I don't know how to talk about Terry Gilliam's latest film without talking about his previous one, Tideland (2005). Partially for purposes of putting his work in a career context, but mostly because this newest film reads as a response to the last—or rather, a response to the response to the last. Tideland, based on the 2000 novel by Mitch Cullum, is the story of Jeliza Rose, a young girl who uses fantasy to shield herself from the horrors of her childhood. Critics—particularly American critics—were inspired to histrionics, scolding Gilliam for scenes in which Jeliza Rose cooked up and injected heroin for her parents, and for the play "marriage" between her and a brain-damaged older boy; Andrew O'Hehir of Salon.com called it "the final, ugly implosion of a one-time maverick's career." These critics seemed to brush past the film's central thesis, that Jeliza Rose sees these things through the lens of play and fantasy, a coping strategy which sometimes puts her in danger but also, ultimately, enables her to survive. It's notable that in its concerns with the virtues and dangers of fantasy, Tideland occupies a thematic space similar to that of Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth (2006), a film nearly universally praised by critics—one major difference being that Tideland is, in the end, a more hopeful film.
Tideland was an undeserved box-office failure; reading about it, one might almost believe that more people hated it than actually watched it. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus comes across as a commentary on Gilliam's critics, and to the recent trajectory of his career; his doomed first attempt to film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (chronicled in the documentary Lost in La Mancha ) and his chronic struggles with funding and distribution. The result is a film that is by turns gorgeous, bitter, inspired and mean, a frustrating work by a creator who is understandably frustrated.
The tone is set in the opening scene, as the antique, dilapidated wagon of Doctor Parnassus' traveling troupe sets up stage outside a contemporary London pub. Wagon and troupe—made up of the Doctor, his young daughter Valentina, her admirer Anton, and the doctor's longtime confidant, Percy—are out of place in the modern world. What's more, as their confrontation with an anonymous pub-goer illustrates, they're locked into an adversarial relationship with their audience. The young man pursues Valentina onstage, but then stumbles through a magic mirror and into what seems to be the imaginarium of the title; partly the mind of Parnassus, partly a spiritual battle-ground, as we see when the young man is presented with a choice between enlightenment and a pub. He chooses the pub, and disappears; Parnassus tells us he's lost another one to Mr. Nick.
Mr. Nick is, of course, the Devil (inscrutably portrayed by Tom Waits), and this prelude cements the thematic oppositions right away: good versus evil, old-fashioned versus new-fangled, performer versus audience, narrative for the sake of narrative versus instant gratification. Parnassus, we are later told, was once the abbot of a mountain monastery where he and his monks—including Percy, played by Verne Troyer—busied themselves telling the story which they believed was the engine of the world. Mr. Nick came to challenge this idea, and Parnassus, believing that humanity will vindicate his belief in narrative, is lured into the first of a thousand years of wagers. They compete for souls, of course, and the pub-goer is only the latest to prove Parnassus wrong. The film pivots on the most recent bet between the old rivals, one which makes the Doctor's almost-sixteen-year-old daughter, Valentina, forfeit.
What's uncomfortable about the character of Parnassus is that, despite his vices—besides his gambling, he's a hopeless drunk—he's on the "right" side of all of these dichotomies, and Parnassus (played with broken dignity by Christopher Plummer) is clearly a stand-in for Gilliam himself. The implication is that Parnassus's failings have come about because humanity has failed him. We don't value story enough, we are too easily seduced by fleeting pleasures like sex and drink. The state of the traveling show, as it sets up in parking lots and overnights in the abandoned Battersea power station, is meant to tell us that these are noble characters suffering for their art. Parnassus keeps betting that people are better than Mr. Nick believes, and we keep letting him down. This artist-as-martyr conceit is complicated, and perhaps contradicted, by the character of Tony, played in turns by Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. Some of those complications, like Ledger's tragic death, fall entirely out of the filmmakers' control. That, and the supplementation of his role by three such well-known actors, magnifies the importance of his character out of all proportion.
Rousted from their temporary home by cops seeking the disappeared pub-goer, the troupe is wandering London in a downpour when Ledger first appears as the Hanged Man of Tarot, suspended from the underside of Blackfriars Bridge. It's an eerie entrance, given Ledger's fate, and there are other, apparently unintended echoes of his passing in the film. The scene in which the troupe rescues him is also weirdly reminiscent of the suspended-cage escape in Gilliam's Time Bandits (1981). From the moment he miraculously revives from his hanging, Ledger brings energy to the film that one may not have realized was lacking. But his appearance also makes the film seem crowded. Tony is a pawn in the game between Parnassus and Mr. Nick, a third in the love triangle between Valentina and Anton, and a larger-than-life presence that disrupts the focus of the film. Lily Cole as Valentina and Andrew Garfield as Anton do admirably well, but their performances are geared towards a less manic film than this, and Plummer's Doctor is too little on the screen to compete with Ledger. We aren't sure we're supposed to like Tony, but we can't take our eyes off of him.
Tony, we learn, is a disgraced philanthropist, accused of having defrauded contributors to a children's charity. He is also, not unrelatedly, a consummate showman, and after only a day with the troupe he proposes a revamp to the show. Tony's redesign is glitzy, tawdry, and exploitative: Percy appears in blackface, Anton in fat-lady drag, Valentina as a nearly-nude Venus. It's an uncomfortable scene, but it seems clear that Gilliam wants us to be less disturbed by the imagery itself than by the fact that it works on the shoppers, the wealthy female patrons of an upscale shopping mall, who approach enlightenment as just another must-have commodity. Parnassus is adding to his tally, sure, but are we supposed to feel that it's a win? Gilliam is certainly not known for his subtlety, but the scene is so ham-fisted and mean that even the visual feast of the Imaginarium behind the mirror can't temper it. And Gilliam's baroque visuals here aren't quite up to his own standards; there's more digital work here than in the past, and in some scenes, particularly near the end of the film, the dreams and nightmares become flat and uninspired.
This impression is not helped by the fact that by that time the film doesn't seem to have a clear idea of what it's about. It might be Valentina's story; certainly she's easy to sympathize with, being an innocent in these events, and Lily Cole plays her with an appealing mix of restlessness and loving exasperation towards her father. It might be, as the ending seems to argue, her father's story. Or it might be Tony's story, except that this feels more like misdirection, if not distraction. The film can't seem to decide between them; it sets up one thread, develops a second, and pays off a third. If story is the point, as Gilliam insists, then there's either too much or not enough of it here. The film's meandering ending, which should be an orgiastic payoff, instead comes across as an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink attempt to salvage the muddle that precedes it.
As an answer to Gilliam's critics, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus has its moments, most especially when the behind-the-mirror/dream sequences skewer the spectacle-coated placebo that is so much of popular entertainment. But the vitriol feels scattershot, and the audience is caught in the crossfire. Here's hoping that, for his next film, Gilliam ignores the critics and follows the instincts that led him to make Tideland instead.
David J. Schwartz's fiction has appeared in numerous venues; his novel, Superpowers, was nominated for a Nebula Award. He lives in St. Paul and blogs at http://snurri.livejournal.com.
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