Sunday, May 23, 2010

Troublingness: Terry Gilliam's Cursed Films - The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and Other Works

Terry Gilliam's (or rather "A Film From Heath Ledger & Friends", as it is officially credited) The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is his most coherent work since 12 Monkeys (1995). This comes as a relief after the complete, unwatchable botches Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), The Brothers Grimm (2005) and Tideland (2005). Does that make it a good film? Probably not, but it was far more enjoyable than I was led to believe.

The DVD, released May 11th, comes with a touching introduction from Gilliam as he outlines his thinking behind the film. He wanted to do a joyous and fun film, along the lines of Fellini's Amarcord (1973) and Bergman's 1982 Fanny and Alexander (his words, not mine on this Bergman film), that was a sort of playful compendium of many of the things he'd done before. He then briefly discusses the tragedy of Ledger's untimely death during the production in January 2008. A plan was hatched to finish the film (outlined below) and filming was completed. Tragedy wasn't finished with the film yet. The film's producer, Canadian William Vince (producer of Capote), died of cancer at the age of 45.

It has always been said that a "troublingness" (I know, it's not a word, but in the whacked world of Gilliam films it seems appropriate) has plagued almost every film Gilliam has made. Brazil (1985), The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) and The Brothers Grimm were all swamped by fights between Gilliam and releasing companies resulting in the pictures almost never being released; The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was not completed due to a combination of storms wiping away all sets, lead actor Jean Roquefort unable to ride a horse because of severe back pain and the collapse of financial support (the whole catastrophe was outlined in the great 2002 documentary Lost In La Mancha). Supposedly he's resurrected this one and will shoot it soon with Ewan MacGregor and Robert Duvall - good luck to him. The less said about the virtually unreleased Tideland the better.

His only seemingly good experiences were in films he did not write: 12 Monkeys and The Fisher King (1991). Not surprisingly, these are also his most coherent films. Let's say he has a great visual sense, but his storytelling skills leave something to be desired. So, it came as a very pleasant surprise that for the majority of Doctor Parnassus I was able to understand what he was getting at. Even still, the plot's pretty opaque, so bare with me as I try to describe it.

Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is the owner of an odd, decrepit travelling carnival wagon where 'customers' are invited to enter a world on wagon's stage where they can experience either joyful things or darker visions. Parnassus has the ability to guide and manipulate the landscape the 'customers' see depending on what he derives from each person's desires. He himself harbours his own dark secret. Many centuries before, he won a bet with Mr. Nick (the devil, played by Tom Waits) where he was awarded immortality. Throughout the centuries, Nick offered many other challenges and bets, but Parnassus always declined. Then one day, some 18 years before, Parnassus stumbled across his own true love, but since the centuries had ravaged him, he knew he would never be able to woo this young, angelic woman. He made a new agreement with Nick: in exchange for his immortality he wanted his youth restored so he can capture and marry this beautiful woman. Nick agreed, on one condition. If Parnassus ever had a child, that child would become Nick's on his/her 16th birthday. It is now the eve of Valentina's (Parnassus' daughter, played by Lily Cole) 16th birthday and Nick has come calling. Liking a good game, he offers Parnassus a new bet. Get Nick five new souls before midnight on Valentina's birthday and he will free Valentina.

Into their lives enters Tony Shepherd (Heath Ledger), a man the troupe has saved from hanging. Shepherd was a wealthy head of a children's charity who got involved with some Russian mobsters. Since they saved his life, he offers to help the ramshackle troupe attract new customers who Parnassus can then convince to give up their souls to Nick. The game is afoot as Tony helps Parnassus and company refashion the carnival wagon into a credible enterprise and convince five new souls to 'give it up' in the mirror world (he is also attracted to the fetching Valentina).

Whew. And I didn't even get into Anton (Andrew Garfield) and Percy (Verne Troyer), the other members of the troupe (Anton has an unrequited love for Valentina, while Percy -- a little person -- is the grumpy conscience of the whole enterprise). Needless to say, Gilliam-scripted films (co-written with his Brazil and Munchausen partner, Charles McKeown) are often as ornate and complex as his sets.

Visually, Gilliam is a cluttered Victorian. If you ever want to get a sense of what it's like to be inside a Terry Gilliam film I strongly suggest, that if you find yourself in London, visiting Benjamin Pollock's Toy Shop in Covent Gardens. I've gotten wonderfully lost there the two times I've been to London. Started in 1880, Pollock's sells beautiful and elaborate toy theatres and other arcane traditional toys that would have been popular with children in the 19th century. After watching this film, I'm convinced that Gilliam is a regular customer.

The thing that allowed the film to be finished and released was the 'world behind the mirror'. The film had finished exterior work in London and was heading for Vancouver for the fantasy sequences when Ledger died of an overdose of prescription drugs. After shutting down for a period of time, Gilliam was convinced to finish the film. But what to do when your leading man had died half way through production? Because Shepherd's character was essentially a two-faced liar, Gilliam and McKeown rewrote the scenes behind the mirror so that other actors could come in and play Tony (and comment on the changing visages) in the fantasy world. And what 'other actors' they got: Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell. Farrell is particularly good (he had the longest sequence - Depp's was basically a cameo while Law's was only a little longer), capturing the nuance of Ledger's Tony without apeing him. It just confirms what a good actor I've always known Farrell was.

But the performer who left the biggest impact was the 22-year-old Lily Cole as the 16-year-old Valentina. As a willful young girl pressing to escape the confining world of her father's carnival, Cole is frisky, sexy and very believable as the young girl desperate to break free (without giving anything away, the ending, featuring Cole and Garfield, is quite moving). She is this film's big discovery (this was her first major film after two minor works), and Gilliam should be as proud of the performance he got from her as he obviously is that the picture was finished.

I am very glad this film was completed. Although Ledger's performance cannot touch his brilliant turn as the Joker in otherwise-awful The Dark Knight (2008), it is still a fine piece of work. If not for a fluke of production, this film would never have seen the light of day. Flawed though it is (and in some way every film Gilliam has made is deeply flawed -- for example, I really like 12 Monkeys even with Brad Pitt's horrid 'crazy man' performance), it is a fitting tribute to Ledger and a film that continues to work in my imagination in the day since I've seen it. It is without question one of the Gilliam's "troublingness" pictures I'll happily revisit.

-- David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.

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