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3 Stars Movies

Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Terry Gilliam is burdened with a number of unfair reputations. First, as a visual stylist more than a storyteller or director of actors — the latter, at least, obviously refuted by the fact that many high-profile stars will repeatedly work with him for pennies. Second, he’s also thought of as an unpredictable hellion and spendthrift, which are, from the point of view of those that hold the pursestrings, the two least desirable characteristics in a director.

He may be concerned more with the integrity of the work than with the business angle, as any artist should be, but he is no wastrel. In fact, all but one of his completed movies came in on time and under budget. A better way to describe him would be as the most unlucky person in the movie business.

After the multiple calamities and misfortunes (that even an atheist might characterize as acts of god) that befell The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Gilliam made The Brothers Grimm as a commercial concession. Despite it still bearing his unmistakable imprimatur, it remains the sole Gilliam film I actively dislike. One good thing to come of it, however, was a genuine friendship with its star Heath Ledger. Interested in filmmaking himself, Ledger stuck around on the set of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus even when not needed on camera, serving as Gilliam’ apprentice and pitching in whenever possible.

Heath Ledger in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
“Can you put a price on your dreams?”

Gilliam’s fabled bad luck first reared when he was hit by a bus and cracked a vertebra, as reported in Wired. Ledger died during production, followed by producer William Vince before post-production could begin. If one untimely death could possibly be said to be any more of a shame than another, Ledger’s accidental overdose at the age of 28 might be truly unfair. He was riding the crest of a wave of appreciation for his performances in Brokeback Mountain and The Dark Knight, and had just begun to stretch his muscles as a director with music videos for Ben Harper and Modest Mouse.

The production was very nearly halted, but Gilliam realized it could be salvaged and re-conceived if Ledger’s part were partially recast with Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. Gilliam stuck to one simple and absolute criteria: all three actors must be personal friends of Ledger, leading him to reportedly turn down an overture by none less than Tom Cruise on the basis that he hadn’t known Ledger. Depp and Law actually do quite resemble Ledger onscreen, at least with the aid of eyeliner and costuming. However, Farrell most captures Ledger’s physical presence and mannerisms. Charmingly, the movie is credited not to Gilliam but to “A film from Heath Ledger and friends.”

Lily Cole in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
“Voila!”

The eerie synchronicity between Ledger’s death and the film’s themes of mortality are, remarkably, coincidental. Gilliam co-wrote the script with Charles McKeown (also of Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which this movie most closely resembles). According to Collider, the story is based on Gilliam’s own feelings of artistic frustration, particularly after the reception of his controversial film Tideland, which many found not just difficult but even offensive.

As its title makes plain, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is set literally in a world of imagination, a place we have visited before in nearly every single Gilliam film. Most famously, Brazil riffs on James Thurber’s 1939 short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” The few exceptions include Jabberwocky and The Brothers Grimm, in which fairy tales exist matter of factly in the real world. In 12 Monkeys, it remains ambiguous if James Cole’s (Bruce Willis) future (his present) or the present (his past) might be real or delusions.

Tom Waits in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
“He’s come to collect.”

It would be a huge mistake to expect any Terry Gilliam film to make total logical sense. Such pedestrian expectations would weigh down an artist we love for his unique, vivid flights of fancy. But perhaps even the wildest Gilliam fancy ought to be internally consistent to a degree. If something doesn’t make sense, is it a tantalizing conundrum left open for the viewer to mull over, or is it evidence of sloppiness?

The central question left unanswered has to do with the core conceit of the film itself: people are drawn into the mind of Dr. Parnassus through his magical mirror. In his mindscape, they must choose between entering a building maintained by the Devil (Tom Waits), or… what, exactly? Of those few that reject the Devil, we see their blissful, unencumbered state upon leaving Dr. Parnassus’ mind. What exactly happens to them that makes them happy? Also, there’s the side effect of them shedding their possessions. They may have been freed of their own earthly materialism, but that doesn’t stop Parnassus from conveniently enriching his own troupe’s coffers, giving the whole process an air of a scammy confidence game instead of spiritual awakening. Reflecting the theme of insincerity is the cornball tune “We Are the Children of the World” which appears as a ringtone in the film, and at the end of the closing credits.

The apparent protagonist turns out to be an unredeemable villain, unlike virtually all of Gilliam’s previous heroes, in particular Kevin in Time Bandits, Jack Lucas in The Fisher King, Sam Lowry in Brazil, James Cole in 12 Monkeys, and Jeliza-Rose in Tideland. Which leaves us with Dr. Parnassus, who ends up a little bit like Parry (Robin Williams) as we meet him at the beginning of The Fisher King: homeless and seemingly permanently locked in a position of want. Both are hobos, rendered apart and invisible from a world of beauty and wealth. Parnassus’ longings are embodied by the beautiful Valentina (Lily Cole), whom may or may not be his daughter, now seen ensconced in an enviously blissful nuclear family. Parnassus remains forever tempted by the Devil.

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4 Stars Movies

Todd Haynes deconstructs Bob Dylan in I’m Not There

I always find it interesting to ponder my preconceived notions of a movie after I’ve actually seen it. The marketing and buzz on I’m Not There mostly centered on two talking points: the quirky device of multiple actors all playing incarnations of Bob Dylan, and Cate Blanchett being just plain amazing as usual (what else is new?). The first point is what gave me pause: how much sense would this film make to someone who is not a Dylan fan and scholar?

All I really know about Dylan comes from the Martin Scorsese documentary No Direction Home, and even that paints a sketchy picture of the man. Dylan has been an enigma throughout his long history in the public eye, often speaking in riddles, and (at least in his early years) inventing a fictional backstory. The press and even his own paying audiences were often openly antagonistic, so it’s no wonder he was so famously combative and evasive. Prefiguring the modern-day chameleons David Bowie and Madonna, Dylan presented a series of personas: American roots folkie, political agitator, rock ‘n’ roller, born-again Christian, Hollywood actor, and so on. The question being: how much of this evolution was sincere growth and change, and how much was performance art? Who is “Bob Dylan”?

Cate Blanchett in I'm Not There
An Oscar nomination’s a-gonna fall

Director and co-screenwriter Todd Haynes, having already deconstructed David Bowie in Velvet Goldmine, tackles the many aspects of Dylan perhaps the only way possible: fracture his key facets into multiple characters. As with the Bowie analogue Brian Slade in Velvet Goldmine, none of the Dylan figures are actually named Dylan, but then again neither is Dylan himself, whose actual surname is Zimmerman. Christian Bale plays Jack Rollins, interpreting Dylan’s Christian period, and Richard Gere plays Billy the Kid, a pretty literal interpretation of Dylan’s years in the wilderness after his fame peaked for the first time. Adding an extra layer of postmodern complexity, the late Heath Ledger plays Robbie Clark, a film actor famous for playing one of the fictional Dylans in a biopic. And of course, Cate Blanchett is amazing. As Jude Quinn, a reluctant celebrity fending off the attacks of the press, she triumphs by avoiding mere impression. Sure, she’s wearing a fright wig and shades, but her expressions and body language capture Dylan’s paradoxically wordy elusiveness.

The result is part faux documentary, part fiction, but provides a truer overall picture of Dylan’s complicated character than a mere biopic ever could. Perhaps at some point after his death (may that be a long time from now), we will see a conventional musical biopic made of his life story (a la Bird, Ray, or Walk the Line), but I certainly hope critics and audiences will remember I’m Not There.

Heath Ledger in I'm Not There
Hey mr. guitar man

The DVD edition is the only I can think of that incorporates long on-screen text introductions (more than one, in fact). Does this reflect a lack of confidence on the part of the filmmakers or distributors in the home viewers being able to comprehend the film, or is it more in the vein of the scholarly introductions that preface Penguin Classics volumes? Either way, it only reinforces the impression that you have to be a Dylan scholar to appreciate the film (which, incidentally, turned out to not be the case).

And finally, I detected a few references to director Richard Lester: Robbie Clark (Ledger) walks through the set of the 1968 film Petulia, during an early scene in which women in neck braces leave a freight elevator before a party to promote highway safety (attended by the likes of George C. Scott, Julie Christie, and the Grateful Dead, so it’s not at all unlikely Dylan could have been there too). But even better is the best Beatles tribute I’ve ever seen: the Fab Four breeze through as the epitome of carefree fun, literally speaking and moving in fast-motion. They tempt Jude Quinn’s (Blanchett) desire to escape, until they are chased away by A Hard Day’s Night‘s screaming sycophants.

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