A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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 | , ,

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