I well remember my middle-school Mondays excitedly discussing the previous night’s episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It was considered too risqué for regular networks, so it showed on the local PBS station. And it was that risqué content that drew flocks of junior high boys like moths to a smoldering flame. Amid the non sequiturs and nonsense were the animations of Terry Gilliam. Sometimes hilarious, sometimes disturbing, and occasionally both at the same time, Gilliam’s cartoons provided a fitting buffer between the skits. He was the lone American in a cast of Brits, but his commitment to absurdist comedy proved a seamless fit.
With the end of Circus, the members of the Pythons pulled up their stakes and moved on in different directions. John Cleese moved to Fawlty Towers, Michael Palin chronicled his worldwide travels, Terry Jones devoted himself to documentaries, Eric Idle staged Spamalot, and Graham Chapman moved to a different plane of existence. Terry Gilliam began directing films. Among his films are Time Bandits (1981),
The death of Heath Ledger during the filming of
The story itself revolves around a company of traveling actors led by Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer). Members of this troupe include a barker (Heath Ledger), street magician Anton (Andrew Garfield), a dwarf Percy (Verne Troyer AKA “Mini-Me”), and
As mentioned earlier, much of the appeal in Gilliam’s films is the creative and imaginative ways in which the story is told. The scenes of the screen are meant to be scrutinized as closely as the dialogue. As Gilliam himself mentioned in an interview with Andrew O’Hehir:
There was one review in
which more or less said: “This is a story about a guy who does a deal with the devil, and his daughter is about to be taken by the devil on her 16th birthday. Where’s the suspense? Where’s the tension?” My response to that is: You’re looking at the coat hanger and not the beautiful ball gown that’s hanging from it. London
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus displays images which will play in the theatre of your memory for a long time to come. It is a lovely gown that hangs on a rather sturdy hanger.
Further, the movie’s attention to redemption and second chances resonates strongly. This is striking considering Gilliam’s self-professed atheism. When asked by David Germain about the difficulties his productions have faced in the past, he remarked: “I thought, there is karma and it hates me. I don’t believe in a god, but karma, whatever that is, is out there to get me.” Though he says that he does not believe in God, Gilliam does accept some form of providence or chance. This movie’s opening scenes, a strong role for the devil, and a plot revolving around choices and consequences seem to suggest more than just a passing interest on the part of Gilliam when it comes to spirituality. Doctor Parnassus’ love for his daughter—love that goes beyond simply stated—is a commitment of very real action. The story’s sweeping scenes and vistas are, though probably unintentionally, intimations of the boundless wonder and imagination of the Creator. The redemptive underpinnings of this film are striking.
As you watch the cast of Doctor Parnassus and observe the decisions they take and the rationale behind those choices, it can cause a bit of thoughtful reaction in the viewer. This is great fodder for an after-movie conversation. Life is full of choices and decisions have consequences—both good and bad. This is the truth. Thankfully, there is also grace, and this is a movie that recognizes that, too.
I miss those Monday middle-school Python reviews in the cafeteria, but Terry Gilliam, just as I hope I have, has grown up a lot in 34 years. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a solid film. It is not spam. (“Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Wonderful Spam!”) It is much, much more than eye candy, although there is enough of that to warrant a visit to a dental ophthalmologist. I recommend that you see The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus on the big screen while it is still out because your television may be a bit too restrictive for the scope of this visual delight. If, however, you miss it in theatres, it will make an excellent addition to your DVD collection, placed between Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.