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January 1st, 2010

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

We wanted to do something different on New Year's Eve, something special, something we almost never, ever do.

So we went to see a movie in a movie theatre.

And, because I'm oddly helpless before Terry Gilliam and both of us are fools for fables and forlorn hopes (and because we didn't want to wait on line for blockbusters every review has fingered for eyecandy with stupid, stupid scripts) we went to see The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

It's about stories, their power and their danger.  It's about the drawbacks of immortality, deals with the devil, dreaming, sacrifice, symbols, and salvation.  If you take apart the plot, bit by bit, it probably doesn't make a lot of logical sense.  But it always makes a kind of emotional sense, even if it is filtered through Gilliam's strongly flavored view of the universe.  The good Doctor's poor daughter, for instance, doesn't get to act much outside of her traditional fairy-tale heroine role (although the exquisite Lily Cole gives her as much agency as the script will allow).  And the one woman's imagination we're allowed to enter pretty much revolves around shoes and jewelry and being young and beautiful forever and attractive to the likes of Johnny Depp.  Whaddyawant?  It's a Terry Gilliam movie.  If you go to a Terry Gilliam movie in search of sensitive and nuanced portrayals of women, you're doomed to disappointment.  I actually think this one is better, in that regard, than Time Banditswhich (except for the ending, which I can't bear to watch) is another Gilliam movie I love in despite of myself.  It's also (marginally) less judgmental and morally smug than Time Bandits (for a Gilliamish value of "moral"), although his theology is, at best, idiosyncratic.

So why do I love it?  Well, it's beautiful.  The world behind Doctor Parnassus' mirror is like the illustrations from the best kind of picture book, clearly artificial and yet somehow realer than the world we see with our waking eyes--soft, bright, significant.  The "real world" segments are more surreal--super-gritty, super-edgy, super-dirty and cunningly lighted to accentuate their coldness and harshness.  I loved the costumes, too.  And the characters were colorful and interesting and irritating and memorable.

I do know (because I don't actually live under a rock as far as popular culture goes, although you may be excused for thinking so) Gilliam had to deal with the death of Heath Ledger part-way through the filming.  It's hard to imagine the movie, though, without quadruple Tonies, each slightly different face representing a facet of the complex, mendacious, charming trickster original we first meet dangling under a bridge.  Depp (although I continue to love him unreservedly) was the weakest of them:  Jack Sparrow as psychopomp.  But Jude Law and Colin Farrell were both wonderful, especially Farrel, who does conflicted evil a fair treat.  In the end, though, it's Ledger's performance that gives the whole thing coherence and depth, and (along with Christopher Plummer, as the eponymous Doctor Parnassus) makes this a movie something I fully intend to buy when it comes out in DVD.

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