The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

24 05 2010

“This world we live in is full of enchantment for those with eyes to see it.”

That is a quote from The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009), Terry Gilliam’s tenth film as sole director. It is also the thematic thread that ties all his work together, from the childhood fantasy of Time Bandits (1981) to the supernatural wonderland of The Brothers Grimm (2005). For over 30 years, Gilliam has been bringing old-fashioned magic to the screen, despite audiences becoming increasingly cynical and jaded over that time.

If the veteran storyteller was once Sam Lowry, battling a faceless system in order to keep his dreams alive, he’s now Doctor Parnassus (Christoher Plummer), an aging showman whose magic mirror fails to spark the interest of a public captivated instead by the bright, shiny objects of consumerism. And yet he persists because he must—it’s too depressing to think that most people will choose cheap thrills over the power of the imagination, given the choice.

In the film this is depicted via a series of bets between Parnassus and Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), each vying for the chance to win human souls. Parnassus’ Imaginarium offers anyone who steps into his mirror a choice between the rewarding challenges of their higher purpose in life versus the baser delights of ol’ Nick himself. For an alcoholic, this is the choice between a “12 x 12 x 12 step program” on the one hand and a lounge bar on the other, and for each person who enters the Imaginarium, the choice is just as personal.

And so Parnassus travels through the streets of London with his accompanying show and troupe, hoping to prove himself right—that people, at heart, want imagination and magic—despite all evidence to the contrary.
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Time Bandits

14 05 2010

Terry Gilliam’s career has come a long way since he animated the foot of Bronzino’s Cupid in Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-74). After the frustrations involved in bringing Brazil (1985) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989) to the screen, he found larger success in the ’90s with The Fisher King (1991) and 12 Monkeys (1995). And now, despite another troubled production, we have a return to classic Gilliam with The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009).

But in terms of being a pure crowd-pleaser, Gilliam’s biggest triumph is undoubtedly Time Bandits (1981). While not as visually dense or bizarre as Brazil, nor as (relatively) sober as 12 Monkeys, Time Bandits possesses an innocent charm that his more cynical works lack. If nothing else, it was the first film to help establish Gilliam as a true auteur and cinematic visionary.

All of the director’s trademarks are here, such aa the use of giants and dwarves (allowing for many low-angle shots), the recurring motif of placing characters in cages (inspired by Walt Disney’s Pinocchio (1940)) and the blurring of the line between fantasy and reality. The production design veers between the stark and the lavish (this dichotomy being another trademark of Gilliam’s) and the humour is, as usual, dark-edged but playful.
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Brazil

3 12 2007

BrazilQuite a few films have a behind-the-scenes history of power struggles and “creative differences”, but only a select few enter lore as being films that almost devoured their creators. Apocalypse Now is one such film; Brazil is another.

Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam, who had previously directed Time Bandits and Jabberwocky, set about to create his own 1984. Gilliam’s vision was of a twisted, distorted version of the present, occupying a space and time given only as “Somewhere in the 20th Century”, but looking like a totalitarian future as envisaged from the perspective of post-war Britain. The oppression is palpable, led not by a menacing “Big Brother”-type but instead by a bureaucratic system determined to justify its own existence.

Jonathan Pryce plays Sam Lowry, a man content to live out his life working in the bowels of the bureaucracy, supplementing his day-to-day drudgery with Icarus-like fantasies where he flies through the clouds and rescues the woman of his dreams. When Sam actually encounters (quite literally) “the woman of his dreams” (played by Kim Greist), he soon discovers the impact that poorly-managed governmental systems can have on ordinary people.
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