Harry has entered Gilliam's THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS & never wants to leave!
Published at: April 30, 2009, 8:24 p.m. CST by headgeek
Holy Fucking Wow. That’s what I twittered upon the end of THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS.
If there is a tortured artist of film. The “Job” of film. It has unfortunately been Terry Gilliam. He’s directed some of my favorite films of my childhood. MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, TIME BANDITS and BRAZIL. The last film of that run was THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN, which has always felt slightly underwhelming to me. But then Terry’s style changed. He continued to do great work I loved like THE FISHER KING, TWELVE MONKEYS and FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS.
When THE BROTHERS GRIMM was announced, I was so hopeful – Gilliam returning to the fertile minefields of fantasy sounded like a rebirth for me. Sadly – he was trying to make it with the Weinsteins constantly attempting Prison sodomy. And the end result showed it.
Next he made TIDELAND – which is, without a doubt, the most despair filled work of his career. In between those there were other projects – we all know them, but one thing or another stopped those films dead in their tracks. Then he announced he was making THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS – and in the midst of shooting – his lead matinee idol, Heath Ledger died. However, the powers at be decided to soldier on with the production. Some how recasting Jude Law, Colin Farrell and Johnny Depp as the same character – and a fear went out. A fear that the integrity of the film was going to be garbled through some bit of bizarre Stunt Casting.
When I got up this morning to see Gilliam’s latest and possibly greatest film yet, I was deeply concerned about how Heath’s character was going to be handled.
Honestly. Upon leaving the theater, I couldn’t imagine it being told any other way. Even if Heath were alive, this is how I would have wanted the story handled. It isn’t the slightest bit jarring and is handled perfectly. But let’s get straight to what this film is – and I’ll get to the details shortly.
THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS is the very first full fledged unfettered Terry Gilliam fantasy since the advent of digital effects – and folks… Gilliam is about to blow your mind.
What is the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus? This won’t be easy to explain. You see, in this universe / dimension / level of existence… God is essentially a storyteller, and if he ceases to tell stories, existence will cease existing. Or at least that’s what He thinks. The world exists through the imaginings of Dr. Parnassus – who has the astonishing ability to unlock your imaginings into a vivid and limitless reality. At least, that’s how I see him. Dr. Parnassus is played by Christopher Plummer, who feels to me like a decadent, worn version of his own Rudyard Kipling from THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING.
But again. I’m getting ahead of myself.
The film opens in modern day London as a horse drawn turn of the last century amusement called THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS is being pulled through the streets. There are homeless littering the sidewalks. The Imaginarium pulls up outside of a tavern called MEDUSA. Drunken British assholes pouring out. When the Imaginarium begins to unfold… its flashing lights and painted banners unfurling… a figure takes the stage, looking like a turn of the century Mercury, this is Andrew Garfield playing Anton, a lovesick grown up Puck, serving as the Imagnarium’s Barker. Enticing the drunken street rats to watch this Victorian attraction.
But these are drunkards, intoxicated into a stupor of self-amusement. Hurling bottles, screaming unintelligible BS. Meanwhile, the Imaginarium is showing us more.
There seems to be a comatose bearded man with some marks on his face sitting in a lotus position on a clear Plexiglas thing with a pillow atop – to give a not so convincing version of a levitated stoop. Then the strangest 2 legged smoke shooting creature that reminded me briefly of Jeremy Hilary Boob, Ph.D. When it stands erect and turns around – we realize it is Verne Troyer, who later we’re introduced to as Percy, Dr Parnassus’ anchor to reality… kinda. The last member of the Imaginarium we’re introduced to is the utterly stunningly beautiful Valentina (UK’s stunning fiery redheaded Lily Cole) - she is Parnassus’ daughter.
The Imaginarium performance was lacking. It wasn’t connecting to the drunken rats. Things begin to get out of hand when a real bold ass of a drunk, who looks like a grown version of Francie Brady from THE BUTCHER BOY, but isn’t. He marches on the stage, throwing Anton and Percy off the stage. Parnassus is still in a trance, and the drunk starts chasing Valentina around – threatening to rape her. Back stage of the Imaginarium is dark and scary. Cut out trees. Then they go through this split mylar mirror thing – and suddenly there seems to be an unnatural amount of space. An endless distance of cut out painted trees, but in a real earthen landscape. He’s chasing after Valentina, who is teasing and drawing him in further. He trips and lands face first into a mud puddle, and as he wipes the mud from his face, his face is no longer his face. He’s an idealized version of himself.
Next the Drunk ends up in an impossibly large pile of beer bottles… and he looks about – and suddenly the cut-out trees are no longer cut out, but fantastically intricate veiny trees – impossibly large. That’s when the hand-monkeys swinging on bioluminescent vines begin buzz bombing the fella. Once the hand-monkeys grab him he’s lifted up above the trees, above the Earth itself, the bioluminescent vines are actually the enormous beautiful tendrils of space-borne jellyfish shooting their way through the cosmos. Turns out the hand-monkeys are the drunk’s friend – and he is dumped at the base of an impossibly large amount of steps up the mountain of some impenetrable greatness – which to ascend would give you the culmination of your very existence itself. Fulfilling the very meaning of it all. The drunk stumbles in the vague direction of this thing, when suddenly this Bowler Hat pub forms behind him – promising one last drink before his ascent… No sooner does he enter the establishment than it explodes. And Parnassus snaps from his trance, yells at his daughter – and the cops begin searching for the missing man, who, of course, is nowhere to be found.
15 minutes in, my mind was blown! Those two paragraphs have a lot of detail crammed in, and do not touch the beauty of what was beyond that split mirror. It was simply breathtaking. However, I still had no idea what I was in for. Essentially, when you step through the mirror while Parnassus is in his trance, his mind and powers present you with a blown up stylized version of your dream. The results are amazing. I can honestly say you have NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE what is on the other side of Parnassus’ mirror.
There are many trips through the mirror and many varied imaginings. Some beautiful, some silly, some fantastical and some frightening. But each with such a wonder of existence and imagination that it feels like everyone else in the world is playing with Legos and those over-sized crayolas. The detail and the vision are simply mind-blowingly exquisite.
We always knew that if you gave Terry Gilliam the tools and the money and the freedom that he could do something like this, because even against the brutal ass rapists that tried to kill BRAZIL, he still made BRAZIL.
Now the big question that’s on everyone’s minds is… What is left of whatever Heath Ledger shot on Doctor Parnassus?
Heath has a complete role. It is eerie. It is wonderful, but he is not necessarily a hero or a good person. Heath plays Tony. As the Imaginarium is crossing a bridge in London, Anton spots a shadow dancing on the Thames – Valentina and Percy figure out that it is a man hung off the side of the bridge by the neck… most likely dead. They attempt to rescue him, and this hanging dead man off the side of the bridge is Heath Ledger’s Tony. It is a very haunting image, but that image is his character. He is the Hanging Man. A sacrificed man. When the dead hung man is retrieved, he is brought back to life, then promptly knocks himself out. He’s placed in the rear trunk of the Imaginarium and the story continues.
There’s two sides of Heath’s Tony. The one in the perceived real world that we exist in – and the Tony that ventures to the other side of the mirror. The first time he goes, it is after an older rich woman, who was invited to venture through the magical frame. When he takes his mask off, he is no longer Heath, but Johnny Depp… the imagined fantasy of the woman, it is still his intelligence and character, but we see him as she sees him. The second time, he goes through the mirror as himself… where we see his imagination – and in his imagination, he’s Jude Law (who was actually the initial actor Terry approached to play the part of Tony). The last time he goes through, it is after Valentina – and this time he’s Colin Farrell – giving root to all of the worst aspects of Tony.
The reality of Tony, the Heath side is absolutely complete – and as this story is told, it is completely perfect. Heath’s final role is a triumph. He’s a man on the run from mafia investors in his children’s charity – and he’s the sort of man that would go to the mafia for the money. The cheap and easy road to success… but without its own damnations.
And the overall film, THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS is a brilliantly realized metaphor for Gilliam’s artistic experience. As a storyteller you have infinite possibilities, but to realize that vision you may be tempted to go the easy way, which will lead to personal and eternal torment. Whereas the road to realized vision is hard and tough, but it is in that journey that you earn that accomplishment.
Through all of this, I’ve yet to mention the brilliant Tom Waits as Mr. Nick. He is Satan in a bowler hat and a John Waters moustache. He plays Satan as a character that loves the game he plays with Parnassus. Tricking him into immortality, so that Satan has eternity to play with the dear Doctor. Tom Waits is brilliant in the role – reminding me of the best Satans we’ve ever had, my favorite of which you see shadowy in my animated avatar above which is Walter Huston’s eternal Mr. Scratch from THE DEVIL AND DAN WEBSTER. Here, Waits plays Mr. Nick as the tempter, tormentor and old friend. For a creature like Satan, it has to get boring on Earth – there really aren’t a lot of permanent folks around to reminisce with. Dr Parnassus is one of them. Is he the creator of dreams, the Governor of out Imaginations, or just a really weird monk from another dimension of existence?
I don’t know. But I love it. I love Verne Troyer as dressed monkey. I love Verne Troyer as the Boob. I love Verne Troyer in his very best role ever. Most of all, I love Verne Troyer as the… the… No, I can’t spoil that. It’s too many kinds of awesome to spoil.
I’m purposefully being vague about the Imaginarium visions, because honestly – I feel you need to walk into this film curious about Heath’s last performance, and how Johnny, Jude and Colin furthered that already great last performance.
The wonderful thing about this is that this is really the grandest and most accomplished Gilliam work since BRAZIL, it is filled with things that will delight all of us, but most of all – the Imaginarium is the promise that movie theaters gave us. We would enter their doors and see sights and hear tales unlike anything we could imagine. This is the dream we have when we see Gilliam’s name above a film. It is in the vein of his very best – and months from now when it is released this Fall… It will delight everyone that gives it a chance to.
Truly, this is Terry Gilliam’s Imaginarium – and that is something beyond our wildest dreams. Can’t wait to hear the response at Cannes! To have a great new Gilliam film, well… I know I can’t wait to see it many more times!