Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Terry Gilliam gets a permanent place in the cultural firmament simply for his involvement with Monty Python, but his fiercely independent approach to assembling movies deserves at least a nod of acknowledgment, too. Whether the film in question is on the mark or incoherent, Gilliam never seems concerned with pleasing any particular constituency, from the suits in the corporate boardroom to you on your sofa. So give him that.
My one interview experience with Gilliam was in a limousine returning him to Sea-Tac airport after his Seattle publicity visit for Brazil. It must have been Brazil, because I remember him talking about (describing in detail, making you really see it) the stunt of dividing a horse for some effect in his next movie, which is something that happens in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. I also remember him saying he lived in London because that’s where he was “the least unhappy.”
Gilliam’s new one, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, opens this week at the Grand Illusion. My review is here.
For a look back at a similarly ill-starred Gilliam project, here’s my review of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, originally published in the Herald in 2010.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
A star-crossed production if ever there was one, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is the kind of movie you want to root for, whatever its problems might be.
I did root for it. But it has problems.
Director Terry Gilliam had shot more than half of his picture in London in January 2008 when his star, Heath Ledger, died at the age of 28. Since Ledger had some scenes yet to film, it looked like the end of the movie.
Thanks to a quirk in the film’s design, Gilliam actually figured out a way to complete the movie with other actors playing Ledger’s part—and make the shift seem logical. The sleight-of-hand, perfectly appropriate to a film about magic and trickery, is ingenious. The problems lie elsewhere.
The Imaginarium itself is some kind of traveling show housed in a carriage that looks like it belongs in the 19th century, not modern London. Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is an elderly gent with dubiously mystic powers. Against all economic logic, he keeps his sideshow afloat and maintains a staff of three. With him is his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), and there’s also the youthful Anton (Andrew Garfield), who looks like a puppy when Valentina is around. Which is all the time.
Dr. Parnassus also employs a little person (Verne Troyer, from the Austin Powers pictures), who acts as his Shakespearian Fool, speaking truth to the supposed wise man. Gilliam seems tickled by Troyer’s personality, and the scenes between the doctor and his advisor are quite charming.
And Heath Ledger? He plays an amnesiac, rescued from hanging by the troupe. Maybe audiences in the future will have an easy time watching the scene in which his body is discovered swinging from a London bridge, but it’s an unsettling sight when his tragic death (an accidental overdose of prescription medication) is still very much in the public mind.
At various points people pass through a magic mirror in the Imaginarium, which transports them to unreal vistas—a plainer world than Avatar, but a similarly digitally-transformed idea. In those worlds, Ledger’s character is played by the tag team of Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell, who nobly step in to fill out the more fantastical sections of the storyline.
That story has Dr. Parnassus keeping ahead of the devil (Tom Waits), with whom he has struck a bargain some years earlier. It’s just a thread, and it’s just barely enough to keep the forward motion going. Otherwise, the movie is cluttered with Gilliam’s brand of visual hallucinations, some of which look like they’d fit into his old Monty Python animations. Since this is his strong suit, you’d better have a fondness for that kind of imagery.
Ledger’s performance is spirited, although he looks as confused as everybody else about what he’s doing (he’s an amnesiac, so some latitude is granted). His presence gives an already rather dark movie an overlay of unintended, persistent sadness.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.