The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus  (2005)  —  in context

Terry Gilliam used to say that his movies are grouped into trilogies.  After cutting his teeth on codirecting Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and serving apprenticeship with his first solo project, Jabberwocky (which still retained a Pythonesque feel), he then commenced on what he has called his Trilogy of Imagination, which consisted of Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985), and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988).  These three films made Gilliam’s reputation, because each one of them is rightly regarded as a masterwork.

They don’t just share a sumptuous and fecund visual imagination — about as rich an explosion of creative imagery onto film as the world has ever seen — they also share a common theme, which is imagination itself.  In each film, a protagonist who is frustrated and confined by the systems of a mundane world seeks escape into a world of imagination, with varying results.  The films tackle this same process from three different angles, using protagonists of three different ages: a young boy, a man in his prime, and a man in his final years.  In the first film, the world of imagination cheerfully trumps reality; conversely, in the second, the brute force of reality crushes everything except the final circle of refuge inside the protagonist’s head.  In the third film, mundane reality and the world of imagination seem to have reached a balance of peaceful coequality, each respecting the domain of the other.

At this point, Gilliam’s career took a turn into an entirely different type of film.  Though the element of imagination still had a strong presence, it now took on a more secondary role.  The reason for this change of direction probably has less to do with what Gilliam next wanted to address, than with what kind of material the studios were willing to let him produce... because though the initial trilogy was toweringly successful in artistic and critical terms, it was not successful financially.  He spent too much money for the size of the audience he could draw.  The set of people who appreciated his brilliance was just not large enough to support the lavish types of production that allowed him to best show what he could do.

As a result, he not only had to stick to more realistic and unambitious stories for a while, he also had to work from scripts written by other people.  Because these scripts were generated in the American system, the resulting set of films was dubbed by Gilliam as the Trilogy of Americana.  Which is an interesting subject for a man who not only left America in the sixties, but went so far in 2006 as to formally renounce his citizenship.

The films were The Fisher King (1991), 12 Monkeys (1995), and Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas (1998).  In these films, our friend “imagination” is present largely in the form of involuntary hallucination.  It might be said that the unifying theme in these films is not mental creativity, but the question of sanity.

Throughout this time, Gilliam couldn’t help but develop new tools and skills that were not at his command in his brilliant early career.  He learned to work more effectively within the system and with limited budgets.  He developed a highly distinctive style of photography, to go with the distinctive material being photographed: one that relied strongly on very wide angle lenses.  He gained strength in working with actors — in his early days, his colleagues were frustrated by how he worked endlessly on the imagery but took little interest in the people.

Now he has a new set of three films.  Gilliam apparently doesn’t care to label his films as trilogies anymore... but if we still did, what would this new set be?  Well... I’m afraid it would have to be called Trilogy of Imagination II: The Reimagining.  Because it really does cover the same ground as the first trilogy, at least in outline: three films about imagining your way out of a difficult mundane world, one set in childhood, one in the prime of life, and one in old age.

The prime-of-life film is best disposed of quickly: The Brothers Grimm (2005) combines a retro Pythonesque type of rather crude humor with a thick layer of pure Hollywood formula.  It’s crass and loud and, in many areas, quite unoriginal.  It’s probably a very good indicator of what all of Gilliam’s films would be like if he was just a tool of the money-men.  I still thought it worth watching, though.

The film set in childhood is far more interesting.  Tideland (also 2005) is Gilliam’s grimmest and post pessimistic work.  In this tale, a little girl is left to fend for herself in isolated rural country with no parents, and scarcely anyone else around.  Unprepared to care for herself, she copes day to day with the impossibility of her situation largely through imagination.  Unlike Gilliam’s earlier visual feasts, this one doesn’t revel in throwing the girl’s vivid internal world up on the screen; we see some of it, but often we only hear about it from outside.  And while his original child-oriented imagination movie was all about the sheer let’s-have-an-adventure fun you could have in story-land, this one confronts, more squarely than any of Gilliam’s previous work, the dysfunctionality inherent in using imagination as a tool to handle reality with.  It’s a poor instrument which the girl falls back on because she just doesn’t have anything else.  (Also, it is quite disturbing; you would not be wrong to call it a horror film.)

It can also be considered a work of Americana; if this tale has a recognizable genre, it is Southern Gothic.

Tideland was a quite simple and cheap movie to make, but is a very impressive work in some ways.  For one thing, it cements that Gilliam has now become a top-notch actors’ director.  He can elicit solid or even profound performances from anyone, no matter how inexperienced they may be.

So now we come to the capstone of this new trilogy, the one set in old age.  Very old age — if he’s telling the truth, Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) may be centuries old, and he feels the weight of every year.  But he’s got something in return for that burden... the ability to open the Imaginarium.  In this realm, anyone’s world of internal imagination can, temporarily, become real.

So Gilliam comes back to his oeuvre of splendid and startling visual creativity, except this time it’s mostly computer generated.  This does help keep it affordable... but it definitely lacks something relative to his classic early films.  The richness of this film comes through mainly not inside the Imaginarium, but in the marvelously rich and detailed corner of reality that our characters have managed to create in everyday London.

Parnassus lives in a world of story.  So much so that his teenage daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) — the product of an unexpected affair at an age when he thought such things were long past — craves nothing but normalcy and concrete reality.  She accuses him of filling her head with trash.  But she is not yet ready to leave him and strike out on her own, though she’s getting close to it.  So she and Parnassus travel around Britain, with a sidekick named Percy and a young showman and amateur magician named Anton.  They put on a little show which lures people to step through a cheesy “magic mirror”.  Those who take the step encounter the Imaginarium.  And waiting in there is... Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), a character who seems to be very much like the Devil.  Once Nick enters the picture, a person in the imaginarium invariably ends up facing a choice, and if they take the wrong choice — which generally amounts to giving in to the temptation of vice and sin — they’re lost.  They may never come back to this side of the mirror, or if they do, it’s solely at Mr. Nick’s discretion and in his company.  The Imaginarium can be a tremendously enriching experience, but it can also be mortally dangerous.

Parnassus has one terrible vice of his own: he likes to make bets with Nick.  That’s how he has lived so long, he says — by winning a bet.  In a moment of vainglorious egoism, he bets the soul of his daughter.  And just as he begins the struggle to win that bet, an unexpected character drops into their company, by the most startling means of them finding him hanged but not dead: a man who claims to have no memory, but turns out to be a fast-talking scoundrel.

This character, Tony, was the final performance of Heath Ledger.  He died when the film was less than half made, and yet Gilliam finished the movie anyway.  Since it was the real-world scenes that had largely been completed, Gilliam came up with a clever workaround: he simply established that inside the Imaginarium, a character may have a different face.  He does this with an early scene where a drunken yobbo (who happens to look a lot like Gilliam) barges through the mirror.  When Tony goes through, the face he ends up with depends on who’s doing the imagining, so on the inside he’s played by three different actors.  It’s believed that this is the first time a film with such a devastating loss to its cast had ever managed to be successfully completed anyway (unless you count Plan Nine From Outer Space).  And the gimmick, cheap workaround though it is, clicks surprisingly well as a meaningful artistic choice.

Tony’s presence badly disrupts the group.  Though he means them no harm, he is in the end out only for himself, and eventually he has to face Parnassus in a showdown... on the Doctor’s home turf.  But when it comes to the fate of Valentina, the Doctor finds that the home field gives him no advantage at all...

And of course, this might all just be an allegorical view of how an unreliable narrator frames, to himself, the story of the mistakes he made.  That’s one way to look at it.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was originally supposed to be a fairly lightweight little flight of fancy, but the completed film is a powerful dramatic work.  It contains some excellent performances.  And this isn’t just because Gilliam has cast heavyweight acting talents such as Heath Ledger and Christopher Plummer... of the six main roles, three are played by a musician, a midget stuntman, and an underwear model!  Every one of them gives a rock-solid performance.  For Verne Troyer, Percy is, in dramatic terms, the role of his career.

This latter trilogy is never going to blow people’s minds as forcefully as Brazil and Munchausen did, but (Grimm aside) they are in some ways deeper works, and show Gilliam as a moviemaker whose powers continue to increase every time he goes out and shoots film.  There are great rewards to be found in the latter works of this uniquely brilliant auteur.