The Imaginarium of Mr. Gilliam
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The Imaginarium of Mr. Gilliam

Terry Gilliam at The Carlu on Friday night. Photo by Remi Carreiro/Torontoist.

In an introduction to a screening of his latest film at The Carlu on Friday night, Terry Gilliam introduces the piece as “a Salvador Dali painting come to life.” These words were the most concrete, absolute thing we’d hear all night—everything about The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is reality served up inside-out, abstract and absurd, in both the film’s contents and in learning how it came to be.
As relative newcomers to the world of Terry Gilliam, we spent much of the movie scooping our jaw from our lap, attempting to lift our wrinkled brows and un-squint our eyes from the mystical visuals and plot twists. Was it a fantasy flick? A sci-fi adventure? A heart-tugging tale of youth, young love, and coming of age? A clever insight into the human mind, or a glimpse into the wild layers of imagination housed in Gilliam’s head? And most importantly—a fantastical portrayal of reality-cum-fantasy, or another work too ludicrous for mainstream success?

Gilliam describes the film—which he, in a very serious tone, told Friday’s audience was conceived when little elves slipped paper pieces of the script into his shoes as he slumbered—as a take on “real reality”: a forum in which people may construct their own versions. Parnassus, at least on first viewing, contains little, if anything at all that fits the common man’s “real world” throughout the film’s 122 minutes. The film’s premise is complex to begin with—the “Imaginarium” is a travelling cart show, where willing audience members step through a mirror to live in their imagination, naïve to the fact that they’re wagers in a bet to save the soul of Parnassus’s daughter, Valentina (but don’t let us spoil it for you!).

Heath Ledger as “Tony.” Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Naturally, many will want to focus on the late Heath Ledger’s contribution to the project, and how his untimely death affected the production. What do you do when the main character of your biggest film of the last fifteen years suddenly dies amidst shooting? Of course, it’s just all part of the normally chaotic process when Gilliam sets out to create a film: aside from the death of Vancouver producer Bill Vince during Parnassus’s production, there’s, to name a few, the time his Don Quixote suffered a herniated disk during the fist week of filming (although his take on the classic tale is now being resurrected with Robert Duvall assuming the title role), and multiple failed attempts at directing Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities and Alan Moore’s Watchmen.
There is also certain fear among studio executives who, if brave enough to climb on board for a Gilliam adventure, have a habit of cutting his work to something that vaguely resembles his original vision (see: Brazil). What’s become known as “The Gilliam Curse” is enough to make the strongest of wills crumble.
Even Gilliam himself was on the brink of throwing his hands up in surrender and dropping the project altogether after learning about Ledger. It was a friend close to both Ledger and Gilliam who turned the venture around full circle, putting the gears back in motion to reinvent the film, a name with which you might be familiar—none other than Mr. Fear and Loathing himself. On the receiving end of a phone call the day after the loss of Ledger, Gilliam’s friend and reoccurring star Johnny Depp suggested it could be done, and offered whatever help he could give to the director. It didn’t take long to realize that all scenes that remained to be shot with Ledger were the ones inside of the Imaginarium—scenes where Ledger’s character is seen through the mind’s eye of those who’ve stepped through the mirror. Conveniently enough, Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Ferrell all fit into the production schedule—albeit, with zero rehearsal time—and were able to help the film flow.

Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law fill-in for Ledger as the different transformations of “Tony.” Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

So, yes, the film’s seamlessness (truly, you’d never know it was missing its main character) is partially serendipitous, adding a whole new facet to the film—perhaps even an improvement on the original plan. Gilliam called only those close to Ledger for the role, and all three satisfy the mannerisms, speech, and quirks of Ledger’s character. And strangely enough, Ledger’s impeccable performance, without prior knowledge of the actor who would soon assume his position, seems to mimic the character roles that have made Depp famous.
We’d like to tell you that this film was the rebirth of the cult legend, his masterpiece, the one film that would confirm (or even deny) his ability to consistently garner backing and artistic freedom from the big studios. It’s weird, certainly, but also full of careful, immense detail, character depth, and wild visual imagery that makes you want, nay, need to give it another chance. And that’s just the beauty of the Terry Gilliam experience—there’s no way of knowing until you’ve seen it for the fifth, tenth, hundredth time. It is only then that you know you have stepped into the Imaginarium of Mr. Gilliam.