Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Whenever I watch a Terry Gilliam film, I often envision a high diver who empties the pool and then jumps, trusting to a sudden rainstorm to fill it with water before he’s chewing the tile. There’s something fascinating, even admirable, in that reckless spirit, but you also wonder if maybe just this once he should figure out the landing before he leaps. This is particularly true of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which does some lovely somersaults before crashing into a messy heap.

Turning a grandiose duel between good and evil into a gaudy slice of ghetto vaudeville, the film shows Doctor Parnassus bartering favours from the devil and then haplessly trying to win back what he has lost—such as his daughter Valentina. In less subversive hands this premise could be overbearing, but Gilliam downplays the exalted elements (Parnassus is fighting to win souls from the devil) for the debased (Parnassus is a compulsive gambler and alcoholic). All of this salvation and damnation business takes place through a magic mirror that opens into a realm of pure imagination—presumably the titular Imaginarium, although such expository details are considered beneath the film’s attentions.

Of course, this is all a bit of sideshow to the much-ballyhooed use of three actors to fill in for the deceased Heath Ledger. The device is clever and even fairly appropriate: Ledger’s character, Tony, is possessed of shadowy motivations, which remain further obscured behind each new face he takes on every time he enters the magic mirror. Dodging a potentially disastrous blow to the production, Gilliam rises to the challenge of Ledger’s death and creates a solution that fits quite gracefully into the film.

But the substitutions are still a bit too tidy for my liking. Just consider the strange possibilities of the story if Ledger’s understudies were allowed to run amuck outside the Imaginarium. Instead, everything is neatly demarcated even as the film attempts to project an air of charming, antic disorder. Gilliam lurches toward the surreal without ever achieving it, leaving us with the fantastic and irrational awkwardly contained within half-hearted narrative logic, like attempting to draw a little box around infinity.

The other significant downside to the four-for-one device is that it draws so much attention to what is essentially a supporting character, distorting what is already a rather diffuse picture. Gilliam cultivates a lack of narrative focus here, with no character being solid enough to anchor the film. The plot, much like Gilliam’s characteristically cluttered and flat framing, is a jumble of ideas and images that compete for attention without ever really commanding it.

Out of all of this, you might pluck some delightful offhand moments, such as a scene in the Imaginarium featuring a chorus line of burly police officers in heels and skirts dancing in front of a banner declaring, “We [heart] violence” (shades of Monty Python here), but moments are all we have. The wonders of the mirror world prove to be poor compensation for the lack of a cohering narrative. I was more enchanted by a forest of cardboard cutout trees just on the other side of the mirror than by anything in the Imaginarium itself. Once we enter CGI territory, everything becomes flashy and flat, alienating and dull. Just because you can make anything on a high-powered computer doesn’t mean you should, and a bit of handicraft ingenuity will almost always trump graphics.

Still, as long as things are in motion, the film is not without its incidental pleasures, as any messy doodle from a fertile imagination should possess. But once everything fritters to a stop, all of this narrative detritus ceases to hold together and you’re stuck with the awful question of just what to make of it all. People learn nothing and live; people learn nothing and die. At the end, Parnassus gazes at a scene of domestic contentment with sadness and longing. Unfortunately, this film supposedly dedicated to the pleasures and power of the imagination may make you feel a similar yearning for the world of the safe and bland.

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