The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

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Andrew DISLIKEConsider this a public service announcement for the good of cinema.  Stop going to Terry Gilliam movies, stop paying to see them, stop encouraging people that want to see them, and I’m going to do my best to erase these hateful things from my memory.  The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus reaches new lows for his work that I thought previously unreachable.  After the incredibly offensive and distasteful Tideland I thought he had gone far enough, but apparently he could plunge further than we realized.

Now he makes something “autobiographical” and reveals more about him than he perhaps intended.  Parnassus is about the  immortal Doctor and his traveling circus.  He’s trying to keep his low tech show alive and is having a lot of difficulty doing so in these modern times.  The trick to his circus is a vaginal mirror that transports whoever walks through it to the land of imagination.  Once inside, the landscape is formed by the imagination of whoever stepped through.

In addition to the good doctor (Christopher Plummer), there is his young assistant Anton (Andrew Garfield), his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) and circus tiny-man Percy (Verne Troyer).  Their show is largely unsuccessful and plays mostly to drunks and disinterested children.  While on sea they pick up a newcomer to the circus, a man named Tony (Heath Ledger), who has amnesia and ideas for how to make the circus more appealing.

Inside the Imaginarium, Tony is played by Colin Ferrell, Jude Law, and Johnny Depp.  It’s one of the few things that actually work in the movie as Tony’s amnesia doesn’t give him a full vision of himself.  So he is partly formed by the imaginations of those that come in with him.  This is the only worthy accomplishment of the film and resulted because of Heath Ledger’s death.  A very depressing thought, especially because of what else the film has to offer.

I haven’t even gone into the wager between doctor and Mr. Nick, essentially the devil (Tom Waits).  He made the doctor immortal as part of an ironic reward for a victory hundreds of years ago.  Mr. Nick appears time and time again to tempt and test the doctor.  Parnassus believes that the eternal story (imagination) is what keeps us going and Mr. Nick thinks that the allure of sin and materialism is what drives all people.

So the story plods along as we hear ominous rumblings about Valentina’s upcoming 16th Birthday and we are subject to whatever flights of fancy enter Gilliam’s mind.  Parnassus gives him full reign to indulge in whatever image comes to mind since the world is shaped entirely by the imagination of the subject.  All he needs to do is contrive situations where a particular kind of person enters the Imaginarium and voila!  You have instant movie magic.

But the images, as well as the story, are always inventive and usually reveal disgusting things about Gilliam (especially if we are to believe this really is “autobiographical”).  Within the first five minutes of the movie we are treated to the sight of a drunk attempting to rape Valentina, who is powerless to defend against him in the real world but is capable of fighting him off in the Imaginarium.  So we are supposed to buy into the implication that women cannot defend themselves anywhere but in their imaginations?  The movie does little to dissuade this train of thought and has other scenes to enforce it later.

In addition to that bit of misogyny we are treated to the other offensive sights and wonders.  Have you wanted to see Verne Troyer in black-face and a tiny afro?  I sure as hell have not and have to ponder what was going through Gilliam’s mind when he thought it was a good idea.  We’re treated to more scenes of “helpless” women that are basically kidnapped and thrown into the Imaginarium.  Then a lame subplot about Tony’s past involving Russians (that speak English once entering the fantasy land), and the overarching plot which tries to justify statutory rape in the context of the film.

This is all ugly and horrible material that is never entertaining but always maddeningly creative.  That’s part of what’s so infuriating about Gilliam’s work.  He is a visual genius that creates expansive, original worlds that don’t take place in any reality that has been seen before.  Trying to track all of the visual influences in a single shot of Imaginarium is almost impossible as paintings, architectural designs, stories, and other films are constantly referenced.

I can see why Gilliam would want to make a movie like this.  He’s constantly trying to give us new images and win the war for our minds on the side of imagination.  But they are put to a film that nearly deserves the title of vile.  Imaginarium is a bleak, pessimistic and despairing film that made me feel dirty and angry watching it.  The actors inside the material are irrelevant, nothing here could be redeemed.

So please, for the good of cinema, stop encouraging Terry Gilliam and his disgracefully dirty films.

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Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

Directed by Terry Gilliam
Written by Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown.
Starring Christopher Plummer, Lily Cole, Tom Waits and Heath Ledger.

Posted by Andrew

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