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Get Thee to an Editor.

August 29, 2010

not cool, Terry. not cool.

It’s not especially original to point out that Terry Gilliam has not been having a great decade, but it’s just so true that it’s hard not to consider  that context when watching one of his films.   Did the poor guy get cursed by someone with serious metaphysical pull?  He lost out on Watchmen twice, The Man Who Kill Don Quixote had a seriously injured actor and a natural disaster that forced the studio to shut it down (also, the documentary about it seems like a great idea, but I’ve fallen asleep twice while trying to watch), and then in the middle of his comeback film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, the lead actor Heath Ledger dies.   While posthumous publicity did well for Christopher Nolan’s nearly completed work with Ledger, Gilliam lost financing because his backers had no faith in him creatively fixing a half-filmed movie with no big name on the marquee.  So he called up some bigger marquee name friends, and they stepped in and he wrote around and fixed the problem.  Sort of.    [WARNING!  THERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD!]

The visuals of this movie are great, no surprise — he is adept at art direction and costume design, creating visual representations of immense delight and wonder and I haven’t felt such lightness since Time Bandits and Baron Munchausen His oddball humor is here too, I definitely chuckled out loud more than once.  However, a few gags were just…no.  I did not need to see Verne Troyer in blackface.  Yes, I could tell you the entire context, and yes, I know what satire is, but in the end, I’m still seeing Verne Troyer in blackface and that’ll ruin your day.  People should include that isht in the MPAA ratings!  But the ill feelings in my stomach actually started brewing much earlier in the film, with the opening image of Heath Ledger’s character hanging from a noose on a bridge.  The Mysterious Stranger is resuscitated, but it’s a long three minutes until it happens, and the chill from it hangs for awhile.   As the story starts rolling along, you can’t quite decide if the Stranger is the hero or the anti-hero, though when he tries to kiss the 16 year old daughter of Doctor Parnassus, I decided I wasn’t so keen on him no matter what the movie would try to tell me.  There are strings of deals with the Devil along the way, both the allegorical and the organized crime variety, and Gilliam plays fast and loose with logic along the way — really the only rule for why Heath Ledger has a different face only sometimes when he’s inside the Imaginariam is that, well, he died and they needed a fill-in.  Terry, if you wanted the rule to be he has a different face, you should have re-shot the few scenes of Heath you had inside of it with a different actor.  I know, everyone wants to save the precious, but making creative works requires cuts and losses and decisions that are better for the big picture.  Gilliam made a choice to honor his friend, and so as a result the suspension of disbelief starts to crack as a viewer.  It didn’t help that Ledger is only doing a B- job in the part, pulling off a muddled Johnny Depp impression that gets kinda awkward when Johnny Depp actually appears on screen.  By the end, when Colin Farrell has stepped in to sleaze up the final chapter of portrayals, I was ready for the Imaginarium to spit me out and for Tom Waits as the devil to take me away, because he was pretty fabulous in the film, of course.  My favorite part is his dance with the daughter and the look of sadness on his face when he realizes he’s won and there’s no more fun to be had.

The visuals and whimsy are enough of an engine to make the movie watchable, and I did think about it for a long time afterwards — mostly because I was playing editor and trying to make it better.  I love Terry Gilliam!  Brazil is a classic!  I want him to succeed, I root for his films while I’m watching them, and I wish he would sit down with a friend, a trusted editor, to walk through his script and help hone his vision.  Then in turn, he can start doing this for himself, since his skills aren’t always up for the task.  Then again, he broke his back after getting hit by a bus on the set, I feel bad being hard on the guy (seriously, he needs to get that curse lifted).  But he’s not the only film director with this problem of weirdo going unchecked, resulting in uneven movies or mediocrity  — I’m looking at you, Richard Kelly and Tim Burton.   M. Night Shyamalan needs a mentor/editor for different reasons (if you’re so bent on being clever, just be clever and don’t have your actors telling us you’re clever along the way), but I’ll let him into the editorial seminar, too.

Gentleman, have a seat and turn to the first page of the screenplay in front of you.  We’re going to go through this line-by-line, even if it takes all night.

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 30, 2010 3:36 pm

    I always get excited for Gilliam movies, and wind up either not seeing them (Tideland) or loving them (Brazil). I mean, I really want to see Tideland, but I’ve heard it’s a bit…meh. And I don’t like being disheartened.

    I rented Dr. Parnassus the first day it was available in a redbox (yes, I’m one of those people), so I only paid a dollar for it. I was enthralled by the visuals, and I loved the basic storyline (with the Devil and the Doctor and the Daughter). I watched it thinking of it as a morality tale (there’s lots of drama and English stuff in my background), and it really, really worked in that capacity.

    The initial scene with Ledger made me uncomfortable, to the point that we had to pause the movie for a few minutes. I grew up watching him blossom as an actor, and he was definitely one of my teen heartthrobs (and I think I’m one of 10 people who still likes A Knight’s Tale), so his death was more upsetting to me than most celebrity deaths usually are. That scene…yeesh.

    It’s been a while since I watched this (I mean, not that long in the scheme of things, but still, several months), but I remember liking the change of actors in the Imaginarium scenes. I remember viewing the changes as a sort of play on how we wish we looked different and our desire to make ourselves more this or that. Also, wasn’t he in the Imaginarium with other people when that happened? I think I remarked at the time that maybe they were playing off the actor changes as the desires/visions of the other people.

    My biggest problem with the movie was that it’s what we call a “whisper movie” where no matter how much you turn up the volume, it still sounds like everyone’s whispering for no damn reason.

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