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The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus (Mark's take)

01/02/2010. Contributed by Mark R. Leeper

Buy The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus in the USA - or Buy The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus in the UK

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Terry Gilliam's new film is a lot like his previous imaginative films, only perhaps more so. A small tacky traveling show in a caravan hides real magic. It has a gateway to a subjective land created by the visitor's own imagination. The show's owner is also genuinely immortal do to a pact he has made with Satan himself. The actual story is muddled, but the imagination of the visual imagery is very good. And Gilliam deserves admiration for having brought this film to fruition in spite of nearly impossible circumstances.

Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10

Terry Gilliam's first feature film was Time Bandits. He had a boy in his bedroom when suddenly a knight on horseback breaks though the bedroom wall and flies into the room. It is amazing. Gilliam's style is to astonish with the unexpected happening very suddenly. That has become his trademark. He did not have a strong coherent story for that film, but he did have the sudden surprises. That has become his trademark and it really seems to be the really point of his films. To much too great an extent his films are very similar. They do not tell their story well but they do have great big stunning visual surprises. That does not quite compensate for a story that is not entirely coherent.



The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus is pretty much what we expect from Gilliam. His visuals outdo Gilliam's previous work, but are along similar lines. The story has something to do with a series of bets between the title character (Christopher Plummer) and the Devil (Tom Waits). Somehow the good doctor is saving souls by trapping their owners in what appears to be a dimension of imagination on the other side of a gateway which appears to be sheets of mirrored plastic. One can be pleased when the good guys are winning, but that is not as good as understanding the game. (Of course, don't take my word. I still don't follow Quidditch.)

The film begins one night with a weird and shabby little wagon- bound show appearing in an ugly neighborhood of London all too near the raucous pubs. The show appears to be obviously a cheap fake only a little better than the sidewalk buskers. Ah, but looks are deceiving. This is a real magic show in the tradition of Charles Finney's The Circus Of Dr. Lao, Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Tom Reamy's Blind Voices. The mirror on the stage really is a gateway to a mysterious world or set of worlds where what one sees is based on one's own imagination.

Later, while the show is traveling the performers see a mysterious figure dancing on the River Thames. It turns out to be the reflection of a man hanging from a bridge. (It makes no sense that the reflection would look like that, but there you have it.) The hanging man, rescued in a nick of time, is Tony (Heath Ledger). He travels with the show and starts suggesting innovative ways to modernize their image and make the show more profitable. But Doctor Parnassus resists,

We never really get a feel for what the show the traveling company puts on is really all about. It is supposed to have some magic, but the real magic is behind a gateway that the audience is supposed to stay away from. We never see much magic in the show beyond a little juggling. So what is the audience supposed to see? The audience is told about the magic of the mirror, but that makes for a show duller than having an impresario tell an audience how a giant ape was captured. Just telling an audience stories makes for very dull showmanship.

I suppose that no review of this film would be complete without mentioning that it was a marvel that it was made at all. Heath Ledger had done all the real-world scenes but none of the fantasy- world scenes when he died of a drug overdose. Terry Gilliam had the clever idea that everybody's appearance would change once they entered the magic world. So Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell completed the rest of Ledger's scenes. Curiously enough, most people find that the idea works.

Terry Gilliam makes the magical world in this film very magical indeed. And the part that takes place in the un-magical, mundane world is very mundane and un-magical indeed. I rate this film a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.

Mark R. Leeper

Copyright 2010 Mark R. Leeper

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