Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Terry Gilliam's latest feature, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, arrives in theaters just as besotted with issues as all of his other tortured productions, but if only one positive aspect arose from Heath Ledger's death (and I can think of no other remotely bright side to that tragedy), it is that it secured Gilliam's film a wide release. In other circumstances, no film this uncompromisingly bizarre could have slipped into so many theaters.

In a year defined, in part, by career-summarizing work from distinctive filmmakers (Inglourious Basterds, A Serious Man, The Limits of Control), The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus treads in Gilliam's familiar milieu -- the splintered line between reality and dreams -- and a decently evocative alternative title might have read: Baron Munchausen's Flying Circus. For, like Munchausen, The Imaginarium opens with an acting troupe, but they remain the focus of the film, traveling from street corner to street corner peddling a curious sideshow that fell out of fashion several centuries ago. For Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), however, it might simply be force of habit, as he claims to be a thousand years old. Flanked by his trusty assistant Percy (Verne Troyer), his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) and crier/sleight-of-hand expert Anton (Andrew Garfield), Parnassus peddles his curious contraption -- a horse-driven theater-on-wheels with a curious mirror that promises to show intrepid customers (read: belligerent drunks and petulant children) the grandest reaches of their imagination.

Indeed, when someone bolts through the tacky foil folds of the hyped mirror, they enter a realm controlled by Parnassus but constructed by the thoughts and desires of the person who entered. It's a world of goofy CGI, never remotely realistic and never remotely trying to be. As such, it works as a place of dreams and imagination. Middle-aged women regain their youth and vigor, a boy wades through a world of candies and ice creams while blast things apart through his portable game console; but all who enter are subject not only to their desires and joys but the darker recesses of the mind, twisted temptations that offer an identifiable but cheap thrill amidst the fantastical ecstasy of the rest of the imaginarium.

Master of this twisted subrealm is the devil himself, Mr. Nick, who gave Parnassus the imaginarium, along with everlasting life for winning a bet. The two clearing have a history of games, as Nick appears throughout the film reminding Parnassus that he's meant to take Valentina on her 16th birthday. No one is better suited to the role of the devil, particularly one as smooth and jazzy as this one, as Tom Waits: in his day job, he breathes wheezing, gasping life into decrepit instruments long ago banished to a musical hell (including his voice, a ragged, beautiful tatters at this point), and if he is not the Hades of the musical world he is at least its Charon, the ferryman who guides lost, depraved souls to their final resting place. As an actor, Waits has the curious ability to appear in supporting roles, usually off-kilter and occasionally manic ones, and steal the show without hoarding the attention or chewing scenery. Nick promises to forgo his claim to Valentina's soul with yet another bet, promising her to the one who collects five souls first. How Parnassus actually collects the souls of those who enter and re-emerge is never made clear, nor what he does with those souls (the same is true, actually, for Satan), but the wager reveals an odd relationship between the devil and Parnassus: the devil is a trickster and a deceiver, but he likes to gamble more than win. He tends to enjoy a more cruel victory later when he "loses" anyway, but the act of outright winning the bet means he can't play anymore, which disappoints him more than losing face. Over time, we see that each is perhaps the truest friend the other has.

To collect souls, Parnassus must woo an eager crowd, something he hasn't done in decades. But a glimmer of hope appears in Tony (Heath Ledger, for a time), whom the troupe discovers hanging from a bridge. Suffering from amnesia, Tony alludes to a darker past involving the mob, but he proves an apt pitchman, drawing crowds with his seductive speechifying. To continue after Ledger's passing, Gilliam used Jude Law, Johnny Depp and Colin Farrell for Tony's scenes inside the imaginarium, and it's a move that works brilliantly, revealing the idealized portrait of the women he leads inside (as well as his own ever-shifting opinion of himself, allowing each of the three replacement actors to cater to their personae: Depp reflecting his rakishness, Farrell his darkness and Law his fresh-faced boyhood). Both Tony and Parnassus contain a bit of Gilliam, Tony being the one to entice you into the theater almost against your will and Parnassus the supreme creator of the impossible. Tony entrances crowds by reminding of them what no longer exists in the modern world -- the profound epiphany of imaginative storytelling -- something Gilliam clearly mourns as he gazes upon kids lost in video games and adults who've lost the ability to dream.

None of this is unfamiliar territory for the director, but he uses the limitless opportunity afforded by the structure of the imaginarium for some of his most sumptuous visuals yet. Furthermore, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus reflects just how British the ex-pat's sensibilities have become: Parnassus overflows with British humor, from the Pythonesque absurdity Gilliam helped create (men in dresses gets more than one laugh) to that magnificent deadpan that I'd begun to think was genetic amongst Brits: when some mobsters chase Tony into the imaginarium, Parnassus attempts to win their souls by presenting a group of policemen who ask them to join the force with a song-and-dance number that, buried in the sheer glorious nonsense of the moment, suggests some deliciously wicked reasons for joining, among them that their love of violence and oppression would be legalized. At least one joke is purely for the Brits: when Anton discovers a newspaper revealing some of Tony's past, Tony replies, "Don't believe everything you read in the paper. Especially the [Daily] Mirror." Perhaps Percy summarizes the film's off-kilter, twisted sensibilities by answering the question "Where are we?": "Geographically, Northern Hemisphere. Socially, on the margins. And narratively, with some way to go."

The story doesn't make sense. The ending in particular will frustrate those who appreciate the rest of the film. Yet I can't help but wonder if some of the film's harsher critics -- most of them, perhaps tellingly, American -- have ever even seen one of Gilliam's previous works. He doesn't like to end with a clear answer regarding what actually happened and what might be a dream or hallucination. When a child eying one of Parnassus' miniature plays asks Percy if it comes with "a happy ending," Percy gently declines, saying "We can't guarantee that." That's an appropriate response for a film about imagination: dreams don't always end on a positive note. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is perhaps Gilliam's most uncompromising feature to date; naturally, "uncompromising" does not ensure greatness (I would not hesitate to call Lars von Trier uncompromising), but Gilliam's vision complements Parnassus' scattershot narrative. His film is beautiful, twisted, corkscrewing, confusing, frustrating, tantalizing and tempting, and if Gilliam's goal was to capture the nature of our daydreams and fantasies and place them on the screen, it is my humble opinion that he wildly succeeded. Catch it before theater chains understand just what they've placed alongside banal January fodder and replace it with a romantic comedy about a career-driven businesswoman who needs a man in her life for emotional stability.

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