Ten Years Ago: THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS
Review by L. Nicol Cabe
I struggle to admit that I am a Terry Gilliam fan. I’ve only seen about half of Gilliam’s movies, but he is an auteur who looms large in my subconscious. He’s deeply problematic—while certainly no Woody Allen or Roman Polanski, Gilliam has said some weird shit, failed to produce a good portion of his work, and thrown enough temper tantrums to be off-putting. Do I actually like him? Or do I just like the smattering of his films I’ve seen over the years? I can’t say I’ve even wanted to watch a Gilliam film since 2009—when I saw The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.
Gilliam’s work ranges from the utopian dystopia, Brazil, a movie which suffered a similar fate as the novella of A Clockwork Orange; to the rambunctious Adventures of Baron Munchausen; to the hilariously tragic and poignant The Fisher King; to the dark, disturbing 12 Monkeys; to the lush but horrifying Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
I remember The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus feeling like a confluence of Gilliam’s worlds—it has the sensibility of Brazil, the visual effects of Baron Munchausen, and the melancholy of Lost in La Mancha, the documentary detailing Gilliam’s multiple failed attempts to make a movie about Don Quixote (which finally, in 2018, resulted in the milquetoast The Man Who Killed Don Quixote). In 2009, another round of rumors about Gilliam’s inability to complete most of his movies was almost done circulating, and that influenced how I thought about him—a struggling genius who could not quite articulate his vision to producers, his actors, his crew, and too often, even to himself. This made him an albatross to studios which chose to give him money, while gilding him as a misunderstood, tortured artist to the public.
Imaginarium notoriously suffered not only from Gilliam’s inability to finish most of his films, but from Heath Ledger’s untimely, tragic death. Gilliam brilliantly reimagined Ledger’s character as a trickster capable of wearing several charming masks—specifically those of Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. Since Ledger’s character Tony was selfish and manipulative, similar to Loki from Norse mythology, using different faces in the dreamscapes makes narrative sense. That said, I have also wondered for the past decade what parts of the script had to be cut, or radically changed—was the movie originally supposed to be about Tony’s downfall? Or, perhaps, his redemption with Parnassus’s help? The world will never know. The version of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus released to theaters, instead, waffles between Parnassus, Tony, and Valentina as the central figures, and gives too little time to each plot.
Tragically, I remember Imaginarium not just as a classic Gilliam film, but one that made me lose interest in Gilliam’s work. I remember that it didn’t feel complete. It didn’t feel vibrant or engaged, as Gilliam’s early work did. It didn’t feel like Gilliam had chosen a direction for the final product: was it heart-warming or heart-wrenching? It didn’t become either; instead, the movie is a lackluster porridge of both.
But I wanted to see how those feelings stood the test of time. So here I am, watching it for the first time a decade.
There are two openings to Imaginarium, beginning the narrative confusion early: We first zoom in on hobos in London, England; then, we turn to a dingy bar/nightclub, also in London. A coach pulls up and unfurls a stage, and Anton (Andrew Garfield), dressed as Mercury, begins a 19th century-style show outdoors for club-goers. Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) appears onstage, dressed as a stereotypical guru in Orientalism fashion—and this racist trope reappears many times throughout the movie. A hapless group of drunks stumble from a pub and find the poor production, one drunk stumbling up into the lights to show off for his mates. He throws two actors to the ground, then attempts to sexually assault the lead actress; she dashes into a mirrored set piece, and he follows, where he ends up in in a nightmare realm, transformed and tortured. I presume the facial transformation was added to the script later, to explain Tony’s necessary transformations—it isn’t an important element otherwise.
Later, Parnassus’s contraption captures a petulant child in a scene which should have been higher stakes—panicked cockney parents physically threaten Parnassus and his actors while the child inside aggressively pops bubbles, and the warning visage of Parnassus himself, like he’s playing a video game. This is followed by a greasy Dickensian debt collector (Mr. Nick, played by Tom Waits) threatening a tired old Parnassus, then a scene between the young lovers—Parnassus’s daughter, Valentina, and her castmate, Anton. Anton is in love with Valentina, who will turn 16-years-old soon, which happens to be the age of consent in England. She’s looking forward to having sex. Much is made of her large bosom. She’s also very into traditional home and family, based on her obsession with a home/garden magazine.
So, listen, I do not think there’s anything wrong with a young female character wanting to explore her sexuality or find meaning in a more settled life. But nothing about this works in the film, either in 2009 or after the #MeToo movement in 2019. There isn’t enough time for Valentina to be anything other than a horny teenager with a little angst over her father’s life choices, because two hours of cinema cannot cover the narrative arcs of three strong characters. And, of course, Gilliam does not have much experience writing “strong female characters.” Valentina is probably as close as he’s gotten so far, but the way she talks about herself comes off as a pervert’s dream. It did at the time, too. This might be one reason I’ve held such an unfavorable opinion of the movie for years.
The first few scenes seem to exist only to set up later plot points, which is equally as dull as watching a teenager be horny onscreen. While each part sets up the plot by placing the characters in danger, none of them actually develops tension. They’re tired of themselves. It seems like, by the time reels of film hit the editor’s desk, Gilliam himself was exhausted with the project and ready to have done.
Then, Tony (Heath Ledger) is introduced. Again, I assume that the original script intended this to happen sooner and intended to develop the narrative at a slower pace. (I could be giving Gilliam too much credit, here.) Ledger was a brilliant actor, jolting the film to life with his character’s own miraculous revival after being hung from a bridge. You can see pieces of his portrayal of the Joker sliding into his performance in Imaginarium, which is not a bad thing, as he’s playing a similarly tortured, evil character who serves as a foil to the selfless, but downtrodden, Parnassus.
From Tony’s appearance, the movie picks up pace. Much of it is enjoyable, even fascinating—we start to understand the mechanics of the world after Tony takes over the reimagining of the Imaginarium, for example, and sells Parnassus’s mind to rich women in a shopping mall. I like to think you can see glimpses of the original script’s intentions—the question is not whether Parnassus can get more souls than Mr. Nick, but whether he can save a greedy manipulator like Tony with the power of imagination.
Imaginarium has a bad rap in my memory. It is not as bad as I recalled—certainly, there were speedbumps, parts that don’t culturally hold up (and barely held up then), but I empathize more with the central story now, even the re-written and muddy version that went to print. An aging protagonist who thought he found immortality, but gave it up for … well, for more stimulation? More enjoyment of life’s nuances, but also suffering life’s pain, disappointment, and failure? As a now middle-aged adult, I feel all of that.
But the movie struggles to find its central plot for the first hour, and barely resolves the threads in the second hour. Is it a film about a god-like person dethroned by the devil? Is it about a young woman trying to find herself through her sexuality? Is it about a trickster trying to redeem himself to himself but throwing away his meaningful relationships in the process? The movie is about all these characters. In 2009, it made sense to take these ideas and try squishing them into a two-hour script; in 2019, a few years into the self-proclaimed Golden Age of Television, Imaginarium might be served better as a streaming service three-season series, giving us the time to explore how Parnassus uses his mind to create universes for those who enter it, while also exploring the lives and desires of the other characters. Parnassus spends the first half of the movie brushed to the side of his own narrative—but maybe this is, ultimately, the point of the script doubling back to his deal with Mr. Nick after winding through the sketchy love triangle drama created by Valentina, Tony, and Anton? Questioning the relevance of art by questioning the relevance of Parnassus in his own movie? I can’t tell.
Like many of Gilliam’s better films, it is hard to say how intentional the confusion in the narrative and visuals is. I doubt the poor quality of the computer graphics was Gilliam’s choice, but the meta-analysis of the steps the story takes, the changes the editor made, and the overtly stated desires of the characters leaves me wondering whether Gilliam is, after all, a maligned genius that I’ve mischaracterized for ten years—or if, in fact, he got lucky and somehow managed to finish this slap-dash film. Perhaps I am creating my own meaning from a series of nonsensical, melodramatic scenes.
…And yet, is that the point? Audiences must make their own meaning from stories for those stories to live on. Isn’t that what Parnassus does with his Imaginarium? Isn’t that what Nick is trying to steer souls away from? After re-watching this movie, I think I’m going to be conflicted about this forever.
— L. Nicol Cabe