Monday, January 18, 2010

Imagine That

The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus(2009) Directed By Terry Gilliam
Terry Gilliam has written a suicide note in CGI with “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus”. Returning with “The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen’s” screen-writer Charles Mckeown after twenty years apart, Gilliam is again telling us a tale of an old man espousing the virtues of the imagination and fantasy to a world where no listens or cares. The “Imaginarium” is a tin foil mirror used by the film’s eponymous mystic (Christopher Plummer) to focus his trance like psychic powers and bring people into a world where there the most positive and beatific aspects of their own Imaginations can manifest as surreal landscapes. This is never said directly, but I cobbled it together as the movie went on. There are other loose “rules” for the device, like if two imaginations are in at the same time, a stronger one will dominate the other, but this seems to fall through pretty quickly when 7 people are within at once, and nothing much more out of the ordinary than usual seems to happen. The point of the one at a time rule is to offer each visitor the chance to choose the high road illustrated as an enormous staircase leading up a mountain or the low road to a neon bar in a barren wasteland ran by Tom Waits as Mr. Nick, the devil himself. Mr. Nick has struck deals with Parnassus before offering him immortality to take his traveling show on the road with Vern Troyer the films voice of reason, as his sidekick. As the film opens the characters find themselves in Troyer’s own words “…geographically in London, socially on the margins, and narratively speaking a ways left to go.”. Here the doctor is a feeble drunk giving performances with his daughter, Troyer, and his adopted barker Anton. They perform for drunks outside of nightclubs, moms in parking lots, or hyperactive children at carnivals. The troupe then picks up another member named Tony who they find hanging from beneath a bridge by his neck with strange writing on his forehead, but miraculously alive. He has no memory of who he is, and the Dr. let’s him tag along seeing him as an omen of good luck to come. Parnassus had beaten the devil before, but there is some question that the devil might have let him win the battle in the short term to finish the game in the long. Mr. Nick, always the showman, offers Parnassus one final chance at a game of first to collect 5 souls wins. By “collect’ I mean try to get them to either join the light side or the dark side of the force.The script lacks the coherent structure of The Adventures Of Baron Munchaussen which though similarly fantastical had a confident narrative arc of an old fable or folk tale, while Parnassus feels like it was cobbled together at the last minute. My major structure issue was that the competition between Mr. Nick and Parnasuss is settled in roughly one scene, which we supposedly were building toward for most of the movie. After this the movie picks up significantly if only because it’s completely up in the air as to what will happen next as the film feels finished early on without becoming resolved. Lily’s burgeoning sexuality, Tony’s checkered maybe sinister past, and Parnassus’ belief that the universe is sustained by never ceasing “storytelling”, are never fully linked together. Lily is 16 which in UK is the age of consent, but in the US it is 18, which initially made me uncomfortable about her boat scene with Ferrell, until the point was explained to me. It was also pointed out that this takes place in the Imaginarium so it’s all just “fantasy” anyway, but isn’t the Imaginarium also in Dr. Parnassus’ mind? ::SPOILER:: Not that it matters I guess but technically speaking she loses her virginity in her father’s imagination (I’m just saying…).::SPOILEROVER::Other questions like why Tony has some strange “satanic” writing on his forehead, or a magic whistle that when swallowed allows you to survive being hung are never answered or addressed at all. Supposedly he is named after former British Prime Minister Tony Blair but the few reviews I’ve read from people living in the UK don’t seem to have made any mention of this. Maybe like us in the states, they just didn’t pick up on it? I mentioned this as being a “suicide note” of sorts, and by that I mean it’s a catalogue of Gilliam’s personal failures and continued struggle make at the very least personally satisfying films. According to wiki "Gilliam repeatedly said in interviews that the character of Parnassus was meant autobiographically, a tale of an aging man with a vivid imagination in a world that doesn't listen anymore. Still being caught in depression over the disruption of his last self-written project 'The Man Who Killed Don Quixote', his constant struggle with the established studio system, as well as becoming aware of his progressing age, worried that he was going nowhere with his latest projects and that he might not have much time left.Gilliam put a number of references to sudden, tragic, and premature death into his script." Actors dying, receiving injuries, studios demanding he change endings, or blacklisting him for going over budget, are just a few of the problems he’s had over the years, so once we get around to Dr. Parnassus the good guys we find really are evil, and our heroes make terrible mistakes, our heroines fling themselves at the devil. If everything seems to work out at the end it’s only because everything else has been lost. The Imaginarium” for all it’s candy colored fractured imagery, Gilliam’s most surreal since his days of Monty Python collage animation, is not a happy-go-lucky believe in your dreams film (which the ostensibly more tragic “Tideland” turned out to be), but a “fantasy is a bitch”Brazil”-like bittersweet pill (heavy on the bitter). After shooting Gilliam was hit by a car, stating "So I thought, it was third time lucky - they just didn't get me. They got the star, the producer(who died a week after shooting) and they were going for the director and the fuckers failed on the last one. Whoever they are..." "They were going for the trinity [...] That would have been a tidy end to the whole thing. But they didn't kill me. I'm stuck here to tell the tale." It’s a fun movie to watch, though not particularly funny, with flat characters and an absurd storyline (even for a Gilliam movie). The anti-hero Tony we eventually discover is actually the president of a charitable organization, a “feed the children” type group dedicated to eradicating third-world squalor. I can’t help but think he and what happens to him are a bit of a stand in for Gilliam’s critics who would complain he is detached from reality, and unconcerned with the “serious” issues and problems facing the globe (akin to Todd Solondz’s “Storytelling”). In the end the good doctor is a broken man, down and out again, but not beaten, even if he’s been downsized to a small puppet theater he can still make a few kids smile, and offer some analog delight in the big bad digital world (the film itself a syncretic combination of the two). If the history of film, is rapidly becoming the history of animation as J. Hobberman predicts it will, it’s nice to know there are at least a few trying to create a sincere if bumbled sense of spectacle and not just well polished, extra detailed, high-def versions of the same of ole same. In short not great, but good. Also Heath Ledger is in this…there I mentioned it once.

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