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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Imagine This

First, let us stipulate that any movie in which Tom Waits plays the Devil has something going for it. If that movie is directed by Terry Gilliam, it looks even more promising. That being said, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," while not quite up to the caliber of "Brazil" or "The Fisher King," does not disapppoint.

Essentially, the movie tells a familiar story of good versus evil. Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is a former monk involved in eternal skirmishing with Mr. Nick (Waits). The main action of the movie unfolds as the sixteenth birthday of Parnassus's daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole) approaches. Years earlier, Parnassus had made a deal with Mr. Nick to enable him to woo Valentina's mother: Any child born of this union would belong to Nick as of its sixteenth birthday. The Devil loves to gamble, though; he offers Parnassus a way out: Whichever of them can acquire five souls first will win the soul of Lily.

Assisting Parnassus in his quest is an apparently failed suicide named Tony, and here's where the story gets interesting. "Imaginarium" was the final project of the late Heath Ledger. He plays Tony, but he died before finishing the film. Faced with the prospect of abandoning the project, Gilliam and company came up with a novel concept: The part originally played by Ledger was divided among Ledger, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. In the end, Ledger's scenes occur in what may be thought of as the "real world," and each of the other actors plays a version of Tony within the "Imaginarium": A realm of imagination where people are offered their greatest desires--either somewhat ennobling (if offered by Parnassus) or base (if offered by Mr. Nick).

Thus, the movie ultimately has a great curiosity appeal: How well did the filmmakers pull off this improvisatory gambit? Does the multiple casting work? What would it have been like if the entire role had been played by Ledger (or Depp, Law, or Farrell)? Curiosity, though, can be a distraction from simple enjoyment.

In the end, the movie is certainly worth seeing, especially if you like Terry Gilliam: As with all his films, it is visually beautiful. Unfortunately, the movie's behind-the-scenes story seems almost as compelling as what unfolds on the screen.


  1. I'm glad to see you maintain exquisite taste. As far as I'm concerned, Gilliam has never made a film that wasn't thrilling, visually astonishing, and unique. Now, if we could just get him to make one that comprehensible, he'd probably, finally be recognized for the genius that he is.

  2. We would argue that "The Fisher King" was comprehensible. Not coincidentally, it is Gilliam's best movie (with very honorable mention to "Brazil") and probably our favorite movie ever.

  3. My comment is somewhat off topic... I just find it really interesting to find a Terry Gilliam post on a blog titled "The Solipsist" because Solipsism is something I've had on my mind for quite some time regarding Gilliam's work - particularly Twelve Monkeys. I know... random comment ;)

  4. That I used the wrong word is unforgiveable! That you repeated it is worse. The word SHOULD have been "comprehendable", of course. As to "Real Gilliam"'s comment, I think it's safe to say... huh?

  5. Now, Anonymous, no snarking at the other visitors. We want to ENCOURAGE participation. More importantly, we want to envourage Real Gilliam to explain the ending of "Twelve Monkeys." (Don't get us wrong, we enjoyed the movie, but was the whole point that, at the end, the woman from the future went back to make sure the virus WAS released?)

    Besides, for all we know, Real Gilliam is, y'know, REALLY Gilliam. Or at least Johnny Depp.

  6. As to the point of the movie... yes!
    But you really should say SPOILER ALERT first.
    Also... wait'll you see "Inception" (and, while we're at it, is Christopher Nolan the NEXT Gilliam?)

  7. Solipsist: I don't know whether the ending on the plane with the astrophysicist "Jones" and Dr. Peters was in the original draft of David and Janet Peoples' script, or if it was added subsequently.

    I do know that it was a scene Gilliam was forced by the studio to tack on, to round up the film with a more "hopeful" ending... Jones is there to pick up where Cole died. Gilliam's film, however, ends in the airport with young Cole seeing his own death and Railly making eye contact with him.

    Anonymous: The reason I mentioned Solipsism is because we really don't know if this is a film about the future or a man who is insane - particularly when it comes to the "voice" (belonging to the toothless homeless man) that also seems to follow Cole around, disembodied. Furthermore, with Cole's confusion over which world is real - the past, present or future.

    I'm not Gilliam or Depp ;)


  8. @RealGilliam: Interesting that the tacked on ending was meant to be more "hopeful." Perhaps it's just our inherent pessimism, but we always took Jones' presence at the end--when she says she's there as "insurance"--to mean that she was there to ensure that the virus WAS released. So, perhaps Gilliam would be pleased to know that at least THIS viewer interpreted the ending as sufficiently bleak.

  9. The thing about the airplane ending that makes little sense - and perhaps made little sense to Gillian (I don't know) - is that whichever way one interprets it, it doesn't really fit.

    Jones says "I'm in insurance." (And in the screenplay, Jones is a "silver haired man" - not that that matters). Anyway, one could take "I'm in insurance" to mean "I'm here to see to it that the virus gets out" or to mean "I'm here to stop it." Neither are relevant because as Cole articulates (and I take this to be one of the themes or constructs), "the past cannot be altered." It's already happened. It can't be changed. His mission was not to change it, but simply to gather scientific samples.

    As I said, I really do wonder if this is a story of time travel or one of Solipsism. If you think about it logically, Cole is forever trapped in a loop. Does he "die" in 1996 or in 2035? If he goes back to 1996 and dies there, then how could he have ever grown up to reach his age in 2035. Once he travels back and is shot, he's caught in loop that repeats. He goes underground at the age of 9 and every time he hits that moment as an adult in 2035, he goes back to 1996 and dies again.

    That has nothing to do with Solipsism per se. But the fact that he begins to question which "time" is real, along with the presence of that voice belonging to the homeless man that Cole hears speaking to him when he's in solitary... makes me think the entire thing is a construct of his own mind.