Albert Lanier steps into Gilliam's IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS!
HIFF 29: YOU MAY SAY I'M A DREAMER
by Albert Lanier
When I was a child, I used to always hear from adults-whether teachers or other older authority figures I had no use for-that I should "use my imagination."
I always found that an interesting phrase and as a kid I would have all kinds of fantastical dreams and fantasies which I will not go into detail about here.
Its no wonder I ended up a writer-though, the wrong sort of writer, imagination wise. Try using your imagination when writing about a Mayor or Governor and you'll be wind up living in tent cities in Sacramento or Ontario, California given the nation's precarious economic status.
There's something about the imagination that withers and dies with adulthood. Life becomes a series of meetings and appointments not swordfights with villains and rescues of maidens in towers.
The world of imagination has always been a preoccupation for director Terry Gilliam though not in a simplistic childish sense-with the exception of his early film TIME BANDITS-but a richer, sophisticated adult driven world.
In THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS, Gilliam fuses the imagination with the craft of storytelling to produce a film about the wondrous vistas and ideas trapped in a gritty, grimy workaday reality.
IMAGINARIUM opens with a shot of a city block in London-where this story is set-and the scenes reveals a small team of horses at the front of a wooden contraption that should either cut up and burned or put in a museum. The camera tracks to two sleeping homeless men before cutting back to the contraption.
A panel comes down and in no time a portable theater-looking like something out of Commedia Del'Arte or the traveling theater in ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD-emerges.
A man dressed like the ancient Greek mythical figure Mercury appears and does his spiel hoping to attract a crowd to this-the Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.
The reality is that this ""imaginarium"" is a crude stage with painted trees and a "mirror" through which people can enter and is located right in front of nightclub named Medusa ( nice punny name there).
Onstage is the doctor himself- who looks more a Hindu holy man than any doctor I know-and his fetching daughter Valentina who has a wondrous bosom. I say that because a drunken club goer offers his admiration for her splendid cleavage (though not in those words) and chases her into the "mirror" or portal to the imaginarium to try to show her how much he "admires" her.
I wont say what happens to this bloke although its probably not a good idea to have a beer in this illusory world.
This traveling troupe soon sets off through the streets of London as their theater/vehicle is steered by the diminutive Percy, a man prone to pragmatism who is the only part of this "company" who can cut through the crap and tell it like it is.
While traveling over a bridge, they see the shadow of a man in the water below. It appears that he is hanging beneath the bridge. It turns out there is a person danging from a hangman's knot under the bridge.
We later find out that his name is Tony-though he claims at the time to suffer from Amnesia-and he is the former head of a children's charity.
Tony soon becomes part of this motley groups of performers trying to convince the good doctor that his changes should be implemented.
For one, taking the portable theater to upscale shopping centers and having rich and upper middle class women experience the imaginarium experience.
Valentina falls under his spell which infuriates Mercury-real name Anton-who has fallen in love with Valentina and is resentful of Tony's oily charm and smooth pseudo-sincerity.
However, the main pot thrust of the film is the escalating series of wagers that Parnassus has had with Mr.Nick aka the Devil over a number of years.
Parnassus is over 1,000 years old and he is tired of living on and on and on. He makes a wager with Mr Nick that he can get five souls to go through his imaginarium. If Parnassus wins, he gets mortality. If he loses, he must give Valentina over to Mr.Nick.
Readers may notice that I have not mentioned any of the fantastical CGI-created and shaped images in this film, the visions of the imaginarium.
I'm not going to either. I could ladle on rich adjective over creamy adverb in describing some of these sumptuous images but I feel doing so would be akin to revealing who the killer is in Agatha Christie's "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd."
It is best to watch IMAGINARIUM for yourself to experience this odd and wonderful visual palate as I did with a packed-to-the-rafters audience at the Hawaii International Film Festival on Friday, October 23.
IMAGINARIUM features some nice performances. Christopher Plummer is terrific as Parnassus, playing the part of this wondering dreamer and imagist with a KING LEAR like fragility and sense of weariness and regret.
The late Heath Ledger-probably the reason most people will see this movie-shines here in the part of Tony (supposedly named after British Prime Minister Tony Blair-no wonder I didn't like the character). Ledger plays Tony to a T-at least in scenes he filmed before his death.
Ledger's part is finished by Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell who play differing versions of Tony within the imaginarium. Of the trio, Farrell is given the best scenes and not only chews the scenery but swallows it whole.
Andrew Garfield does a nice turn here as Anton and wide eyed Lily Cole is charming as Valentina with scene stealing performances from Tom Waits as Mr. Nick and especially Verne Troyer who shines as Percy.
IMAGINARIUM was written by Gilliam and Charles McKeown, the team that co-wrote Gilliam's notorious features BRAZIL and-a personal favorite of mine-THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHHAUSEN.
IMAGINARIUM isn't in the same league as BRAZIL and MUNCHHAUSEN, ambitious films with stronger stories and highly potent imagery.Gilliam's newest film is-despite its visuals-a simpler tale a heart, more intent on wondering the streets of urban London in near-nomadic like existence than challenging entrenched powerful authority (BRAZIL) or choosing to hold on to dreams in a time of war and destruction (MUNCHHAUSEN).
Here, Parnassus holds on to the power of stories. My favorite scene in IMAGINARIUM comes when Parnassus and Mr.Nick first meet in an enormous Tibetan Buddhist type temple in some wintry locale.
What are you all doing, asks Mr. Nick. We are telling the same story over and over again, replies Parnassus. Why? Because it keeps the universe functioning.
I loved this idea. Yes, even a cynical, jaded film critic like me liked this concept.
So long as the story doesn't begin "There was an old woman from Nantucket..."