Gwyn and I saw Terry Gilliam’s new film The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus this past Saturday night at the Carmike theatres here in Bismarck. I don’t go to movies at the theatre often, because of funds and because of babysitters; we make very conscious and predetermined decisions to go to a movie, as opposed to getting it through Netflix.
Full disclosure: I am a Terry Gilliam fan. I will go so far as to say that Gilliam is my favorite director. I think that Brazil is a brilliant dystopian vision, I can quote the entirety of Time Bandits from memory, and I think 12 Monkeys is one of the finest science fiction/time travel/insanity films out there. I even love Baron Munchausen, with no apologies. I’m that guy.
But that’s not to say that I don’t see Gilliam’s flaws when they are there. I’m not a fan of Fear and Loathing, and I think Brothers Grimm suffered (oh, dear, how it suffered) from lack of focus in the editing room. Certainly the role of the rogue iconoclast is one that can sit a little too easily on Gilliam’s shoulders, even acknowledging his hard-won right to wear it. For many reasons, some self-created and some famously visited from outside, it has been four years since a new Gilliam film, and fifteen since a film that I would consider worthy of his early work.
To say I had pinned hopes on this film is putting it mildly.
But Gilliam delivered. Imaginarium was inventive, exciting, funny, narratively engaging, and visually stunning. Heath Ledger was extremely good in this his last role, and so were the rest of the cast: Christopher Plummer as the titular doctor, aged and calculating, Verne Troyer as Percy, the doctor’s midget assistant, Andrew Garfield as Anton, Lily Cole as Parnassus’ daughter Valentina, and Tom Waits, rather brilliatnly cast as Mr. Nick, the devil. Of course, I am an even bigger Tom Waits fan than I am a Terry Gilliam fan, so I may be biased there as well.
And of course there is Johnny Depp, Collin Farrell, and Jude Law as the three faces of Heath Ledger within the dream-world of the Imaginarium. This rather clever and narratively cohesive method of dealing with the death of Ledger mid-production is pulled off fairly flawlessly–what could have been a clumsy piece of cinematic duct-taping is handled not only technically smoothly, but in a manner that seems to enhance the film’s thematic underpinnings. Tony, Ledger’s character, has issues of identity throughout the film, both in the real sense and in terms of his moral direction. Having his face alter each time he enters the dream world makes the kind of fantastical sense we’ve come to expect from Gilliam’s madhouse alternative realities.
Woven throughout are imagery and tropes that have become trademark moves for Gilliam. The broken down theatre, reminiscent of both Time Bandits (1981) and Baron Munchausen(1989), is here transformed into a huge, horsedrawn stage-cum-caravan, a sort of gypsy trailer of a traveling theatre, creaking through London like a relic from the Elizabethan age, as indeed it may be. The presence of a midget, a chase across a desertscape, a towering set of stone steps, monolithic structures erupting from green landscapes in a shower of dirt–these and a dozen other familiar images occur in what could be described as a Gilliamesque collage. At one point there is even a Monty Python style musical number.
The film’s themes are likewise staples of Gilliam’s ouerve: the primacy of storytelling, the blurring of fantasy and reality, the mirroring of the interior and the exterior landscapes of the characters. Parnassus concludes in a manner both satisfying and morally ambiguous, and by refusing to answer a crucial question about the nature of Tony’s character, we are left uneasily wondering about a final, all-important choice of the doctor’s. This too, carries with it the whiff of earlier work, particularly 12 Monkeys.
None of this is a disavowal of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus as an original piece of creative work. On the contrary, Gilliam’s familiar arsenal of concerns seem to come alive here in a way they haven’t done in many years. The film is a true return to form, and in many ways seems a summation of Gilliam’s work to date. I enjoyed it immensely and think that it stands easily with the best of Gilliam’s films from the 80s and early 90s. Unfortunately, it is not the sort of mainstream film that audiences are going to respond to in large numbers. And that, for me, is its tragedy. Gwyn and I saw The Imaginarium on Saturday night after it opened nationwide on Friday, and we were the only two people in the theatre. I grant that Bismarck, ND, is not the hippest film town in the U.S. But it doesn’t bode well for a film to only draw two paying customers on its first weekend, no matter the city. I’m afraid it will fade from theatres, move soon to DVD, and become a cult classic.
In the meantime, it will not come close to making back the money invested in it, making it that much harder for Gilliam to raise the funds for his next foray. And that’s the real shame. Because the film industry needs Terry Gilliam, and so do we.