The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Kevin’s take)
Terry Gilliam is fascinated by the power of the imagination. In Brazil he presents a Hollywood happy ending that only exists within the protagonist’s unconscious mind. With Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he shows us what the imagination can turn the real world into when under the influence of heavy hallucinogens. With the Fisher King a catatonic homeless man played by Robin Williams hallucinates attacks from a dark knight. In 2005′s Tideland, a young girl uses her imagination to escape the horrors of her own life. Now with The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Terry Gilliam once again explores the imagination to its most convoluted and perverse depths. This may be his most surreal work to date.
The plot follows a traveling troupe of, err, entertainers that travel the streets of modern day London in a horse pulled buggy. They are lead by the ancient and immortal Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer). It is out of this buggy that they perform their show, trying to convince people to enter Parnassus’ imaginarium. The door to this imaginarium is a shabby mirror, an Alice in Wonderland looking-glass like device. In here they can exist in their own fantasy world where Gilliam lets special effects run wild and anything can and will happen. Those who enter, as is the case with a strong dosage of LSD, don’t necessarily have control over this mind-blowing visual extravaganza. The devil, named Mr. Nick and played by an elegant and conniving Tom Waits, lurks inside and tries to fool the visitors into giving up their souls.
Over half the film takes place outside the mirror. While not inside Parnassus’ imaginarium, these ‘modern’ streets are still a product of Gilliam’s own imaginarium, shot using his traditional wide-angle lens. Heath Ledger, dressed in a white tux and an A Clockwork Orange-esque mask, persuades middle-aged and elderly women to jump on stage and partake in the show. The devil still lingers, following the troupe and making bets and playing games with Parnassus over the possession of the doctor’s daughter. Parnassus is joined by his very voluptuous 16-year-old offspring, a street kid who loves her, and a little person named Percy, played nicely by Verne Troyer. Percy is not a midget, but he is apparently immortal like Parnassus, though unlike with Parnassus, Gilliam does not explain why this is.
To many, Gilliam’s lack of cohesive plot structures are often frustrating. To me cinema is a visual art before anything else. The visuals in Parnassus, both the bright Mushroom Kingdom-like CGI world of the imaginarium and the modern-baroque Gilliam set design of ‘the real world’, are undeniably wonderful. I felt the characters and the plot, half-baked as they are, were interesting enough to keep me into it even during the most extravagant of scenes. Gilliam may no longer have anything to say, as he did in his earlier films (see Brazil). All he has tried to do here is create a work of surrealist escapism, and at least for me, it worked. In the theater I was completely absorbed into Gilliam’s ever-expanding imagination, and 3-D glasses and a $300 million budget were not needed to do it.