Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
January 2010

Step right up

Gilliam is back in gleeful, witty form in the frenzied 'Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus'

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Terry Gilliam
Screenplay: Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown
Starring: Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Tom Waits, Lily Cole, Andrew Garfield, Verne Troyer, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 2 minutes
(out of four)

A Terry Gilliam movie is less a piece of linear storytelling than a concoction of ideas shaped into something resembling a plot. This is more of a compliment than a slight, I assure you. The results can be either intoxicating or frustrating, but you're certainly always aware you're watching a one-of-a-kind filmmaker at work.

His mind always seems to be racing, a trait reflected in his films - often wild, frantic, messy. When he's at his best, we see those characteristics as symptomatic of the frenzied, chaotic mindset in which his characters so often find themselves - particularly, as is usually the case with a Gilliam movie, in a world spiraling out of control.

Oh yes, there's a method behind the mess. Even when his work loses all control . . . well, we can kinda forgive him, if only because his visual conceptions and setpieces are too brilliant to ignore. Forget structure, right? Show me more of that!

And so he does - and those who can keep up are usually rewarded. His latest effort, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, epitomizes all we have come to expect from Gilliam. It is a messy mass of ideas that comes together in a deliriously inventive take on the age-old battle between good and evil, on the age-old battlefield of reality vs. imagination. Gilliam's sensational gift for visual invention, the outlandish absurdity of his satirical jabs, his weakness for indulgence, his loose interpretation of structure - it's all here.

Who else but Gilliam would feature a setpiece of dancing policemen singing, Python-style, a song called "We Love Violence"? Where else would you find an entire realm set inside the imagination with this much visual detail and stylistic contortion?

Of course, for some, that will be beside the point. I've heard it argued that The Imaginarium is too confusing, difficult (impossible!) to follow, hard to understand.

Now, Gilliam has never been the cleanest storyteller in the world - but what exactly about this film that's all that difficult to follow is beyond me. It basically covers a series of wagers between the titular Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) and the Devil - going by the moniker, "Mr. Nick" - played by the one and only Tom Waits. Mr. Nick found Parnassus as a monk hundreds of years ago and offered him a bet, and he's been stringing him along ever since - changing the stakes, going double-or-nothin', adding a new wrinkle or two.

Long ago, he offered the vain Parnassus the gift of immortality - in exchange for his firstborn come the age of 16. It's now modern-day, and Parnassus is a depleted old drunk running a traveling carnival show that's struggling to stay afloat. At the center of the stage is the looking glass, through which inhabitants' imaginations come to life - with Parnassus' help, of course.

But nothing imaginary is on his mind right now, for his darling daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), is just days away from her 16th birthday - and Mr. Nick is hovering to claim his prize. But it couldn't be as simple as all that, right? After all, this is the Devil we're talking about here. The Devil knows ol' Parnassus is always up for another wager. And so Mr. Nick shows up - with Waits' indelible voice, that sly comic timing, that delectably diabolical charm, all dressed up in a black tux, overcoat and a bowler cap - and offers Parnassus another shot: a battle for souls, through the Imaginarium. First to five wins.

The wrinkle in this scenario is the sudden appearance of a mysterious stranger named Tony (Heath Ledger), an apparent amnesiac who nonetheless seems to be hiding something. Valentina and her traveling show co-star, Anton (Andrew Garfield), save Tony's life one night after finding him hanging by his neck from underneath a bridge.

Tony reinvents the show, offering volunteers the chance to enter the Imaginarium - where, they discover, they will be forced to make the ultimate choice between the temptations of the good Dr. Parnassus, and the sinister Mr. Nick. Their souls are on the line and they don't even know it.

Accompanying each client on the other side is Tony himself. It is here that Ledger's untimely death must be mentioned. When he passed, he had completed the bulk of filming, but hadn't yet started work on the fantastical sequences. Through a lucky screenplay loophole, the Imaginarium gives the character the opportunity to change appearance - at the imaginary whims of the people he's accompanying. Filling in as the Imaginarium versions of Tony are Jude Law, Colin Farrell and a little-known newcomer named Johnny Depp.

The way Gilliam utilizes the Imaginarium sequences is an impressive feat in and of itself. Rather than trying to pare down his visual choices for budgetary reasons or attempting in vain to make extensive CGI look photorealistic, he goes big - while emphasizing the very artificiality of the imaginary worlds his characters have created. Some of the compositions are reminiscent of his animated work on Monty Python - heightened and distorted perspectives, splashes of hyper-realistic color, comedic asides and flights of fancy.

All three substitute Tonys serve the story well as we gradually learn more and more about his character and the role he plays in the ultimate fate of Parnassus and his precious Valentina.

Ledger and Plummer are excellent, as expected, and Farrell does a stellar job with the meatiest role of Ledger's three fill-ins. But the standout performance belongs to Waits - not just a peerless musician but a fine actor in his own right (Down by Law, Short Cuts, Coffee and Cigarettes). He always seemed like a perfect choice for the role, and his funny, sardonic and idiosyncratic take on the darkest of all dark characters more than meets the expectations.

Gilliam's films have always worked best when their fantastical elements were combined with the farcical, mischievous wit we've seen since his Python days. That is on full display here - and it's worth noting that he re-teamed with writer Charles McKeown, with whom he collaborated on the screenplay for his 1985 masterpiece, Brazil.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is not perfect and even hits something of a narrative lull early on, but it grows more and more exhilarating as it goes along, Gilliam's own imaginarium swallowing us whole.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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