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In Defense of “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”

10 Nov 2009

Right off the bat, I’m going to say it’s a movie I wouldn’t recommend to a buddy.

But that might just be a commentary on the sort of company I keep (goons), not the film’s quality itself. And how do I even begin to tell that buddy what it’s all about? In classic Terry Gilliam fashion, it meanders and drags. But that could be worthwhile, in retrospect, because The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is about creation–among other things–and how it struggles to fit, to exist, to defiantly bring to life in a crazy, stupid, little world.

I shall attempt to distill the plot. Bear with me. The film follows a traveling performing troupe, an antiquated relic of theater hilariously, pathetically, and sadly situated in a modern London that hasn’t the time or desire to indulge in it. In the opening scene, drunk hooligans (think Football Factory) jeer at Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer, The Sound of Music), meditating cross-legged on a pedestal, as Anton (Andrew Garfield, Boy A) tries to entice them with flowery bardic talk and magic tricks with flowers. Evidently, the world has changed, and we must change with it.

Along for the ride, we have the dwarf Percy (Verne Troyer, Austin Powers), Parnassus’ right-hand man and, often, the sharp voice of common sense. He is ogled at, but only for reasons of novelty, not of profundity. And then there’s that other object of ogle-ation: Parnassus’ freshly nubile sixteen-year old daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole, St. Trinian’s), naive yet knowing, virgin yet tantalizing. If were it not for these two, we get the feeling that the Imaginarium wouldn’t have any chance at all.

But someone first gave Parnassus and his Imaginarium that chance, and that’s Mr. Nick (the man himself, Tom Waits). Critic Daniel Durchholz describes Waits’ voice as sounding “like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car,”¹ and what better voice to employ when it comes to the Devil? The growling Mr. Nick, being bored–let’s face it, his job’s easy–strikes a deal with Parnassus, offering him immortality to see if he can truly win people’s hearts and minds with his storytelling. But in return, he comes to collects on his daughter when she turns the yummy age of sixteen. Nick, a betting man, and genuinely sad to see Parnassus so bummed, offers him another chance at redemption: the first to claim five souls wins. And so the race begins.

How might Parnassus win souls, you ask? Well, it just so happens that his traveling show-wagon unfolds, Optimus-like, into a theater stage, complete with its own backdrop, curtains, and magical mirror. But it isn’t magic in the same sense that Anton’s cheap sleight-of-hand is magic – no, this is the magic of the imagination, a world of the mind, which can create such bizarre impossible things. Inside the mirror, repressed traumas and sublimated desires manifest themselves as giant floating high-heels, ladders stretching to the sky, and gigantic hot-air balloons. They’re inexplicable to a degree, because that’s their very nature. And those who enter the mirror can either be liberated or destroyed by their uncanny encounters with such things.

Parnassus and his mirror thus become the medium by which the busy cityslicker can repossess his or her own soul. In one scene, the women who have successfully navigated their imaginations in the mirror shed their expensive fur coats and purses upon exiting, happy and satisfied with merely their own being. In that sense, the mirror performs its literal purpose: reflecting the self, and not the burdens and disingenuous pretensions we acquire in the hustle and bustle of a materialistic, yet insubstantial, modern life.

But there must be a catalyst, a provocateur, a guide that can first persuade the skeptical and preoccupied audience to enter the Imaginarium. Enter Tony (Heath Ledger, and to fill in after his tragic passing, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell). Rather morbidly, Tony is first found hanging from a noose–presumed dead–off of a bridge. In return for the troupe saving his life–quite literally, a reclaimed soul (though, he doesn’t count…at least not initially)–Tony, charismatic and awfully fond of the word “mate,” offers to help them reinvigorate the Imaginarium show. And he does, modernizing the set to look like the interior of an Apple store, costuming Anton and Percy as more overtly grotesque and novel figures, orientalizing Parnassus’ Buddha-like role in the performance, and sexualizing a now-topless Valentina, an image craftily suggestive of both lust and Eve-like innocence.

All is not what it initially seems, though, with Tony’s ambiguous background and somewhat suspect intentions toward Valentina injecting some complexity into what otherwise could be a simple binary of imagination versus soullessness. Anton, who seems to subscribe to this simplistically romantic conception of the world, is suspicious of Tony – and of course, smitten with Valentina. And what’s more, is this new, polished Imaginarium truly the route that Parnassus wished his Art to take?

I think it’s telling that Gilliam and screenwriter Charles McKeown named this sad, old man Parnassus. Parnassus, like the limestone mountain above Delphi where the Muses dwelled and Apollo and the nymphs held dear. There, too, Orpheus first learned to play his hauntingly beautiful lyre. Thus, Dr. Parnassus figures as the presence–or absence, we might say–of art, inspiration, and learning in the movie’s world. He is, after all, a Doctor – learned, but also institutionalized. He bears the title with apprehension, a weary sense of unwilling acceptance.

Moreover, the Doctor inevitably is juxtaposed against Mister Nick. The Devil clearly loves his title–or at least thinks it’s funny–its gentlemanly dressings reiterated by his constant cigarette-in-cigarette-holder smoking and bowler hat. But then again, everyone’s a Mr. these days. The Devil presents himself with a sort of irony by assuming a title you can just throw around. You get the feeling he doesn’t really care about how he’s dressed; he just does it for shits and giggles. He does it because he can. In fact, I even got the feeling that the Devil was aware of the fourth wall, putting on a show for us, taunting us. And so in these two figures we can read a plethora of complex relationships: reality and fantasy, high art and silly entertainment, lofty imagination and guilty indulgence, a profound, dutiful approach to living or a nihilistic, amused one. They are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they intersect and interact, though certainly, Mr. Nick in this world (and, by implication, our own) seems closer to winning.

But even the Devil gets bored of winning all the time. Gilliam, ultimately, I think, comes to a bittersweet compromise. He himself has mentioned in interviews that the character of Parnassus has autobiographical roots, himself being an aging man with an outlandish imagination in an indifferent world. The status quo remains. Hollywood shoot-em-up’s aren’t going away soon. So he must operate within these confines, and save whomever he can. That the whole film takes on the imagery and presentation of a play itself, complete with a curtained ending, suggests a meta-fictional function in that this very movie is its own Imaginarium, and we the extension of its initially unwilling audience, drunk and mocking (indeed, I had a glass of JD straight up prior to entering the cinema).

The very reason The Imaginarium can work is because Gilliam has manufactured this, well, manufactured world, with real virtuosity. The acting is spot-on. Plummer plays Parnassus with a Lear-like countenance, genuinely world-weary and just doing what he can while he can. Ledger, though not colossal in his performance–a fact that is not his fault, but because the character of Tony is intentionally a mere piece of a much, much larger puzzle–nevertheless brings a perfect likability and subtle malevolence to the role. His alternative versions, too, are perfectly cast in their respective moments within the film, when Tony confronts in the mirrored world his various aspects of self.

Honorable mentions are accorded to Tom Waits, for playing the Devil with such necessary charm and self-awareness, and Lily Cole, for imbuing Valentina with a delicate coyness – an almost blank slate upon which our own judgments and lecherous desires play themselves out.

Finally, the visual effects. Several critics have criticized the film for its so-called low-quality – but I ask, hasn’t that always been the subversive Gilliam aesthetic? Were they expecting it to look truly real, and for it to suspend their belief? Again, I refer to my earlier point; Gilliam purposely does not suspend belief in some departments, though the semblance of cinematic reality admittedly had to be sustained through the high quality of acting, or else the film would simply function as a bare-bones metaphor. But in regards to the visual presentation of the film, its obvious showmanship should be embraced as an expression of art – a doorway to an inverted world, entirely different from actual reality, not even surreal but totally unreal in its imaginative power.

In fact, now that I ponder on it more, I begin to realize Gilliam’s genius. Certainly he intended it to be challenging, and odd, but perhaps he even intended for the movie to be difficult to like. Like the skeptical–and sometimes vulgar–audiences of the traveling show in the film, we likewise deride, question, and are confused by the overtly manufactured world presented by Gilliam, a fact further highlighted by Ledger’s real-life death and the director’s attempt to mask it with other actors. But should we treat the film as a mirror and engage with our own imaginations deeply and personally, just as some lucky ones did with the Imaginarium, then maybe, just maybe, we can come away purified.


¹ Graff, Gary; Durchholz, Daniel. Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide. Omnibus Press.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 14 Mar 2010 12:35 AM

    @Marco I know what your mean. In the current economy its tough to find a career that pays good enough to live on and is stable . I have found that if you just work hard and are consistent you can succeed. Look at the poster of this article, they are clearly hard working and have just been consistent over time and are now enjoying at least what would appear as somewhat of a success. I would encourage everyone to just keep hustling and moving forward.

  2. 17 Feb 2010 9:58 PM

    Food for thought, (at least the bits I could make out easily). I suffer from color blindness (deuteranopia to be precise). I mostly use Safari browser (no idea if that matters), and a lot of your site is a little difficult for me to read. I know it is my problem to deal with, in truth, but it would be nice if you would bear in mind color blind folk like me when carrying out the next web page redesign.

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