Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus

There are few directors I love more then Terry Gilliam. And note I didn’t say director’s films, though I certainly love those too. I just like Terry Gilliam, I like the way he talks about film, the way he thinks about film, the films he makes, his honesty, his artistry, his anarachy. I used to read Gilliam on Gilliam in my classes at high school because I knew what he had to say had to be more interesting then the boring fucker up at the head of the class. Brazil is just one of those rare perfect movies for me, something without a note wrong. 12 Monkey’s is perhaps the most underrated of the nineties. So it’s tough when you do like an artist on a personal level to just watch life kick him in the balls again and again and again.

Its not been an easy decade to be a Terry Gilliam fan. Point of fact there’s never been an easy decade to be a Terry Gilliam fan, but its hard not to imagine that for the past ten years Ole Terry has been wishing for films on The Monkey’s Paw. First came The Man Who Killed Don Quioxite, which of course famously imploded in a most spectacular fashion barely a week into production, with Gilliam lucky enough to have a camera crew standing by to document his humiliation in excruciating detail. Then came The Brothers Grimm, with The Weinsteins Interfering Gilliam into a half assed film, the typical touches of Gilliam genius that somehow survived (The Gingerbread Man) somehow make it even tougher to watch. This was followed immediately by Tideland, which plays less like a film then a psychological purge. Even I the hardest of the hard core Gilliam fan can find nothing to recommend in that grotesque walking travesty of a film. And then of course there was the death of Ledger, which hangs over this film, passing out poignancy and discomfort in equal measure at unexpected intervals. The sad fact is not only have we not had a great Terry Gilliam film in over a decade. We haven’t even had a good one.

Well at least that’s one thing that has changed in the new decade. The Imaginarium Of Dr. Parnassus isn’t a perfect film. It’s messy, unsatisfying, and not at all what I expected from Gilliam. It’s a film I have major issues with.

But damn it it’s a complete film, and a rewarding one. One that I think will just get richer with repeated viewings.

The film follows the thousands year old titular mystic, as he peddles his ramshackle but wonderous show to the piss drunk and the ignorant. Locked in eternal combat with Tom Wait’s Satan who seems to have emerged living and breathing from a 1930’s Black and White Cartoon and who is now possibly my favorite on screen version of Old Scratch, it seems at though Parnassus might be about to lose his daughter and perhaps all of existence on a bad bet, until a new mysterious stranger brings the possibility of salvation.

It’s easy to read a lot of autobiography into the story, as drunken assholes pass the Imaginarium by. Gilliam too has spent his life peddling his odd visions to a world that more or less couldn’t give a fuck. The odd thing is the surprising darkness in tone. Parnassus is just an almost oppressively pessimistic film. Less a paegn to the glories of “the stories that sustain the world” but an exhausted middle finger to them. The only film I’ve ever seen that’s remotely like it is Miyaziki’s Howl’s Moving Castle, where Miyaziki cheerily firebombed the Europe of the mind he had spent his entire career building.

You can’t say Gilliam hasn’t earned this sentiment…

But still…

The problem extends to the style of the film. Parnassus, like Tideland is shot HD, and while am not a complete luddite when it comes to Digital Film, I just don’t think Gilliam is the director for it. Here as in Tideland, Digital lends a harsh almost abrasive quality to the film that wasn’t there in his work before. Film softened Gilliam, made everything go down easy.

The unforgiving nature extends to his story as well. Though I won’t give too much away I’ll just mention that the majority of Gilliam’s characters don’t make out well. I’m not one to demand a happy ending. But I think the Gilliam on the other side of a decade of cruel experience might of. Watching the man who let Sam escape, snatched Baron Munchaussen from the clutches of death and let the holy grail be found in The Fisher King might allow his characters a smidge of mercy. Its harsh stuff he ends with and as someone whose followed Gilliam for so long I couldn’t help but feel a bit like the little girl at the end of The Fall, wondering why the storyteller I was listening too had started breaking his characters out of spite. The fact that at this point Gilliam starts mixing his metaphors, and its tough to decipher just what's happening doesn't help any.

But God there’s so much in The Imaginarium that works so well. Not least of all Heath Ledger’s final performance. It’s an odd one, defined obviously as much by what he does not do as what he does. But he invests Tony with grace and style.

The rest of the cast is a little uneven, Verne Troyer manages to beat his stunt casting. Which isn't easy for him to do.

(And you Brits say we're barbarians...)

While Plummer feeble and muddled makes a surprisingly poor representative for the wonders of storytelling. Lily Cole on the other hand… well Terry Gilliam has always had an eye for beautiful young women, being the first to notice Uma Thurman and the first to figure out that Christina Ricci had grown up. I have no idea what she’ll be like in another film, but she fits the role of Valentina to at.

The scenes inside The Imaginarium are filled with life and that old Gilliam spark. The scenes particularly one featuring a bunch of Russian Mobsters chasing Jude Law through what looks like a nightmarish combination of a mutual fund commercial and an old Monty Python sketch, capture the anarchy and dadist joy of Gilliam’s animation.

Because for all my issues of style, tone, and story, this film is a true Gilliam film. And as such it’s a rewarding fable even if its not a perfect one. It might end up being his Alfredo Garcia, one last gasp of bitter integrity before he’s swallowed up by a sea of idiocy, but damn it he got that gasp and he made his movie.

Like someone says near the end, “Happy Endings are not part of the guarentee.” You’ve just got to keep telling your story’s and hope you eventually get one.


The Film Connoisseur said...

I agree, this movie was a bitter and dark, but Gilliam films have been like that for a while now. Fear and Loathing isnt exactly cheery, and neither is 12 monkeys for that matter.

But I think it was with Tideland where he really went into dark dark territory. Im a die hard fan, and Tideland was a tough pill to swallow, but I still appreciated that film.

I wrote a review for Imaginarium a couple of days ago here:

And on it, I pretty much agree with everything youve said here. Imaginarium has a darkness and bitterness to it. Its angry at a world that has forgotten the entertainer that is Gilliam.

Evil Dead Junkie said...

You've hit the nail on the head. He's been dark before but I don't know if he's ever been this bitter.

Evil Dead Junkie said...

For all there darkness Monkeys and Fear end with a very real chance at redemption. Imaginarium doesn't.