowledge.
Most of all, Kevin seeks a place of belonging, and an opportunity to encounter someone who really loves him. When Agemenon, a father figure, asks Kevin “Who sent you? The Gods?” Kevin may be asking himself he same question.
Finally, someone who seems to love life and experience and adventure, and is interested in the things Kevin is. Most importantly, as Kevin notes, money is “not important” to Agememnon.
At the end of the film, when technology destroys Kevin’s parents, Agememon re-appears, but as a modern fireman.
This development seems to suggest that even in our technological epoch, we can still find kindred spirits who don’t see wealth as being more important than “hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God.”
What’s so daring and indeed anarchic about Time Bandits is the idea that revolution and rebellion are good things.
The notion seems to be that the existing order -- epitomized by the TV show title “Your Money or Your Life” -- isn’t worth fighting for or improving. Instead, it actually needs to be blown up. Kevin becomes an orphan when his parents die, and yet the movie has a happy ending, doesn’t it?
Kevin leaves behind his parents and their obsession with things for a relationship about life, not consumption, with that firemen as father-figre.
Personally speaking, this idea is not appealing to me. Contrarily, I believe that incremental change, over time, can improve human life significantly. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will a 21st century utopia.
So I don’t believe you need to destroy a village in order to save it. But I absolutely credit with Time Bandits of courageous ambition and follow-through. It doesn't chicken out.
Consider, Kevin has seen that the “fabric of the universe” is not perfect.
Not only is the Supreme Being fallible/duplicitous (in regards to ownership of the map), but egotistical.
The Evil Genius even calls him a lunatic.
But more to the point, the Supreme Being and Evil are two sides of the same coin, just as ‘ownership’ of things has two faces: the face of those who have things, and those who want things. There are those who want to keep what they have (and make policy to keep it), and those who want to take what others own, and re-distribute it.
Kevin learns in his travels to be wary of those on both sides of the equation; that Evil itself dwells in the wealth that is to be protected, or re-distributed. Specifically, a piece of ‘evil’ finds a home in his parents’ toaster.
The way to succeed and find happiness in life, says Time Bandits, is to rebel against and destroy the established order. Kevin’s parents are destroyed (truthfully, they were already dead...) and the Time Bandits have rebelled against God himself.
In real life, I hope we don’t destroy all that we have constructed because we believe that Good and Evil are two sides of the same corrupt Establishment, but I credit Time Bandits, as I credit President Carter, with forecasting the dangers of a system wherein “human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.”
That’s no place to raise Kevin, or any other child.
Time Bandits is fast and furious, fantastic and funny, but most importantly it reminds us that life is a one-of-a-kind experience and a miraculous opportunity not just to “own” things, but to see sights of unusual beauty, mystery, and even terror.
It's a journey that should be shared with those you love, and who love you, not a race spent keeping up with the Jones, or Morrisons, as the case may be.