Friday, September 10, 2010

Maggie 2010: Dreams, Deconstructed

#98. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

In an important introduction to this last Heath Ledger film (as Imaginarium cannot help but be referenced) Terry Gilliam explains a bit of his intent with the piece, and how that intent was tested by Ledger's passing before production finished. He leaves ambiguous whether certain, key plot points changed specifically to better integrate the three other actors (Jude Law, Johnny Depp, and Colin Farrell) who would supplant Heath Ledger's absence in the role of Tony, a hanged man Dr. Parnassus' travelling troupe comes across in the depths of a rainy night, or if this level of "two-facedness" was planned from the get-go.

But of more interest than this account of Ledger-related cinematic hardships is Gilliam's explanation of the film's primary ideation:

"I decided to make a film that was hopefully original; that wasn't based on an adaptation of a book or something else, or another script that somebody else had written. I decided to start with a blank page."

This statement was extremely provocative, and in my opinion set the bar high for the film to follow. And yet, I'm no stranger to Gilliam's work. He's in many ways a more lurid, fantastical version of writer Douglas Coupland, who similarly imagines wild and unworldly scenarios that, fierce in construction and fabulous in presentation, still have a way of descending into ordinariness or absolute obscurity by their ends. Imaginarium is the former -- a fantastic tale leaping out in wild directions, all of which winnow themselves down to a few more predictable thematic and archetypal outcomes.

But even being so forewarned, I was genuinely surprised to discover that Gilliam's "blank page" was a clear (and literal!) variation on the classic Deal with the Devil tale, with the equally comfortable, ageless threat of a young daughter's eternal damnation thrown in. Certainly, Gilliam adds some wonderful visual flourishes to his tale, which has Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) as champion of the imagination, a sort of ancient Bodhisattva willing beauty and hope into the world as facilitator of other people's dreaming, and the Devil, Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), a curious reversal of his Judeo-Christian predecessor, promoting ignorance instead of earthly knowledge. But at the heart there still remains the same basic tension between good and evil, and with it an oversimplification of the human spirit as part of a game waged by immortals almost as old as time itself. The film almost inevitably resolves itself into only more stringent thematic absolutism over time.

However, Imaginarium does embody some pleasing qualities: The acting is fairly engaging, the visuals provocative, much of the dialogue commands your attention, and glimmers of a cohesive spectacle flit about like fireflies in the dark. I also cannot stress enough a delightful attention to detail, which first struck me when Parnassus and Mr. Nick meet millennia prior to the story's main events and debate the order of the universe over a game that looks suspiciously like the Royal Game of Ur, considered by archaelogists the earliest board game thus far unearthed. This detail marks the timing of that meeting as clear as a calendar might in more contemporary settings -- a welcome luxury in a film where certain structural facts (where Parnassus' powers come from, for instance) are accepted as non-questions, simply woven into the overarching rules of Gilliam's incredible universe. All of these are aspects of the film to be treasured -- a fact I had to remind myself when Gilliam's initial explanation started to heighten my disappointment with the film itself.

I wondered, too, at that time, if Gilliam's descent into the familiar was only natural, even inevitable -- proof positive that there really is no such thing as a "blank page" where creative enterprise is concerned; and that all one can really hope to do is contrive an inventive variation. Because of such subsequent thoughts, provocative in their own right and wholly supported by the artistic discourse in the work itself, I don't hold Gilliam too harshly by his own, declared intentions for this film. Regardless of the originality question, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus remains a bright and lush opportunity for viewers to sink into Gilliam's particular artistic style, and even its less than impressive conclusion can do precious little to mask the indomitable spirit of play that inhabits his every film.

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