lowbrowculture

collects stories and ideas from John Kelly

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Last night, through an amazing and unexpected string of good luck, I ended up at a special screening of Terry Gilliam’s new film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus presented by Gilliam himself.

I should probably point out that I’m a huge, huge fan of Gilliam. To the point that I’ve said that I want to be buried with my Criterion Collection edition of Brazil. So bear with me if I start to nerd out a bit.

I thought Imaginarium was terrific. After The Brothers Grimm and Tideland, which were both dark, heavy films, this is a return to the lightness of his earlier films. Don’t pay attention and you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a sequel to Time Bandits. Or maybe The Fisher King. Or maybe even The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. And hell, while I’m at it, there are a few shots there that made me think Gilliam has already cast Christopher Plummer in the lead of his currently-in-preproduction The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. This film shines a spotlight on the leitmotif running through all of his previous work: the idea that imagination and invention can break the spell of monotony cast by the drudgery of ordinary life.

At this point, I should probably try to summarise the plot. Isn’t that how these things work? But in Gilliam films, this is easier said than done. And to be honest, I think this is the kind of film that works best when you come into it blind, rather than with a bunch of preconceptions about what the story might be. Or don’t. Read everything you can, if you like. Just go and see it. But before you do, just let me say that Tom Waits is incredible as the Devil ((Although I think this is slightly lazy, obvious casting, considering what a great job he did as Kneller in Wristcutters: A Love Story)), and Lily Cole is a surprisingly good actress. And the rewrites following the death of Heath Ledger work so well I’d bet that in 30 years, people will barely know they weren’t intentional. Like the malfunctioning shark in Jaws, sometime restrictions bring out the best in us.

There’s another aspect of Imaginarium that highlights this too: the special effects. Before CGI effects really took off, Gilliam was forced to limit himself using physical effects, which had a tremendous… well… physicality to them. Unbridled, his fantastical CGI dreamworlds look amazing and expansive, but they feel paper-thin. When people first enter the Imaginarium, they start in a pantomime forest, with cardboard trees which may have looked cheap and ridiculous, but they at least felt real and believable. As they moved further into the Imaginarium and hit the CGI-heavy landscapes, it made me wonder whether Gilliam made the right choice in prioritising epic verisimilitude over whimsy. Especially considering the film’s message of liberation through imagination.

One thing I should probably point out, which no-one has mentioned so far, is the similarity between this film and Angela Carter’s novel, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. Both are about unbridled imagination (and the potential perils thereof), but also, and perhaps more crucially, both are about identity and choice. I dunno, maybe I’m completely off-base with this one, but I could have sworn that one of the gravestones in Imaginarium had the name “Dr Hoffman” on it. Or maybe my eyes were just playing tricks on me.

(Update: Over on imaginariumofdrparnassus.com, Dave Warren, the film’s art director wrote in (in response to a link to this review - whoa) to say that the actual name on the tombstone was “Bob Hollow”. That solves that, then.)

The film opens theatrically at the end of the month and I’ll be keeping my eyes open during this scene when I go back to see it again. For me, every one of Gilliam’s films improve on repeat viewings. Gilliam told Mark Kermode that his preferred tagline for Tideland was “Tideland - It’s a different experience the second time!” I’d bet a tenner the same thing is true for The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.