The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is a tribute to what movies can and should be, original, beguiling, and intelligent. There are dips in the narrative, but not gaping wounds as several reviewers have so unoriginally suggested. One can only imagine that some loss of continuity was inevitable once the decision not to abandon the project due to Heath Ledger’s death midway through the shoot was made. (despite the many directorial and production statements to the contrary). But it shouldn’t matter, not when we’re given offerings from the creative genius of artists like Terry Gilliam. This movie isn’t just a movie, it’s a statement; and in my opinion, destined to become a cult classic.
We shouldn’t whine, disparage, or in general throw idiosyncratic temper tantrums over little glitches in movies which give us a fantasy world we would otherwise be unable to envision or access. We should sigh, cry, and celebrate mythical minds like Gilliam’s, which almost always have their inspiration sliced, diced, and watered down to the barely palatable gruel that most often comes from Hollywood. The scripts and stories which make their way to Hollywood are evaluated the way Wall Street evaluates credit risk—No risk—or there’s, No dough- No go. Directors, writers, and producers like Gilliam struggle to create films that can inspire audiences to believe in the power of the imagination, to explore magical elements in our day-to-day existence, to conceive of worlds transformed by the unexplained rather than give in to the Hollywood Industrial Complex and hand-feed audiences crap on a cracker.
It was disappointing to see a partially filled theatre on opening weekend at the prime showing, infuriating to see half dozen movie goers exit before the film was finished. Maddening, because it underscores the American lack of sensibility, as well as illustrates its most illogical manifestation: a country so proud of its originality it’s certain there’s no need to reexamine the lack of it. Americans, glutted by a tsunami of unoriginal programming, literature, and social discourse, are no longer capable of eliciting from their psyches any deep emotional response beyond the energy it takes to turn on their Guitar Hero-American Idol-Biggest Loser-Bachelor-show-down-whore-down fascinated brains. Certainly, it is no stretch to say that American entertainment today is not in the vein of the pre-,post-, and Romantic-era artists and philosophers such as Schaupenaur, Gautier, Rimbaud, Coleridge, Balzac, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Brönte, or Wilde.
Gilliam has accomplished something entirely original and brilliant with Imaginarium; unfortunately, America’s pop-culture glutted neurons won’t fire when exposed to elements within the greater body of art, science, and philosophy which informs Imaginarium. Take, for example, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the first feature length horror movie, a classic, and in many ways a cinematic work of art, groundbreaking, artistic, and visceral. In other words, a classic.
Caligari shares several elements with Parnassus—a monk gone askew, a cautionary arrow aimed at the heart of ultimate authority including religion for religion’s sake; (while the chief element in the literary style known as Parnassiansism is art for art’s sake). Imaginarium and Caligari explore the personal paths of spirituality and morality; and do so within the boundaries of a traveling circus act, primarily through a creative device (cabinet/mirror respectively) by which reality is transformed into the supernatural bridge to the imaginary. They share quirky characters, disorienting sets, and startling, sometimes primal, imagery. What’s not to love?
Caligari is innovatively dark and twisted, Parnassus is creative light. In both, the line between morality and immorality blurs. They are symbolic and cautionary: Imaginarium, a soul-selling series of monk-devil wagers reminiscent of any Faustian tale, while Caligari’s monk manipulates those under his influence to kill. Think Imaginarium lacks a causal element and therefore an unsatisfactory resolution? Watch The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and let me know if you can isolate the motivation behind any of Caligari’s actions. Movies, the good ones, should leave us wondering.
And if you want one more reason to go-buy-like this movie, here it is: Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Christian Bale donated their fees for this film to Heath Ledger's daughter, Matilda. Go.
Causes Deborah Monahan Supports
American Autoimmune Related Disorders, American Myositis Association, The City of Hope, ASPCA