Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009) review

Hermeneutics n,-The study of hidden meanings in sacred texts.

For fans of Monty Python's Terry Gilliam, this is a triumphant return to his more fantastical side, but also a sad look back on the last few hundred years of post-Enlightenment disenchantment, war, and the death of nature, therefore, of magic.
We have lost a sense of the enchanted, and that loss is seen in our most daemonic and destructive behaviors over the last few hundred years. The repressed always return one day, and the toll has been profound. While the Enlightenment brought with it classical Liberalism, democracy, and the expansion of the rights of the average person (along with more material comfort), the price has been a high one: for the most part, we have forgotten how to imagine and to dream and have lost our symbols and meaning. We have lost ourselves.

This loss of meaning is a recurrent theme in Gilliam's body of work since his first movie, Time Bandits (1981), and has carried through in some form or another in practically every one since, even in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1997), yet another quest for "the dream." In that case it was the "American dream," which the characters never really find. Modernity doesn't tend to deliver on dreams but does its best to repress and eradicate them, while at the same time dazzling us with illusion devoid of meaning.

The modern world has liberated us from discomfort to a great extent, but it has also robbed us of the symbols, the archetypes, and the stories that feed the human soul. People used to dream and imagine things we no longer can as a culture, at least in a general sense, and it's beyond tragic. Now, it's down to artists like Gilliam and he himself is part of a "dying breed" of maverick filmmakers. It has also robbed us of the "quiet times" of contemplation that greeted our peasant ancestors with the harvesting and the turning of the seasons; Blake's "Satanic mills" came, the human mind fragmented, and nothing has been quite the same since. Gilliam has been acutely aware of this problem for some time and shares this feeling with director/storytellers like Werner Herzog who has stated emphatically that life cannot go on for much longer without these meanings, these symbolical signposts that are supposed to punctuate our lives. It should be said again and again: human beings were meant to dream and to yearn for a better world. The fact that we do--and the "whys"--is one of the great mysteries of this life.

Without giving too much away, Dr. Parnassus (taken from the name of the mount from which the Greek Oracle of Delphi spake) is a centuries-old Magus and Secret Chief whose last days have finally come, and the Devil had come to get what's due to him--literally. Like the suppressed inner tradition of the West, Parnassus has been with us for thousands of years, fighting the darkness, the ignorance, lack, and yes, the Devil himself ("Mr. Nick," an appropriately dapper1920s-festooned pimp in the great Tom Waits). Like the songs of the Troubadours (their Cathar verses preserved by Dante), and the hidden symbology of the Tarot, the subterranean transmission of esoteric knowledge has been embodied in Parnassus, a sage and a prophet with a mission to save souls throughout the millennia from crass materialism and jaded cynicism. He is a bringer of light in the best sense, just like a filmmaker is in his own way if he's doing the medium any justice. From
Georges Méliès to Terry Gilliam, cinema has always been about magic--the trick that reveals a truth and nourishes the soul of mankind, that special place where imagination is supposed to rein.

There are more than a few jabs at the Vatican in the film, and Gilliam is definitely coming from an anti-clerical position. In one scene, the good doctor shows another character a scrapbook of his battles with Old Nick through the ages in works of art: one shows Parnassus as a Christ-like redeemer and illuminator preaching to the masses, while another is an "illuminated" page showing Waits' Devil character leading a procession of priests carrying an open-Bible. The message there is very, very clear, and the Devil's always in the details--the fine print--if you look closely and "see with eyes that see, and hear with ears that hear." Filmmakers know that bringing dreams to life has nearly always been a Faustian bargain, and the myth of Simon Magus and Faust is where this tale originates from; indeed, Faust originates from the story of Simon Magus, an early Gnostic thinker and "redeemer" who cast a few illusions and spells in his time. One could argue reasonably that Gilliam is telling us, "This is what the inner traditions have been reduced to--a rickety form of show business--but that's OK, we still need them and the eternal symbols. So be it." For this reason and others, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is also autobiographical.

The illuminated procession is not the only example of anti-clericalism within the plot and its imagery: Gilliam and his co-writer Charles McKeown (one of his co-writers on Brazil) have based the Tony/Heath Ledger character partly on the murdered Vatican banker, Roberto Calvi! How do I know? The bricks in the pockets and the role of organized crime in the plotline for one. To make a very complicated and long story short and comprehensible, Tony is a man that Parnassus's daughter and his helper Anton ( the other side of the coin since they share the same name) find hanging from a bridge the moment the good doctor is reading from his Tarot and pulls the hanged man card from the deck. Anton plays the god Mercury on the Parnassus stage, the god of commerce, trade, and profit, but really the god Hermes in Roman clothing. What better analogy of the movie industry could one have, that uneasy combination of vision and commerce? Hermes was the bringer of dreams, of knowledge, the guide to the underworld, a trickster, and messenger between the deathless gods and the human race. That is Anton.

Tony is a lost soul who has allegedly forgotten who he is--which is true and false--but true enough as he's lost his identity in the modern world and is as adrift as Parnassus and his struggling theater company that grants the deepest fantasies of the chosen (those they think have good hearts and who are genuine). On the other side of their mirrored-gateway into imagination, they offer one's greatest dreams, but as a test of one's true self. Mr. Nick is always waiting inside to tempt the dreamers towards their destruction, and time's running out for Parnassus who has made a series of bets with the Dark Lord with his sixteen year old daughter as the prize. In a sense, then, his daughter Valentina (played by the luminous Lily Cole) is Parnassus's final chance at redemption and mortality; he's tired of living and wants to be a normal man. He isn't alone in the traveling cosmological theater troupe: Tony is Valentina's temptation, her desire for a normal life.

Sadly, like many of the cynical and lost today, Tony has an agenda of his own and is a betrayer. This adds a measure of sorrow to the film because of the fate of Ledger, but it also lends the film a poetic quality that otherwise might not have been as powerful. This is a film no-less about the inner traditions than it is about the wrecked spiritual and natural landscape of our era, so it's not exactly going to be one of Gilliam's more uplifting tales, but since when have we come to his films for that? Christopher Plummer has probably never been so great in cinema, and were this his final role, few actors could be so proud of their work. Gilliam is a mirror, as most good artists are, of his time, and our time. Dream your dreams, because without them, there is no human race and no future. Make your dreams a reality, but be sure that those dreams are worthy of dreaming and bringing into fruition in this very material world.


  1. Marvelous, thoughtful discussion! I think my favorite line is, "The modern world has liberated us from discomfort to a great extent, but it has also robbed us of the symbols, the archetypes, and the stories that feed the human soul." I was looking forward to seeing this film, and your commentary makes me all the more excited. Thank you!

  2. I love seeing the reappearance of the Tarot in modern art works. It is a perfect template for breaking through linear perspectives and re-embracing archetypes. For an orgy of such revision, please visit www.counterculturecreations.com to view a history of the Sixties, vintage images done as Tarot cards and a narrative built on the Tarot, an experience that Sixties historian Theodore Roszak himself described as a "circle that goes somewhere." I have just put this forward and would be interested in feedback from like-minded souls. Many thanks for your blog

    William Haigwood