Posts Tagged ‘tom waits’
In his recent review of Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Roger Ebert compares the film to “a sideshow version of [Gilliam’s] own life, with him playing the role of the pitchman who lures you into his fantasies.” Ebert justifies such a comparison between Gilliam’s work and a sideshow by claiming that they “may seem extravagant and overheated, all smoke and mirrors.” Such commentary soon takes an odd backhand complimentary tone, for he states that such cinematic flashiness “is, after all, in [Gilliam’s films’] very nature.” He concludes by stating, “My problem with Gilliam’s films is that they lack a discernible storyline,” and, “The best approach is to sit there and let it happen to you; see it in the moment and not with long-term memory.”
Now Mr. Ebert will have to forgive me for the audacious claim that I am about to make, but it seems that he has entirely missed the point of what I see as one of Gilliam’s greatest works to date. I think that the first mistake viewers such as Mr. Ebert make when attending a Terry Gilliam showing is that they expect escapist fantasy and visual opulence on par with The Adventures of Baron Von Munchausen. They expect a film one can enjoy and then forget; however, long time fans of Mr. Gilliam’s work should know better than to ascribe such constraints to his projects. First, Gilliam is not an escapist film maker. Brazil reveals, in all its grotesque images of torture and social satire, a theme with which Gilliam wrestles in Parnassus: an extreme revulsion of regressive escapism.
Parnassus is not a whimsical fairy tail. Satire within the film operates on multiple levels. At the core of the film remains the issue of the institutionalization of charity and a culture of deification of youth/body images/celebrities. Tony’s character takes the large lady to a river within the mirror in which he shows her images of James Dean and Princess Diana who remain “forever young” in death in order to coerce her into making the “right” decision. As the narrative later reveals, at the heart of Tony’s dreams and desires is a celebrity status achieved through manipulation of charity institutions. His ever changing face within the mirror may be the outcome of Heath Ledger’s untimely death, but it nonetheless ties directly to Tony’s obsession with fame and the creation of a celebrity identity by way of press. All of the faces used are leading celebrities in our culture, are they not? It is no mistake then that the newspaper writing about Tony is called “The Mirror,” and his character has a rabidly narcissistic streak.
Gilliam does not stop with social satire, rather he uses his tongue and cheek humor to critique escapist myth making. The Edenic image of Valentina naked under an apple tree in Tony’s reconstruction of the Imaginarium calls into question traditional mythic culture. She shares the stage with an overweight “lady” which Tony plays off of to con his viewers into being “reborn” in a more beautiful fashion. Also on stage is Percy dressed as a black poor-kid, a costume which allows Tony to find who he will take into the mirror first, as the woman chosen wished to “adopt that poor black child.” The catharsis upper-class white individuals draw from their obsessively “charitable” efforts thus comes under fire.
Valentina’s Eve image shares the stage with various other satirical images, so it is not radical to claim that Valentina’s representation of Eve is a satire as well. Although Tony claims to make the Imaginarium more modern, the same mythic female image is retained. How is Eve a modern image? The choice is an intentional attempt to critique the persistence of an overly dogmatic understanding of what a female should be. As the film concludes, The Devil is seen giving an apple to some nuns, perpetuating a regressive myth of the sin stained female juxtaposed with the virginal female. Valentina is not allowed to be free until the end of the film when she may live her own life outside of the rules of her father’s stories. Just as within the mirror, where one is simply presented with choices to make and not coerced into them, Valentina remains free to live her own life. Life is, after all, the ultimate story, is it not? That which Dr. Parnassus claims is essential to the well being of the universe?
I have presented this interpretation of the film in an effort to reveal the various levels of satire operating within Parnassus. You may not agree with every point I have made, but to simply cast aside Gilliam’s newest masterpiece as a muddled narrative will not do. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is a complex web-work of social exploration, and a virtuoso performance in satire on the level of Brazil. Not all critics agree with Mr. Ebert’s review, but it seems that many individuals often misunderstand Gilliam’s texts. With Parnassus, he has delivered. I strongly suggest you do not allow this film to fall by the wayside.