The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is, as director Terry Gilliam puts it, a summation of his work to date, taking the freewheeling transitions of Time Bandits, the monumental scale of Brazil, the fabulously junky baroque designs of Baron Munchausen, the affection for the poor and marginalized in The Fisher King, the fabled air of The Brothers Grimm--all lovingly inscribed on yellowed sheepskin parchment and bound in ancient leather binding, with a latch opened by an ornate brass key. The Portable Gilliam could have been the film's alternate title.
It's ostensibly about storytelling, Mr. Nick (Tom Waits) having challenged the head monk of a monastery (Christopher Plummer) to a bet: which has the more powerful appeal, stories or vices? The first to accumulate a dozen converts on either cause wins, and Gilliam contrives to fling across the screen a fleeting image of Christ surrounded by his twelve disciples (the monk, some centuries later). That's the hook, of course; Mr. Nick let him win, to whet the man's appetite. Millennia later the monk--now named Dr. Parnassus--rides a rickety old cart towed by horses into London, and here the film proper begins.
Gilliam notes that this was the first image he thought up: a decrepit wagon rolling into the streets of London, to open like a clockwork flower into proscenium, stage, a burst of marquee lights--the extreme contrast (but Gilliam is all about contrasts) of an anachronistic theater group wandering in an ultramodern megalopolis. Parnassus over the years has been reduced from founder of Christianity to performer of a dilapidated song-and-dance routine with his tiny troupe: his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), his assistants young Anton (Andrew Garfield) and minuscule but stout-hearted Percy (Verne Troyer).
Ostensibly that's the story. Mr. Nick plays Mephistopheles to Parnassus' Faust, alternately goading and leading him down one garden path after another. But Waits' Mr. Nick is not all malevolence--Gilliam has his fun with the man, from splattering him with bird droppings (from a supposedly mythical bird of paradise) to inflicting him with a reluctant sense of compassion (he's constantly bending his own rules to allow Parnassus a fighting chance). The two are adversaries, but they're more the kind of adversaries that through long struggle have perversely become friends, one always looking over the shoulder to see if the other's close by. The dynamic between the two reminds me of novelist Anthony Burgess' Tremor of Intent, where the writer railed against the 'neutrals.'
Simply put, Mr. Burgess likes champions for good, but even champions for evil he respects as being committed antagonists, necessary to the struggle; what he couldn't stand are 'the neutrals'--people who sit on the sidelines, who have no personal stake in the struggle, who take advantage of or ally themselves with you, as circumstances dictate. In his best-known novel A Clockwork Orange (turned into a famously ultraviolent film by Stanley Kubrick) Burgess created a memorably repellent protagonist--Alex DeLarge--who despite being a criminal, rapist, and murderer at the age of fourteen is nevertheless capable of that most human of abilities, moral choice. That makes him worthy of respect, or at least serious regard (“Will he or won't he be redeemed?” being for Burgess a question of real import, no matter who is being talked about). I don't know if Gilliam has ever read Burgess, but watching this picture one can see the director totally agreeing with the writer's concept of moral choice, and the nature of the true enemy.
In this film the enemy--the character that earns Gilliam's most intense ire--is Tony. He's Gilliam's idea of the modern man, ever shifting (as incarnated by Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell) in appearance and in loyalties. “I've been trying to nail him for years,” muses Mr. Nick, who watches Tony scamper across a vast desert.
But of course. Gilliam has stated his contempt for much of the modern world time and time again--its heartlessness, its constant state of amnesia, its utter interchangeability--and Tony as played by Ledger illustrates (or rather incarnates_ this quality surpassingly well. He's by turns a confidence man, a fanatic, a seducer, an abuser, all and/or any combination thereof, depending on how matters can be turned to his advantage. Ledger plays him with an unholy energy, as if he realizes that his time onscreen is limited; that he's played by three other actors (Depp, Law, Farrell) handily demonstrates Tony's mutable nature--you can't even count on him to keep his face on for too long. If one wasn't aware that Ledger died during the course of filming, that Depp, Law and Farrell filled in last-minute at Gilliam's request, one might think this a clever idea for visualizing the film's themes, not some desperate measure aimed at keeping the production afloat.
The true star of the film isn't Ledger of course, no matter how good he is, no matter how many actors play his role posthumously--it's really Gilliam's eccentric, ramshackle style, which expresses (in an eccentric, ramshackle manner) his themes. Gilliam is possibly the world's greatest proponent of archaic effects--the more archaic and theatrical, the better. He loves Rube Goldberg machines hidden behind curtains that shudder and belch smoke, then lurch forward to frighten children in the audience--one might imagine that he would, if he could, work with a steam-powered camera, on a silent movie. He's all about celebrating the marginalized and forgotten arts and artists. Especially the forgotten; his Parnassus isn't so much Christ (despite what the film suggests) as he is a sidewalk performer, struggling daily to practice his termite art.
Of which Gilliam's film is a wonderful example, one might add--for a production with the relatively modest budget of thirty million dollars, the picture looks and feels three times bigger (Funny, James Cameron's Avatar is some eight times more expensive yet less than half as substantial). Gilliam employs a cornucopia of sleight-of-eye tricks to extend his special-effects dollar, especially through the use of striking locations (London's Leadenhall Market, the foyer of the Vancouver Public Library) and (thanks to 8 mm Ziess lens) extreme wide-angled shots, but I'm especially enamored of his simplest effects--the scenery flats standing immediately behind Parnassus' aluminum-foil mirror, the transparent cube that holds Parnassus aloft in supposed meditation, the sleight-of-hand tricks Garfield and Plummer perform on Ledger's gold tube. Some of the imagery--the sky-high ladders, for example, or the landscapes in the style of Grant Wood, or the giant spinning police officer's head--recall Gilliam's Monty Python days, when he would push cut-out drawings around and call it 'animation').
It's in these moments that you begin to suspect the nature of Gilliam's true theme--not so much good versus evil or storytelling versus vice as it is sodden versus sleek, ancient versus antiseptic, handmade versus the insufferably mass-produced and hygienic. One imagines Parnassus' shambling wagon troupe rolling out onscreen, belching out colored smoke and uttering unholy roars while Gilliam works away backstage. The digital effects man with the keyboard sits silently in the dustiest, least-used corner of the theater--a necessary evil put in his proper place, humbly supporting film and story instead of hogging the center stage. Gilliam's got a heart as big and gorgeous as the whole world and for now--for this film only--it's the undisputed star of the show.
Subtitles and audio in English and Spanish; includes a deleted scene with optional commentary by the director; brief features detailing production background, an elaborate digitally composited model-and-effects shot involving a monastery (possibly the most complex in the film), test shots of star Heath Ledger trying on wigs and costumes; and more.
The commentary is worth listening to--Gilliam is full of amusing anecdotes, and tells a cute little story about his real intentions for the song “We Are the Children of the World,” which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song. After which, of course, we are treated to the song itself, and the full import of Gilliam's words truly sink in. Hilarious.
First published in Businessworld, 4.20.10