The Imaginarium of Terry Gilliam

Reel Time
Dale Hill

            You may think you don't know who Terry Gilliam is, but if you've seen even one episode of Monty Python you do know him, because he's the guy who made the giant foot squash the chicken.

            He has also made a fair number of feature films, each one as strange as can be, including “Brazil,” “Time Bandits,” and “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.” Many of his features have been plagued with casting problems, scheduling difficulties, producer disputes, natural disasters, and cost overruns, and in the case of his latest, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” the death of a lead actor. (It's not like Gilliam NOT to have problems on a shoot.)

            Though everyone knows of Heath Ledger's death, not everyone knows that he was filming “Imaginarium” with Gilliam at the time. Which leads us, in a slantwise direction, to the film's plot.

            Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is the thousand-year-old leader of a traveling acting troupe comprised of his lovely daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) who's about to turn sixteen; a young juggler, Anton (Andrew Garfield) who acts as barker and jack-of-all-trades; and the coachman and master of sarcasm, a dwarf named Percy (Verne Troyer). So we have Prospero from Shakespeare's “Tempest,” accompanied by Miranda, Ariel, and Caliban.

            The Doctor's Imaginarium is a magic mirror that audience members (those on-screen only, fortunately) can enter to find out where their imagination ultimately leads them: some to lovely, entrancing visions, and some to hellish horrors. The troupe's cohesion is threatened when they rescue a slick young young man in a white suit named Tony (Ledger) from a gangland execution, and he proceeds to update their image, their stage design, and their aims, for reasons of his own.

            In further complication, we find that Parnassus, to gain immortality, has sold his soul to the devil for the price of his firstborn, to be collected at the child's sixteenth birthday, adding a grave urgency to the proceedings. Tom Waits as Mr. Nick adds grotesquely twisted postures and a penciled-on mustache to his disappointed-vulture-who-arrived-too-late-for-the-dead-donkey voice, and comes up with a devil who really gives you goose flesh. This, of course, adds Goethe's “Faust” to the literary references.

            Mr. Nick is a gambling addict, however, and proposes a further bet involving the souls of five strangers, to which Parnassus readily agrees, quickly involving Tony in the proceedings, though he remains suspicious of him.

            When Heath Ledger died, Gilliam said that he simply thought the shoot was over. But eventually, after rejecting the idea of a CGI character, he cast Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell to replace Ledger in certain scenes. Fortuitously, Ledger had completed shooting all the scenes that take place in the outside world, so Gilliam replaced him with the three high-powered young actors  in the three scenes that send Tony into the Imaginarium, as avatars, if you will, of his character.

            This substitution bothers me not at all – if Ledger had not died, I would have accepted the multiple casting as yet another example of Gilliam's experimental genius. And make no mistake, Terry Gilliam is a genius, although of course he is also a certifiable loony, to our everlasting benefit.

            His first genius is visual, and here we're back at the chicken and the foot, because he'll always hit you with what you don't expect. He'll also filter things you almost remember through his viewfinder, so you see things that almost remind you of nursery school delights and horrors, from Arthur Rackham and Willy Pogany to Maxfield Parrish, situated in the landscapes and architectures of your most memorable, and creepy, fairy tales.

            His other genius, and I think his greatest one, is his gift for showing liminal moments; that is, the transition between borders. These can be the borders between reality and fantasy, between fantasy and fantasy, and between states of mind. The moment when you punch through from one reality to another is visually and viscerally exciting...

            In “Imaginarium” Gilliam plays with these liminal moments almost ad libitum, because his set-up is made for it: the mirror itself provides the main border between reality and imagination, but by no means the only one. Within the mirror, for example, a magic gondola floating down a river in an enchanted landscape bumps into the carcase of a dead horse, and at that moment the boat crosses over from heaven to hell...

            There is a scene in which characters stand on lily pads on the water's surface, but stems rise past them, leading to other lily pads that are floating on a surface far above them – an image that's hard to beat when visually conveying metaphoric levels.

            Terry Gilliam's visual genius has gone from strength to strength, and in “Imaginarium” for the first time we get to see where it will lead when paired with CGI. If Gilliam ever gets his hands on a 3D camera, we'll all fall down the rabbit hole and never get out. In fact, if Gilliam had filmed this movie in 3D it would have left “Avatar” in the dust.

            At a recent showing of the movie at Railroad Square in Waterville, an audience member said, “Who needs drugs when we've got Terry Gilliam?” In fact, one thing we can say without fear of contradiction is that every bit of “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus” is inside Terry Gilliam's mind. And that's a staggering thought.

            Reid Byers of Princeton, New Jersey contributed to this review via manic telephone conversation.