Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls: THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS

Reader, I must confess that I’m as likely to find a Terry Gilliam film as baffling as I do dazzling. Don’t get me wrong, I like the chap and adore some of his movies, but I’ve never really felt an emotional connection to any of his work. Even Time Bandits, my favorite Gilliam movie – not counting Twelve Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and The Fisher King, films I still haven’t seen – has its share of moments where I just stare at the screen with my forehead wrinkling asking myself “what’s all this then?” And yet, I’m drawn to each new Gilliam movie, not just for the imagery that’s delightfully inventive and genuinely surprising, a consistent attribute dating back to his days of Monty Python. I’m drawn to his work for the sense that he’s spinning a delirious story and loving every minute of it, whether or not we can keep up. I think it is because of this possible handicap that I enjoyed The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus as much as I did, not just because it’s one of Gilliam’s most accessible works, but because it just might be his most personal.

Doctor Parnassus, played by the great Christopher Plummer, is a sort of wizard as storyteller, an immortal who derives his power not just from his deal with the Devil (Tom Waits, of course), but from the sheer power of the imagination. There’s an early scene that finds Parnassus and the Devil discussing the nature of existence. It’s a tensely playful conversation until Parnassus experiences a revelation of great import. As long as someone somewhere is telling a story, he decides, the universe will go on existing. I feel that Gilliam believes that, right down to the core of his artistic soul, for his films not only feed the imagination, but in their strange journeys and bizarre tangents, in their grimy grounded connection between reality and fantasy, they spin out whole worlds that are conjured from that most wonderfully strange location: the human mind.

Parnassus is on a journey to prove to the Devil that the power of the human imagination has not been dulled by modernity and so he travels in a ramshackle horse-drawn cart that unfolds into his Imaginarium, a scruffy stage upon which he and his band of performers try to enchant customers with their invitation to pretend. But of course, it is not all pretend, for Doctor Parnassus has a portal in the form of a false mirror that, when stepped through while he is in a trance, takes people right into the depths of their imaginations, forming a world just for them. These are incredible special-effects fantasias with looming, giant props, vast, gaudily colored landscapes, and unpredictably shifting circumstances. One elegantly dressed lady imagines a world with large, elegant shoes dotting the embankments of a tranquil river. Of course, the Devil will tempt those in this strange world, but if their imagination stays pure, Parnassus is closer to winning his wager.

The crew of the Imaginarium is an entertaining bunch. The coach driver is a sarcastic midget (Vern Troyer). The ringmaster (Andrew Garfield) is a bumbling runaway, hopelessly in love with the fourth member of the ensemble, Parnassus’s daughter (Lily Cole). Garfield takes what could have been one-note and makes it something a little greater and Cole, for her part, gives a soulful and earthy performance with the ability to suggest great depths in her big eyes. The four of them make a strange group, stranger still when their tattered cart opens up in front of a bar or in the parking lot of a hardware store. They’re always uninvited, almost always unwelcome, and urgency is closing in. You see, as part of Parnassus’s Faustian bargain, he had to make some dark promises for the future of his daughter if he failed to win over enough souls by the time she turned sixteen. Her sixteenth birthday is in three days.

But now I’ve gotten carried away telling you what the film’s about instead of how it’s about it. This is just the type of movie that’s so thrillingly complex in its fantastical elements that I feel I could explain it for hours and never get to the entirety of its wonder and detail. And I haven’t even gotten to the complication that truly kick-starts the plot. It’s the element of the film that has received the most press: the character played by Heath Ledger. It’s a charming performance but there are several moments when there is an uncomfortable subtext hanging about, a deep sadness that wouldn’t have been as deep if Ledger were still alive. And yet, his death forced Gilliam to greater heights of invention as there was work left unfinished when the unfortunate incident occurred. The scenes that find Ledger on the other side of the mirror had yet to be filmed and so Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell play the character in the most fantastical moments. It makes perfect sense and Gilliam even manages to make the shape shifting resonate thematically, illuminating the character in ways more superficial and yet deeper still.

But what role does Ledger play in the plot? I’d rather let you find out, just as I won’t spoil any more of the complications, the stunning effects, hilarious sight gags, or the jaw-dropping moments of awe. This may be Gilliam’s finest accomplishment, may be better than Time Bandits, may be better than Brazil. (But then, all Gilliam films need time to settle past their immediate impact). Here is a movie that reflects in every aspect the vision and worldview of its maker, a handcrafted testament to imagination in every frame. In the character of Parnassus – doomed to walk the earth forever as those around him tire of his stories and find no need for his techniques of entertaining – is an astute reflection of Gilliam himself, a filmmaker who started so promisingly and yet has been thwarted by studio meddling and unforeseeable complications at nearly every turn. Yet Gilliam, like Parnassus, thrives when he is in his element, growing close to the height of his powers.

And yet, the film is still a bit of a mess, wobbly at first and often confused. It’s marvelously complicated fantasy occasionally works as a detriment as the film threatens to collapse under its obfuscation. Still, though, Gilliam manages to pull it together, creating a weird and wonderful film, continually surprising and more than a little moving.

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