The James Clayton Column: Parnassus prevails

James salutes Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, a film that deserves and demands a whole lot of love...

For the time being, The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus is doomed to be known as ‘the final film of Heath Ledger’, ‘the one that Heath Ledger never finished’ or ‘his actual final performance aside from The Joker but we’ll count that one as his career’s climax because it won an Oscar’. Any attention and buzz that the movie has received has pretty much been centred on the star’s sad passing midway through filming.

This is a sorry state of affairs, for one because it gives a magical film an aura of abject misery and, furthermore, because it obscures everything else exciting about the Parnassus picture beyond Ledger’s appearance. Simply seeing Terry Gilliam’s fantasy trip solely as ‘Ledger’s last movie’ is like calling Psycho ‘that film with the shower scene’ or A Clockwork Orange ‘that film about the dancing rapist’. There is so much going on in The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus that it’s painful to think that no one is interested for any other reason besides the fact that it contains the final frames shot of an actor who died whilst in his prime.

Yes, you’ve got Ledger being excellent and you’ve got his stand-ins/fantasy sequence avatars Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell being similarly great and salvaging the movie in style. The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus also offers up Christopher Plummer as the drunken travelling showman of the title and Tom Waits as possibly the wickedest incarnation of The Devil in motion picture history, but why stop at the cast?

I don’t want to spoil anything for those who’ve yet to enter the Imaginarium, so I’m reluctant to talk specifically about particular scenes and episodes that unfold in the flick’s spectacular phantasmagoric vistas. All I’ll say is that such spectacles as dancing policemen, giant jellyfish and an exploding Babushka – to name a select few – spit in the face of any idea that the movie is just a whimsical star vehicle.

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Visually, it’s the most absurd and eye-popping stuff to emerge out of Gilliam’s creative faculties since the acid trips and psychedelic frenzies of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. It’s also crammed with poignant plot details and touched with a tremendous amount of emotion and compassion; more than enough to knock aside ‘all show, no substance’ criticisms.

This isn’t just Ledger’s Last Stand, worth a watch only as an odd curiosity coloured by morbid light. In actuality, despite the emphatic association with death and morbidity that the film has acquired, The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus is effervescent with life.

I can only hope that Terry Gilliam’s latest big-screen ramble does capture attention and pulls in some big audiences. If that happens, then The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus will come to be appreciated as the pretty astounding film that it is and the albatross hanging over its shoulders (perhaps it’s a dead parrot) will be discarded.

As befits the movie’s depth, ideas and invention, I’d go so far as to predict that this motion picture will go on to establish its presence as a key text on the curriculum of many film studies courses and drama degrees. I see a whole lot of opportunity for debate and deep rumination on The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus and don’t doubt that at some point there will be seminar discussions and dissertations devoted to distinguishing how the movie is actually a reflective representation of the entire experience of film viewing configured through a Faustian narrative (or some other deep pseudo-intellectual musing).

A frivolous flick worthy of note only because of a famous tragedy? Nay, as the academics will tell you one day, this is a sophisticated and cerebral piece of art. It’s Rear Window with a magic mirror. It’s Citizen Kane with a moody sideshow midget.

I felt the same about Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, in which Hugh Jackman is respectively a Conquistador, a scientist and a meditating cosmic traveller in three different, yet intertwined, ages all revolving around a desire to find the Tree of Life and cure Rachel Weisz’s terminal cancer. It’s a bleakly philosophical, highly complex movie that went over people’s heads and passed with barely a ripple.

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Like Parnassus though, with the passage of time people will come to realise “By the wings of Hermes! This is a masterpiece!” Just as was the case with Vertigo and Blade Runner, rediscovery will raise these rejected gems to prominence and they’ll be appreciated afresh as mind blowing, moving movies of immense intelligence and invention.

The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus has a bit more time having only just started hitting cinemas, but I’m not optimistic about its immediate fortunes. Nevertheless, Terry Gilliam and his troupe needn’t be downhearted. Their time will come; it’s just going to take a while for the world to catch up.

The former Monty Python member never seems to be having an easy time of it and always appears to be fending off bad fortune or fighting the latest crisis that’s strung him up. However, despite being constantly battered by nasty big studios, mean money men and whatever instrument of ill omen that the malign fingers of fate throw at him, Gilliam keeps on going with manic energy and enthusiasm. For such dogged resolve and determination to make exciting and unique movies in spite of it all, the director deserves to be praised.

I’d like to think, then, that, 12 Monkeys-style, Gilliam has been visited by his future self (or Bruce Willis, because then he wouldn’t have one of those paradoxical ‘how can it be future me if I’m me and I’m here?’ episodes which ruin promising time-travel stories). Reassured that his efforts and suffering don’t count for nought and that he’ll not always be underappreciated and observed as a flawed lunatic, Gilliam will carry on as normal making his awesomely odd movies in defiance of the dark forces that constantly conspire to beat him.

He is Doctor Parnassus, perpetually engaged in gambles with The Devil (Hollywood and the film industry) but stubborn nonetheless to align himself to ‘freakish’ territories and tales of society’s margins and tout his fantastical trips to the public despite being met with indifference or ignorance.

It’s a testament to Gilliam’s creative vigour that he hacks on with his Sisyphean quest of crafting wondrous stories. Every dogged director has his day. Here’s hoping the man behind The Fisher King and Brazil gets the due reverence soon and that the Imaginarium is embraced.

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James’ previous column can be found here. Our review of The Imaginarium Of Doctor Paranassus is here.