Monday, June 7, 2010

Meander is not just a river in Turkey

Co-writer director Terry Gilliam, when asked about the genesis of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) said something to the effect of "I wasn't really thinking about telling a story." In that goal--not telling a story--Gilliam succeeded admirably. (The comment was made during a Q&A sponsored by Creative Screenwriting Magazine, which can be heard here. It's a great podcast series, incidentally, which you really should check out for yourself.)

It's natural enough for Gilliam, a visual artist by training, to begin with images; but eventually there needs to be something else; if not narrative, character, if not narrative or character, a clear thematic or philosophic center. But something, please something, more than a whole lot of pretty pictures. Gilliam does seem to be saying something about making choices between sort-of evil and sort-of good, and there is a severely anemic conflict between a sort-of devil and a sort-of Prospero-type wizard. But Gilliam makes movies like an old man telling a complicated story, wandering down numberless dead ends and then saying, "What was I talking about?" and doing it so frequently that none of us can remember what he was talking about.

I am prejudiced toward Gilliam: Monty Python's emergence in the US was a central part of my college cultural experience. And Gilliam nobly upheld the group ethic to defy, or rather to eschew, logic, explanations and anything that resembled a point. But Python was stringing together brief segments into a 30-minute entertainment. This is no way to approach a full-length work that is meant to have some resonance for the audience.

Gilliam has always worked better with collaborators with complementary talents--Tom Stoppard for Brazil, Richard LaGravenese for Fisher King (the latter project also having been initiated and produced by a very disciplined team, Debra Hill and Linda Obst) . Left alone with pets and pals like Charles McKeown (who co-authored Baron Munchausen--didn't anyone see disaster looming again?) Gilliam feels free to dally and ramble among fantastic visual elements and effects, leaving the audience behind. We are engaged with no character, nothing is at stake, nothing much happens.

There is a widespread notion that the forced re-casting of the central role after Heath Ledger's premature death, by which the part is now shared with Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, saved the film. If by "saved" you mean "made more incomprehensible," then yes, the film was saved. At least when Bunuel double-cast a role in That Obscure Object of Desire he was deliberately setting out to confuse and annoy the audience. Here, that's just an added bonus.

Also, will somebody tell me when Christopher Plummer became the go-to old guy for animation, fantasy and generally weird film projects? The problem with Plummer is that he does have a wonderfully fruity voice and a highbridged nose, but not much more than that. When Gilliam cast Ralph Richardson as God in Time Bandits, you had a wonderful character--the fussy old London-club-armchair Colonel Blimp type that could really run a universe. Plummer's performance in Imaginarium suggests that God (or goodness or poetry or whatever his character is meant to represent) is nothing but a ham actor, all paint and feathers and fancy verse. No real competition with Tom Waits's more focused and charismatic Mr. Nick.

With a solid script and a firm production hand, Gilliam is a strong individual voice in film, an important if secondary director. But no director, even the visually decorative ones such as Vincent Minnelli or Tim Burton, can make the pantheon without a real commitment and adherence to character and narrative.

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