Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

I saw Terry Gilliam's new film last night and have been prodded to write a bit about it. It is a hard film to put words on, as it tries really hard. For the most part, it succeeds - purely as entertainment, I can only say I had a smile on my face almost throughout the film. It was big, colorful, imaginative - as with most films of the fantastic lately, the production design and spfx departments were working overtime to good effect. My favorite scene is depicted above, with Jude Law on some really tall stilts. Delicious camera work put me in a jolly mood and made me want to try out some stilts.

But as with many films these days, this could have been so much more that ultimately it was disappointing. I have not seen all of Gilliam's films, but I loved "Time Bandits" as a teen and have seen "Baron Munchausen". It seems these films all have similar problems. Ultimately, the script is circular, by which I mean circling around ideas without ever evoking a final meaning.

One problem may be my own - perhaps my hearing is getting poorer as I get older. But I think the sound is just poorly done. As "Imaginarium" is Heath Ledger's final film, it would have been nice if I could make out his lines. The only lines I consistently heard completely were the diminutive Percy's. Perhaps I also have a problem with the accents, but I recall hearing every line of dialogue in Altman's "Gosford Park" clearly - and there were some major overlapping British lines in that film. No - I just think a bit more money should have been spent on sound. This is a problem I encounter more and more these days. I want to suggest that perhaps this film would make more sense at home on the DVD player with subtitles turned squarely on.

So perhaps the film makes perfect sense if you get all the lines. Perhaps. But my real problem is the missed opportunity in which this film had to explore story and what it is and does.

The Imaginarium is a travelling show - through which audience members can enter their fantasy worlds in full reality. The women who dream of Faberge eggs and giant shoes - not usually a particular high point in any dreamed possibility of mine - really are a high point here. But every fantasy is shown to wonderful effect. The problem is thematic. Early on, we see Dr. Parnassus as one of a sect of monks who, through the telling of stories, keep the world alive. Though the Devil (Tom Waits, who is always wonderful) shows him that their story is not what keeps the world alive, Parnassus believes others are telling stories as well and still believes in story.

A bet with the Devil leads Parnassus to form his Imaginarium and see how many people he can influence and engage by allowing them to see their internal story in full-color.

Story keeps the world alive, but does story keep individuals alive? Since Parnassus is having rough times in today's world, Gilliam's answer seems to be "less and less". And it seems people's fantasy stories are getting more banal - though the shoes and Faberge eggs are cool, ultimately, they are shoes and Fanerge eggs. The final fantasy explored is one in which deception is used to tell a lie, not a story at all. It's fascinating, but somehwat unintelligible.

I was hoping for an exploration of story keeping the world alive, which, for me, is yet another perfectly workable definition of myth, but only got really pretty pictures. Really pretty. Oh yeah, and Johnny Depp almost-but-not-quite playing himself again. Fun, but oh what it could have been.

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