Saturday, January 23, 2010

As For Film: Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus


Back when Monty Python's Flying Circus made its way to the US, critics and audiences wondered if Americans would "get it." I don't know what it felt like to be an American before 1984, but I can imagine how animations of nude fine art and songs about cross-dressing lumberjacks could cause some confusion. But I never had much trouble with the show. It was silly. What's not to get?

However, after watching the latest flick from Terry Gilliam (Monty Python animator turned renowned film director), I'm seriously tempted to throw up my hands and say "I don't get it." The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was disorienting, strange and dreamy. But more than anything, it was confusing. I couldn't tell if this was because there were some scenes that couldn't have been filmed without a living Heath Ledger to work with, or if Gilliam was just trying to baffle his audience on purpose.

Mini-Me had a role in this film, and I don't know why. There was an initial side-story about a group of monks who must constantly "tell the story" in order to keep the world spinning, but I don't know why. Tom Waits plays a devil, and at some point in the film screams "Yeah baby! We're going to Chicago!" and I don't know why. A mirror can transport people into a fantasy world as long as Dr. Parnassus is in a trance, why? I don't know.

Things kept happening in this movie, and none of them seemed to make any sense. It was a pleasure to look at, and Heath Ledger was charming in his final performance, but I left the theater puzzled beyond any film I've ever experienced. Understand this is coming from a person who has seen and enjoyed The Holy Mountain, Naked Lunch and the majority of Luis Bunuel's films. I love weird movies. I'm always up for the surreal. But Imaginarium wasn't just weird, it was... incomprehensible.

Some critics have called this movie accessible. Now, everyone's entitled to their opinion, but I honestly don't know how anyone could possibly believe that. Sure, it's an enjoyable trip if you can switch off all critical thinking ability, but the movie really doesn't make any sense. The problem with Imaginarium isn't that it's too weird, it's just poorly executed. It pains me to say that, especially since Gilliam directed some beautiful films (Time Bandits and Brazil, notably). But so little information is given throughout the plot development, it's unclear which points are worth paying attention to and which are just frivolous details of environment. It's hard to tell if Gilliam is being preachy, satirical, insane or stupid.

The best piece of criticism I've read on this film came from Ebert (not surprisingly). In his review for the Sun Times, he writes, "The best approach is to sit there and let it happen to you; see it in the moment and not with long-term memory." This is absolutely true. The more I try to remember it, the more nonsensical the movie becomes. But, this isn't a good thing. Movie-watching is twofold: what you experience as you watch it, and how you feel afterward. Imaginarium is an example of leaning too heavy on the former.

Some movies are weird, but you want to watch them a second time to sort out what had confused you during the first viewing. There's no need to see Imaginarium a second time. It is a mess. There is no symbolism or hidden theme to unearth, everything is actually on the surface here. And that is precisely what I mean when I say, "I don't get it." I don't "get" how a guy can tell a whimsical story about metaphysical profundities like dreams, spirituality and mind-power without offering any sort of glue to the audience. If Gilliam has something to tell me, he can't make up a language that only he can understand. There's nothing wrong with communication, Terry. Even if it isn't cryptic and artsy. Next time, just throw me a philistine's bone, please.

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