Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus movie poster


Ter­ry Gilliam is bur­dened with a num­ber of unfair rep­u­ta­tions. First, as a visu­al styl­ist more than a sto­ry­teller or direc­tor of actors — the lat­ter, at least, obvi­ous­ly refut­ed by the fact that many high-pro­file stars will repeat­ed­ly work with him for pen­nies. He’s also known as an unpre­dictable hel­lion and spend­thrift, which are, from the point of view of those that hold the purs­es­trings, the two least desir­able char­ac­ter­is­tics in a direc­tor. He may in fact be con­cerned more with the integri­ty of the work than with the busi­ness angle, as any artist should be, but he is no wastrel. In fact, all but one of his com­plet­ed movies came in on time and under bud­get. A bet­ter way to describe him would be as the most unlucky per­son in the movie busi­ness.

After the mul­ti­ple calami­ties and mis­for­tunes (that even an athe­ist might char­ac­ter­ize as acts of god) that befell The Adven­tures of Baron Mun­chausen and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Gilliam made The Broth­ers Grimm as a com­mer­cial con­ces­sion. Despite it still bear­ing his unmis­tak­able impri­matur, it remains the sole Gilliam film I active­ly dis­like. One good thing to come of it, how­ev­er, was a gen­uine friend­ship with its star Heath Ledger. Inter­est­ed in film­mak­ing him­self, Ledger stuck around on the set of The Imag­i­nar­i­um of Doc­tor Par­nas­sus even when not need­ed on cam­era, serv­ing as Gilliam’ appren­tice and pitch­ing in when­ev­er pos­si­ble.

Heath Ledger in The Imaginarium of Doctor ParnassusCan you put a price on your dreams?”

Gilliam’s fabled bad luck first reared when he was hit by a bus and cracked a ver­te­bra, as report­ed in Wired. Ledger died dur­ing pro­duc­tion, fol­lowed by pro­duc­er William Vince before post-pro­duc­tion could begin. If one untime­ly death could pos­si­bly be said to be any more of a shame than anoth­er, Ledger’s acci­den­tal over­dose at the age of 28 might be tru­ly unfair. He was rid­ing the crest of a wave of appre­ci­a­tion for his per­for­mances in Broke­back Moun­tain and Bat­man: The Dark Knight, and had just begun to stretch his mus­cles as a direc­tor with music videos for Ben Harp­er and Mod­est Mouse.

The pro­duc­tion was very near­ly halt­ed, but Gilliam real­ized it could be sal­vaged and re-con­ceived if Ledger’s part were par­tial­ly recast with John­ny Depp, Jude Law, and Col­in Far­rell. Gilliam stuck to one sim­ple and absolute cri­te­ria: all three actors must be per­son­al friends of Ledger, lead­ing him to report­ed­ly turn down an over­ture by none less than Tom Cruise on the basis that he hadn’t known Ledger. Depp and Law actu­al­ly do quite resem­ble Ledger onscreen, at least with the aid of eye­lin­er and cos­tum­ing. How­ev­er, Far­rell most cap­tures Ledger’s phys­i­cal pres­ence and man­ner­isms. Charm­ing­ly, the movie is cred­it­ed not to Gilliam but to “A film from Heath Ledger and friends.”

Lily Cole in The Imaginarium of Doctor ParnassusVoila!”

The eerie syn­chronic­i­ty between Ledger’s death and the film’s themes of mor­tal­i­ty are, remark­ably, coin­ci­den­tal. Gilliam co-wrote the script with Charles McK­e­own (also of Brazil and The Adven­tures of Baron Mun­chausen, which this movie most close­ly resem­bles). Accord­ing to Col­lid­er, the sto­ry is based on Gilliam’s own feel­ings of artis­tic frus­tra­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly after the recep­tion of his con­tro­ver­sial film Tide­land, which many found not just dif­fi­cult but even offen­sive.

As its title makes plain, The Imag­i­nar­i­um of Dr. Par­nas­sus is set lit­er­al­ly in a world of imag­i­na­tion, a place we have vis­it­ed before in near­ly every sin­gle Gilliam film. Most famous­ly, Brazil riffs on James Thurber’s 1939 short sto­ry “The Secret Life of Wal­ter Mit­ty.” The few excep­tions include Jab­ber­wocky and The Broth­ers Grimm, in which fairy tales exist mat­ter of fact­ly in the real world. In 12 Mon­keys, it remains ambigu­ous if James Cole’s (Bruce Willis) future (his present) or the present (his past) might be real or delu­sions.

Tom Waits in The Imaginarium of Doctor ParnassusHe’s come to col­lect.”

It would be a huge mis­take to expect any Ter­ry Gilliam film to make total log­i­cal sense. Such pedes­tri­an expec­ta­tions would weigh down an artist we love for his unique, vivid flights of fan­cy. But per­haps even the wildest Gilliam fan­cy ought to be inter­nal­ly con­sis­tent to a degree. If some­thing doesn’t make sense, is it a tan­ta­liz­ing conun­drum left open for the view­er to mull over, or is it evi­dence of slop­pi­ness? The cen­tral ques­tion left unan­swered for me has to do with the core con­ceit of the film itself: peo­ple are drawn into the mind of Dr. Par­nas­sus through his mag­i­cal mir­ror. In his mind­scape, they must choose between enter­ing a build­ing main­tained by the Dev­il (Tom Waits), or… what, exact­ly? Of those few that reject the Dev­il, we see their bliss­ful, unen­cum­bered state upon leav­ing Dr. Par­nas­sus’ mind. What exact­ly hap­pens to them that makes them hap­py? Also, there’s the side effect of them shed­ding their pos­ses­sions. They may have been freed of their own earth­ly mate­ri­al­ism, but that doesn’t stop Par­nas­sus from con­ve­nient­ly enrich­ing his own troupe’s cof­fers, giv­ing the whole process an air of a scam­my con­fi­dence game instead of spir­i­tu­al awak­en­ing. Reflect­ing the theme of insin­cer­i­ty is the corn­ball tune “We Are the Chil­dren of the World” which appears as a ring­tone in the film, and at the end of the clos­ing cred­its.

The appar­ent pro­tag­o­nist turns out to be an unre­deemable vil­lain, unlike vir­tu­al­ly all of Gilliam’s pre­vi­ous heroes, in par­tic­u­lar Kevin in Time Ban­dits, Jack Lucas in The Fish­er King, Sam Lowry in Brazil, James Cole in 12 Mon­keys, and Jeliza-Rose in Tide­land. Which leaves us with Dr. Par­nas­sus, who ends up a lit­tle bit like Par­ry (Robin Williams) as we meet him at the begin­ning of The Fish­er King: home­less and seem­ing­ly per­ma­nent­ly locked in a posi­tion of want. Both are hobos, ren­dered apart and invis­i­ble from a world of beau­ty and wealth. Par­nas­sus’ long­ings are embod­ied by the beau­ti­ful Valenti­na (Lily Cole), whom may or may not be his daugh­ter, now seen ensconced in an envi­ous­ly bliss­ful nuclear fam­i­ly. Par­nas­sus remains for­ev­er tempt­ed by the Dev­il.

Offi­cial movie site: www.doctorparnassus.com

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