A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 343 – The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus – February 6th, 2011

Going into this movie tonight all I really knew about it was that it was directed by Terry Gilliam and was the movie Heath Ledger never got to finish filming for. That was pretty much it. I didn’t know the plot. I didn’t know most of the rest of the cast. I didn’t know much of anything about it. Just that it was Gilliam, and that there had been some fancy footwork done to fill Ledger’s role and make it work. That’s not much to go on. And to be honest, it’s left me feeling much like I often do at the end of a Gilliam movie: Like I get most of it, but also that it’s wrapped up in so much of Gilliam’s own mind, there’s a huge gap between me and it and I just can’t seem to cross it.

I like a good deal of the concept of the movie, with the power of imagination being a driving force. Of course, that would resonate strongly for someone like Terry Gilliam, whose imagination is fevered at the very least. But I would think that for anyone who enjoys creating something, trying to get others to see the power of imagination is a big deal. I know even in my line of work, which is more as a guide than a creator, I love watching people discover imaginary worlds. And so the conceit of the movie, the Imaginarium of the title, is a wondrous thing to me, as it should be. It’s a lovely concept, though not really entirely original. It’s a gateway that brings people into a world born of their own imaginations. Perhaps in other works it hasn’t been done through a mylar curtain in a travelling stage show, but it’s been done. The thing is, as realized in this movie, it’s done very well, so it doesn’t matter much to me that the concept feels familiar.

Really, I think a lot of the movie depends on the concepts feeling familiar. It draws on trope after trope, reference after reference. All of the stage shows the little troupe puts on seem to be referring back to classical works in some way. They’re a cross between the troupe in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and the players in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. And, in fact, I’m fairly certain at least one line was intended to be referential to Stoppard – When one character asks another where they are, the response is “Geographically speaking, in the Northern Hemisphere. Socially, on the margins. And narratively, with some way to go.” Which really, come on. That could have been straight out of The Player’s mouth. And that’s not a complaint. I like all the homage built into the movie. It suits it.

The main plot revolves around this traveling stage show, which features the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. The good Doctor himself is an older man who sits on stage and says very little. The rest of the troupe – Valentina (his daughter), Anton and Percy all try to entice viewers to buy a ticket and go through a silver-curtained ‘mirror’ at the back of the stage. And it all looks like trickery, until you go through the mirror and find that inside is a whole fantastical world that is whatever you make it. Then, through a story Parnassus tells Valentina, we learn that the Imaginarium is part of a deal he made with the devil, to try and win the most souls. He tries to entice them to his side – the side of imagination – and the devil tries to entice them to damnation instead.

Complicating everything is Tony, a schemer and human monkey wrench, thrown into it all to muck things up. Tony is a curious figure in the movie, playing a sort of catalyst for action while being both good and bad in the overall morality of the movie. He shows up, helps out the show, tries to save Valentina, then seduces Valentina, turns out to be an utter scoundrel in his regular life and then he tries to cheat death. Every good thing he does is tempered by something bad. He swings back and forth in terms of motive and action and comes up somewhat to the evil side of neutral (the nastier stuff he seems to have done isn’t quite balanced out by helping to save four souls in my opinion). But there he is, making things happen by being there and being himself.

By the time you know what’s really going on and what’s at stake, the movie has given you a good look at each of the characters. You know that Parnassus is a fairly good man who really needs to lay off the betting and the booze. You know that Valentina desperately wants to be allowed to make her own choices and build her own life – and one of my major criticisms of the movie would be that regardless of whether she does or not in the end, she’s still basically a pawn in the whole game between Parnassus and the devil and her agency is not her own. You know that Anton is mad about Valentina and doesn’t know how to go about wooing her. You know Percy is intensely sarcastic but also intensely loyal to Parnassus, regardless of what’s going on. And you know that Tony is somewhat self-serving, more than a little smarmy, and doesn’t have a problem with lying. And I like that they’re all given enough to work with that they’re characters, not caricatures. I will take this moment to compliment the cast, because Christopher Plummer is fantastic as Parnassus, I loved Lily Cole as Valentina, I truly felt for Andrew Garfield’s portrayal of Anton and Verne Troyer as Percy totally stole most of his scenes.

The story itself works nicely up until the climax. The deal between Parnassus and the devil, Valentina and the two potential suitors, the struggling show and the troupe’s attempts to get an audience at all. It’s well done. And the trips into the Imaginarium are fantastic. Tony – played by Heath Ledger in all of the real world scenes – changes faces with each trip in, transforming into the person whoever he’s with wants him to be. While this was clearly written in after Ledger’s death so that Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell could step in, I think it plays well into the character of Tony being difficult to pin down. But then the climax happens, and suddenly we have Valentina and Tony together, and Valentina having to choose who to go with, and the revelation of Tony’s past and he’s got a mob after him and Anton disappears for a while and Percy disappears completely and it all gets very messy very quickly. Like Gilliam had a lot more story to tell and had to wrap it up faster than he wanted to.

It’s a tricky movie, I think. As I said, it’s full of homage and reference and it’s doing some nicely classical things in a new way. But it’s also very stylized, and it’s messy near the end and I honestly don’t think Colin Farrell is up to the same level as the rest of the cast, which makes the climax even more difficult, since it hinges so much on Tony and he’s Tony’s player at that point. And I’m just not sure that the ending ties everything together well enough. The very last bit is nicely done, I think. But the climax sort of makes me cock my head. And once again I feel like I started out really getting the point and then Gilliam lost me by trying to do too much. He created something huge and then didn’t find a way to get me across it. Still, that something huge is lovely to behold, even if I can’t quite see all of it the way he does.

February 6, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

February 6, 2011

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

I’ve been procrastinating on watching this movie ever since it came out. I couldn’t resist buying it of course because it is Gilliam, and I love the bizarre worlds he creates. But I also feel for Terry as an artist, and with the famous problems with this production (such as the tragic death of one of his stars) I feared that his vision was compromised and that I would be able to sense it in the final product. I didn’t want to watch a movie that was damaged by Heath Ledger’s death.

So I have had this sitting on a shelf all this time and haven’t even watched it until tonight. Having now finally watched it I kind of regret the fact that I didn’t give it a go earlier. There’s a certain irony to my choice in the past not to watch this movie because it is a movie about choices, and a movie about imagination, dreams, desires and mystery.

What I found intriguing about this movie is that it is the way that the story is told which brings the movie to life. Right from the starts there are hints of The Adventures of Baron Muchausen with its motley crew of players who are caught up in a fairy story that is beyond their ken. Doctor Parnassus rolls up outside a rowdy English pub in his claptrap horse-drawn portable theater and puts on a charmingly old-fashioned show – the purpose of which is unclear. The barker is a charming but hesitant youth named Anton who is at first dressed as Mercury. The lovely assistant is the doctor’s young daughter Valentina. He has a little person companion named Percy who is the most practical and reasonable of the troupe. Then there’s the doctor himself, who Anton tells us is immortal and ageless – some kind of mystic.

The whole movie unfolds in stages. We get to see something of what Parnassus is offering to the proles of the world eventually, but it takes time. There’s a mirror at the center of his stage which, when Parnassus is in his trance, allows people to go into their dreams. Or into his dreams. It’s unclear. There’s also a nemesis – known only as Mr. Nick – who is inside these dreams as well. Parnassus and Nick are ancient rivals, doing battle for the souls of the people. Parnassus offers wonder and Nick offers fear, or so the story Parnassus tells his daughter goes.

There are several stories going on at once, which makes it even harder to tease out the plot lines and make sense of the movie. There’s the mysterious stranger Tony – a con artist and trickster that the crew rescue after they find him hanging under a bridge. There’s also some mysterious deal that Parnassus has struck with Nick regarding his daughter, who will be turning sixteen in just three days. And all of it has a mystical sort of fairy story quality to it.

A couple things struck me as I watched this. One was that this movie uses a lot more digital effects than Gilliam has in the past. The magical and wonderous worlds behind the mirror are phantasmagorical digital creations. They’re twisted and odd and magical. And they are nothing like I have seen from Gilliam before. If you had shown just those portions of the movie to me I would have thought they were from Tim Burton. But the scenes in the “real world” with the threadbare rolling stage are unmistakably Gilliam through and through. They’re so rich and full of intricacies.

I was also impressed by the performances. The one that everybody will talk about, of course, is Heath Ledger as Tony, because it was his last role and he died before filming was complete. It results in some interesting trickery, especially with him being played by other well known actors while in the imaginarium. It’s a quirky, slimy and slightly sinister character, and he plays him well. But there are other noteworthy performances as well. There’s Lilly Cole as Valentina, the young woman who dreams of running away from the circus to live a normal life (which made me want to watch Mirrormask.) There’s Christopher Plummer as the desperate and broken Parnassus. It’s a fascinating character – somebody so tired of his eternal life and so desperate for a way to break away from his dealings with Mr. Nick. Tom Waits is fantastic as Mr. Nick. Here’s a devil portrayed as more interested in the game than the outcome. There’s a great scene right at the end of the film where Nick and Parnassus look at each other with the familiarity of rivals who have vied with each other for centuries and there’s a sort of co-dependant familiarity there between them.

The real star of the movie though is Verne Troyer. Percy is really the brains of the operation. He’s the only one who knows what’s going on all the time, and as such he’s something for the audience to cling to when things get confusing. You know that anything he says will be direct, to the point and truthful. Besides which it’s clear that Verne is just a born scene stealer. With just an exasperated roll of his eyes he can communicate volumes about how his character is regarded by the people around him and how ridiculous their behavior is. I’d really like to see him star as Puck in a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – because I can just hear him crying “lord what fools these mortals be!”

I believe that there is an awful lot more to this movie that I was able to grasp in this, my first viewing. It is often that way with the films of Terry Gilliam. There are layers of reality, details to be absorbed and processed. I’m clearly going to have to watch this movie many times before I feel that I have really understood it. Not that I think I will mind watching it again. It is a gorgeous movie with an other-worldly charm that captures my imagination and makes me want to re-visit it.

February 6, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment