Bag of Tricks
by Jeff Reichert
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Dir. Terry Gilliam, U.K., Sony Pictures Classics
The aughts haven’t been particularly kind to Terry Gilliam. In the Nineties, when he proved his critical, commercial, and cult mettle with The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he rebounded from the editorial and legal disputes that blunted the distribution and reception of his major post–Monty Python Eighties efforts, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. It’s tempting to view the crushing, quixotic struggles to mount his Don Quixote as a breaking point that explains away the muddled and (meddled-with) The Brothers Grimm and the abhorred Tideland—until 2009 his only cinematic output this decade. After the scuttling of his long-cherished dream project, one could excuse the man somewhat for withdrawing, producing distasteful, confrontational art, walking off a film in the face of fiddling producers. Unfortunately, his touted “return to form,” The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, puts to rest any charity one might want to afford the director. For sure, this is a Terry Gilliam film through and through, it exhibits his unmistakable stylistic tics and pet themes, but those of us who grew up wearing our allegiance to his earlier work proudly won’t be pleased to note that Gilliam-esque now seems little more than a fraying bag of tired tricks. Maybe he produces his best work within ten-year cycles?
Of course, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus will forever be known as the Terry Gilliam film that almost closed production after its star, Heath Ledger, died of an overdose mid-shoot. Much of its incoherence will be traced back to this event, and Ledger’s absence (filled in for at different times by Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell) will excuse the more crippling flaw: a nonsensical narrative. Gilliam (who’s somewhat taken on the dissipated paunchiness of Charles Bukowski of late) has written for Parnassus his first wholly original screenplay since 1985’s Brazil, and while the man’s never been a model of narrative economy (in fact, it’s his digressive nature, his detours into fancy that have made him so cherished), his new work remains an unpleasantly ungainly beast in an already unwieldy oeuvre. It’s impossible to know what other forms the film might have taken had Ledger lived to complete it; all we have to consider is the film at film at hand, and the evidence in the text suggests that with Ledger it likely would only have been a different mess, not necessarily a better one.
Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer, at his crusty best) is a wizened magician who travels around London in a beat-up horse-drawn cart that unfolds into a rickety stage containing the centerpiece of his antiquated stage show: the Imaginarium. Like a shantytown on wheels, the cart also carries his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), a round-faced vision straight of a Hogarth etching, nondescriptly attractive assistant Anton (Andrew Garfield), and stock comic relief Percy (Verne Troyer, proving he’s always up to participate in little-people humor; here some of the more heinous in recent memory). It’s clear the show’s best days are behind it, and as the makeshift troupe trundles around London their vain attempts to gain the attentions of a public consumed by technology and the temptations of modern life leave them increasingly despondent. Parnassus’s show (like Gilliam’s project) promises wonders, and even if the entrance to the Imaginarium looks like a piece of silver gift wrap cut down the middle, the secret of thing is that it actually works. Those who enter the Imaginarium find a candy-colored world where their dreams are made real.
Narrative movement in Parnassus is sparked by Virginia’s impending sweet sixteen. Eons ago, in order to win the love of a woman, the good doctor, at that point a dissolute beggar, cut a deal with his longtime nemesis, Mr. Nick (Tom Waits, an over-obvious choice to play the Devil; he mugs accordingly): Mr. Nick restored Parnassus to youthful vigor, but vowed to claim any offspring from the marriage on the child’s sixteenth birthday. This information is hidden from Valentina, who, at the film’s open, is increasingly confused by the doctor’s agitation as the day arrives. Things come to a head when the troupe saves a man hung by his neck from under a bridge (this proves singularly unfortunate introduction to Ledger’s performance). He’s Tony, an attractive amnesiac, and even though all signs point to a spotty past that will eventually be revealed to calamitous ends for the group, they take him in; he joins the act, even offering some modernizing suggestions. This comes just as Parnassus cuts yet another deal with Mr. Nick: each has two days to save five souls—Victoria’s still hangs in the balance. The battleground will be the Imaginarium as it always has been; visitors can choose the path of nobility, enrichment, and sacrifice, or temptation and sin.
After an unholy amount of exposition, Tony takes a succession of customers into the Imaginarium in an effort to save them. The film works best within this dream space; Gilliam’s sense for animation, honed in his classic handmade sequences crafted for Python, remains unique and he employs a convincingly low-fi approach that never attempts at verisimilitude—the landscapes look like the sets from Rohmer’s Perceval rotoscoped and run amok. At times the images border on the false monumental grandeur of Tarsem, but Gilliam remains skilled at piercing his own inventions with a gag; here he finds humor in a mass of levitating monks blown this way and that by Mr. Nick, a world of gigantic shoes representing one woman’s materialistic desires, or a gang of burly panty-hosed police officers performing a “join-the-force” jig. Each time the Imaginarium is entered, a new actor plays Tony: first Depp, then Law, then Farrell, and each of these sequences reveals more to us of Tony’s spotted past as a striver, conniver, ladies’ man, and wholesale fraud. For what it’s worth, the conceit makes sense—Gilliam does manage to convince us the Imaginarium provides a window into another world, so why couldn’t it also show us different facets of Tony? It’s a production necessity used to ingenious advantage, though it might have been even more persuasive if other cast members who entered had changed similarly.
Discussions of Gilliam’s work often focuses on his visuals, and Parnassus’s animations remind why. Unfortunately, his ugly, frenetic, canted close-ups and ill-set medium shots back in the real world of London suggest that the director’s reputation as visual stylist may rest more on the fantastical nature of his ideas than the quality of the images he creates (Brothers Grimm was also rather hard on the eyes). The paucity of imagination contained in the London images is clearly emphasized for contrast, but even so, much of his shot-making just feels dashed-off. It doesn’t help that Parnassus’s here-there scenario doesn’t plunge us into the Imaginarium so much as allow us opportunities to dip our toes in it (Baron Munchausen’s similar construction was far more immersive), forcing even more emphasis on the real. Contrast Parnassus with the consistently wondrous visuals of Zemeckis’s A Christmas Carol, which pushes and pulls at reality at will, inviting us to gawk at technologically rendered wonders, while never shying away from the dirt and grime of its setting. Certainly Zemeckis is a less intellectual, less interesting filmmaker than Gilliam, but they both want to dazzle, and of their two recent films only A Christmas Carol keeps finding new ways to use technology to open up new vistas. The animations in Parnassus may be more ambitious aesthetically, but they’re used too parsimoniously.
Parnassus’s jumps between London and the world of the Imaginarium lead to an utterly baffling climax in which all the characters seem caught in the device with the potential for losing their souls to the devil—even though this may just be Tony’s dream, or Parnassus’s, or Victoria’s. The finale has a certain rush to it, and its images—of Tony (now Farrell) being chased across the desert by an angry mob, or Victoria reflected in hundreds of pieces of shattered glass that float around her in negative space—are striking, but what it all really amounts to, and who’s actually prevailed, is anyone’s guess. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus does achieve some measure of closure in its coda, as the doctor begins to climb from poverty to be worthy of the love of a woman, yet again. Now it’s Victoria, who’s settled in “regular” life with Anton. If it isn’t obvious by now, Parnassus is a stand-in for his creator, a battered artist working towards a comeback. Gilliam’s films have always been concerned with dreamers caught between the storybook worlds of the mind and the cold reality of life along with their troubles and bargains with a variety of devils, because Gilliam believes himself the same. Like Parnassus he stridently, almost politically, believes in the ephemeral power of the imagination to change and improve situations on the ground and his new work reiterates this idea shrilly, ad nauseam. Once upon a time, this trope seemed like a boundless expanse upon which to build a career exploding with ideas and vigor. Increasingly it seems like a protective shield held up by an embittered, defensive artist on the decline.