Comfortable and Furious

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

123 Minutes, PG-13 for adult themes

The pleasures and perils of imagination…

Is it Truly as Awesome as Your Synopsis Suggests?

Not quite. But it’s still a wonderful and weird delirium of a movie.

The Imaginarium of Dr. ParnassusI’m glad that this is not Terry Gilliam’s last film, though it could have served as a fine swan song for any career. This most unlucky and cursed of film-makers is one of the greatest of all dramatic troupers, resurrecting himself again and again after enduring every disaster that can befall a film project. It makes perfect sense that he wants to tell stories about Don Quixote, and the Baron Munchhausen. Gilliam is the last apostle of the old Piccadilly, of pantomime and pancake, of cut and paste animation. He’s plumbed this nostalgia to establish his own language of the absurd, a humane and humorous style that makes even his missteps forgivable.

We start with street theatre. A horse-drawn wagon opens up, offering a chintzy pitch, hoping to entice the pikers to enter. The Imaginarium is the psychic landscape of Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer). People who choose to enter are put through a crucible of their inner psyche. The Imaginarium has the power to either purify or destroy those who enter it. Unfortunately, the modern London only offers Chavs and ASBO Andy’s for this wonderland of the soul. Assisting the old man’s show is the eager Anton (Andrew Garfield), the conscientious Percy (Verne Troyer), and Parnassus’ daughter Valentina (Lily Cole).

It’s bad enough that Dr. Parnassus can’t attract a good audience (if only they’d relocate to Portland, OR, or Williamsburg, where they’d draw in the steampunk crowd). The Devil (Tom Waits) is about to collect a debt. Centuries ago, Parnassus made a bet with Old Nick that people would choose imagination and wonder over their vices. To carry out this bet, Parnassus was given the power of the Imaginarium, and an immortality with which to prove his thesis. The Devil gets the souls of all who choose vice within the Imaginarium. A weary Parnasssus asks for a vacation from this task, and he gets a reprieve, but the resulting first-born child is the payment for Parnassus getting a break from the soul-crucible business. But this Lucifer is an incorrigible gambler. Parnassus cajoles Nick to make another wager, to save his daughter. And so the race for souls is on.

At that point the hanged man, Tony, is found dangling below London Bridge. Pulled away from his death, the amnesiac offers to aid the Parnassus acting guild. Tony’s charisma and understanding of marketing helps to give the Imaginarium a glossy makeover, bringing a new crowd to the show. But will this Tony prove a Jesus, a Judas, or a Jonah? Parnassus wants to save Tony, Valentina wants to schtupp Tony, and Anton wants to expose Tony as a fraud. And in the shadows, the Devil plots his next move.


Gilliam is working with familiar motifs of vagabond storytellers (see also The Brothers Grimm, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Baron Munchhausen). This production doesn’t have the tight beats, fast reverses, and iconic shots that made Brazil, and 12 Monkeys, so stark and powerful. At the same time, it’s a more confident and coherent film than The Brothers Grimm. The scenes in the Imaginarium are the most fun parts of the film- each soul gets a distinctive landscape, yet all are still influenced by the comic surrealism that is Gilliam’s trademark. Gilliam is unafraid to be silly, but for all of the can-can dancing constables in drag, the underlying conflict and arguments are a refreshing and rare alternative from the cliches of Hollywood. This film is the latest collaboration with writer Christopher McKeown, and it’s a good reprise from one of the most classic and indelibly English writing/directing teams.

Tony (Heath Ledger/Johnny Depp/Colin Ferrell/Jude Law)

Most famously, this was Heath Ledger’s last film; and in the true stoicism of a professional director, Gilliam was able to turn the tragic loss of his lead man into an opportunity. The Imaginarium’s peril is highlighted by the transformations that Tony undergoes, which highlight the duplicitous nature of the character, his willingness to change to suit the expectations of others. Ledger gets the lion’s share of the performance- he’s the most plausible Tony, suggesting an East End grifter who can switch over to a Home Counties tone for the West End mavens. When he’s in the mindscape of a high society matron, he becomes Johnny Depp. Later, in the realm of a Russian mobster, Tony becomes a far tackier looking Jude Law. And when in Valentina’s dream, he becomes a twitchy Colin Ferrell. The question becomes how much of the changes reflect his mood, and how much his appearance reflects the different corners of Tony’s being. There’s the real world Tony (Ledger), the ideal/psychopomp Tony (Depp), the needy wheedler Tony (Law), and the inner Tony (Ferrell). This part is right alongside Jaws as far as an example of how to make a project-killing failure into a central strength of the film.

The Cast

The ensemble really lifts this film into the upper bracket of Gilliam’s movies. Verne Davis provides the unheeded voice of reason, Andrew Garfield is more charismatic and plausibly neurotic in this than in his new franchise, and Lily Cole conveys the overcompensation of a teenage girl who doesn’t truly recognize the wondrous circumstances that surround her. Christopher Plummer plays a profoundly old and weary immortal, and he projects the sense of incredible antiquity. Tom Waits was born to play the devil; he beats Al Pacino and even places narrowly ahead of Peter Cook in the ranks of movie Beelzebubs.


Occult Symbolism

This story is Gilliam applying his favorite themes to the classic deal-with-the-devil story. It is transformed from a tale of the perils of wish granting, into a message about the virtues of creativity. The easy ways and the path of deceit leads to destruction. It is only by hard work, sacrifice, and altruism, that a soul finds immortality.

As for the name- Parnassus is the mountain of Delphi, the sacred mountain of the god Apollo, called the home of poetry by the ancient Greeks. Apollo was the god of mathematics and music. If you buy Nietzsche’s theory in The Birth of Tragedy, Apollo represented rational aesthetics, creative energies directed in a disciplined direction, while Dionysis represents unfiltered creativity. Mr. Nick offers an easier path- get drunk! Get in a fight! Get laid! Nick is like Pan, the Dionysian advocate of pursuing creativity through excess instead of by organized contemplation. This whole film is a rejection of taking the fast path of excess, which makes Mr. Ledger’s death the more poignant.

The point is that modern society makes the materialistic excess more obvious and more desirable than the path of restrained determination. Nick’s sales pitches are cast in the language of modern advertising- liquor ads, porn ads, video games, self-improvement courses. It’s barely a competition when you pit a reclusive monk and mystic against a worldly salesman. The competition is temporarily evened by Tony’s marketing, but those schemes ultimately reduce the experience as well. Finally Parnassus solves the problem by turning the Imaginarium into a toy, a paper doll theatre for children. When children choose to make their own dramas and stories, the perils of the Imaginarium are avoided. If you make your own entertainment, this film says, you can elude the dangers of cheap art.

Let’s go through the spiritual cross-roads that we are shown. The first pilgrim to the Imaginarium chooses alcohol instead of rehab, and he is destroyed. The second pilgrim, a middle aged woman, initially travels through a reverie of shoes and jewelry. She resist the temptations of a one night stand, overcomes her fear of death (the gondolas with the celebrities), and, by foregoing materialism, becomes transcendent. Then there’s Tony’s mindscape. It’s a land of motivation seminars and ambition, a place of aphorisms and self-interest. Tony finds ascending the ladder pleasurable, but he is dragged down by his creditors. Finally, the film climaxes in a sequence where each new character entering the mindscape‚ re-configures the chaos into another form.

Anton always appears as Mercury- the impulsive and impatient messenger of truth. Dr. Parnassus is implied to have been an Eastern monk, a ‘Tibetan Master’. Valentina alternates between being Athena, Eve, Elizabeth I, and Britannia, all figures of inception (Athens/Mankind/England/Britain).

Tony Shepherd refers to a number of occult events and symbols, and is the most layered figure of the drama. His initial circumstances refers to the murder of Roberto Calvi. Roberto Calvi was the chairman of Banco Ambrosiano, often called ‘God’s Banker’ as he handled the financial accounts of the Vatican. In 1982 he was found hung beneath Blackfriar’s bridge in London, occult symbols upon his brow, his pockets weighed down with gold bricks. The Hanged Man is another symbol for loss and sacrifice. In the Major Arcana, he represents Odin, the Passion of the Christ, and Prometheus. It’s the theme of choosing death for knowledge. So when Tony appears, he is making the sign of a Martyr. Parnassus (the Magus) then considers him as a student and protege.

The Devil is more interested in stopping Tony Shepherd than he’s interested in getting Valentina. Shepherd learns that sacrifice brings ascension. He’s not quite a Christ figure- instead, we have a mixture of a trickster figure and a Christ figure. But he has the potential. At the end, Parnassus offers Tony his magic flute, when he is at the summit, right before he is about to sacrifice himself. Tony uses the flute, thinking that it will save him again. However, because the sacrifice is selfish and impure, Tony misses ascension, the Devil wins, and Parnassus is left to wander in the wasteland of his mind.

The film also borrows from the symbolism of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Like Tamino, Tony has a magic flute that is used to escape his perils; but rather than playing the flute, Tony uses his to dodge death, by preventing his neck from being broken He gets lynched repeatedly in this film. Tony’s pilgrimage has three stages, and three different avatars. When he gets to the end, he believes that his magic flute will once again save him; however, because his motives were impure, his flute also proves false, and he is killed at the final test. Tony has chosen to use his talent (the flute) for falsehood, rather than for illumination (unlike Tamino). While Tamino accepted the creed of Osiris (the resurrection) and is willing in good faith to undergo death and rebirth, Tony tries to resist the sacrificial death, and accordingly suffers a full and real death.

Now let’s look at Valentina. A red headed woman named after the day of love, who is to be taken by the Devil upon reaching her sweet sixteen, the age of entry into adult womanhood? I’ll take the Babalon Working for $500, Alex. Blame it on Crowley, or blame the misogyny of traditional Masonry (Lodge of the Sacred Grotto? Seriously?), but occult initiation for women involves Eros, rather than Thanos. Men get initiated with orphic rituals of fake death, woman get initiated with sexuality.

Let’s look at this anthropologically for a moment in terms of expansionist agrarian stone age societies. Men are needed to kill and die for the expansion of the tribe, and so they are given the Myth of the Resurrection (Jesus/Orpheus/Balder/Osiris) and rituals to inure themselves to death. Woman are needed to breed and make babies, and so they get the Myth of the Sacred Child (Baby Jesus/Vishnu/Mithras). Think about the other implications of The Immaculate Conception, which was supposed to be a perfect pregnancy. That’s a fantasy- keep that baby, lady- because not only will it be a divine super-baby, but your pregnancy will be painless and free of complication, immaculate, in fact. Lay back and think about the second coming of the Son of Man.

The pater magi (Parnassus) doesn’t want to initiate his daugher (Valentina) with the World/The Aeons/The Ialdaboath (Nick/Tom Waits). By fortune, he finds a potential male initiate (Tony Shepherd), undergoing an occult ordeal (specifically the ordeal of Wotan, the hanged god, who suffered nine days hung upon the world tree Yggdrasil so as to learn the runes and songs of magic). So the Illuminus (Dr. Parnassus), who is alerted to the intransigence of the male Initiate (Tony Shepherd) by Hermes/Thoth (Anton), makes a deal with the Rex Mundi (Tom Waits) to betray the male Initiate, in exchange for the female Initiate (Valentina) being spared from a gnostic initiation, instead being permitted to live out a life in the material, or un-illuminated world. At the end, the Illuminus is left without a successor, and must carry on holding his pageants and mystery plays. But he has learned something from the corruption of the material age. Instead of staging the mystery plays himself, he instead dispenses little creations through which children (the masses) can instead begin their mystic progression.

Pessimistic interpretation: only trouble results from trying to spare your loved ones from the rigors of enlightenment. Parnassus prevents the initiation of both Shepherd and Valentina; he’s left at square one, and the Devil has won again.

Optimistic interpretation: it’s egalitarian Masonry. Don’t wait for conspiracies to recruit you, which could either be a good guy (Parnassus) or a bad guy (Mr. Nick)- especially when it is so hard for an initiate to distinguish his Elohim. Instead, watch and discern the right creative works (The Magic Flute, Equus, this film) and auto-Illuminate yourself. Very progressive and chaos-magick; eschew the rituals of others, because poor unenlightened you won’t be able to tell apart the black from the white ceremonies. Auto-didacticism is liberation.

Fair Value of this Movie: $24.00. This is not as essential as Life of Brian, 12 Monkeys, or Brazil. But it’s a funny and lovely Gilliam fantasy, one of the stronger ones. It’s the perfect second half of a double feature with The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.