Storytelling lies at the heart of the human experience. I didn’t write that. Bryan M. from Redwood City, California wrote that about LOST. It is significant because a) it was written about LOST, which is easily my favorite television show of all time, and recently ended in a very emotional and epic manner, b) the cat is from the Bay Area, a place I grew up in, and—like LOST’s Jack Shepherd and company, and Terry Gilliam and his move from America to England—it is a hometown area that I left behind long ago, and c) storytelling is an important craft utilizing the imagination, and a way of passing on experiences from generation to generation, which is at the heart of Gilliam’s 2009 film.
Alas, verily I say unto you, no prophet is accepted in his own country.
So what does Mr. Gilliam do? He lives abroad. An expatriate who initially found fame and a career as a cast member and animator with the British television comedy troupe Monty Python’s Flying Circus. For most of that cast, the groundbreaking program with its uncanny ability to roll forward in 30-minute bursts of stream-of-consciousness, one fantastic segued sequence after another, was the highlight of their careers. And why not? Has there ever been a better piece of comedic, part live action/part animated, surreal television all rolled into one? No. So most of the brigade continued on with their work in various forms, but none equaled that success with the exception of John Cleese’s hilarious Fawlty Towers program. Other than that 12-episode gem, none of the comedic geniuses found their own monumental artistic grail post-Python.
Yes, all except Gilliam. The American living in England began his directorial career co-directing Monty Python and the Holy Grail, helmed 1977’s disjointed, but fun Jabberwocky, and then, really kick-started his auteur filmmaking career with a pair of fantastical realizations, 1981’s Time Bandits and the landmark leap to the status of Master Craftsman with a Visionary Eye in 1985’s Brazil.
The uber-talented yet business-challenged showman continued on with 1986’s flawed but brilliant The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, reached critical and commercial mass in 1991 with The Fisher King (a film starring Jeff Bridges, Robin Williams, and Mercedes Ruehl, and one in which many feel Gilliam finally got everything just so right in a temporary marriage of the weird and the popular) and 1995’s 12 Monkeys, the last of his downbeat gems. Gilliam returned to his bizarre muse foundation, with a match made in warped and wild heaven, canvassing Hunter S. Thompson’s seminal novel, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, which, also, unfortunately showed not only a side of Johnny Depp that had yet to be seen—his uncanny ability to mimic eccentric behavior, i.e. the drug- and alcohol-fueled HST on a lifelong binge, while appearing quite dangerous, AND wise all at the same time—but, a choice which has haunted his artistic realm ever since: is Depp a master thespian, a minimalist caricaturist, or a mirror image to distorted reality?
“To all who will not listen, all is silent.”
Alas, Gilliam has struggled on the creative side, as well. Which, finally, brings us full circle to the matter at hand—this week’s Hidden Flick. Much has been written about the fact that Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell took over for the deceased Ledger to complete his role as Tony, and the film for Gilliam. Ledger’s character is the member of a traveling imaginarium, and one of the magical props on the stage is a mirror. When the customer walks through the mirror, what is in their imagination drives the imagery, which enfolds like a real-time acid trip flash-sideways. Gilliam found a way to deal with Ledger’s passing by showing shots of him walking through the mirror, but another actor, i.e. Depp/Law/Farrell, comes out the other side, exchanging their face for another in a clever nod to dream imagery, as well, where the original portrait is but a fleeting choice.
However, beyond the imaginative Gilliam/Ledger/Depp/Law/Farrell quintet information, not much has been written about the merits and subtext of the actual finished piece of celluloid outside of that initial hook based on the Ledger Legend. The late Australian actor is predictably sublime in his brief scenes as the tortured post-Joker, sideshow freak/con artist, and while Depp and Law are adequate, yet not quite noteworthy, it is Farrell who explores the role to its full potential in a dark and haunting performance.
And therein lies the problem. The film is really about the duel between the forces of light and darkness (sound familiar former LOSTIES?). Christopher Plummer plays Doctor Parnassus, an ancient storyteller in the grand and circus-like manner, who is involved in a critical game with Mr. Nick (the devil in one of his many masks), played by Tom Waits.
Both Plummer and Waits offer insightful, complex, and dense performances, riddled with a careful attention to subtlety, and the need to get to the heart of their respective characters. But it is Plummer—as the title character in a Gilliam film about the lost art of storytelling, in a society which is more interested in alleged reality shows, and the plain and direct imagery reflected from a mirror, rather than what lies on the other side of its clear surface, whispering with its last breath to venture forth into its creative world just one more time, just one more grasp of how the imagination can change a perception, and maybe even save a life or two as we search for answers to questions we don’t understand—yes, it is Plummer, like his daughter Amanda in Gilliam’s other masterpiece detailing the darkness of imagination and the promise of a better tomorrow, The Fisher King, that brings the message to the surface, before it floats back down to the subtext.
In Gilliam’s universe, both on the screen, and in real life, after the failure of his late ’90s Don Quixote project, creativity has never had such a dark and unknown future as it stands today. So it is quite fitting that he found his muse in ancient yet formidable talents of Plummer, and not Ledger, to tell a mythical new tale about finding the inner storyteller within, defeating one’s demons (who are always very close by as Waits’ Mr. Nick is to Parnassus in the film), and dealing with the aftermath: he takes his Imaginarium to a street corner like some homeless, eccentric genius with an inability to find a marketable purpose, or a way to fit into modern society, after centuries of peddling his art for the elites and unwashed masses in various timeframes and locales.
In through the out door, Gilliam walks through his own mirror of his artistic universe, and he finds himself, the very face of his work, changed and altered for a modern audience. And that is an idea that is both old yet familiar. What if someone’s temporal core remained somewhat constant, but the scenery changed as the calendar pages flew from the wall like some mad cartoonish time travel of a different sort? An interesting question to ponder in the next edition of Hidden Flick as we investigate the masks worn by someone who never appears to age, let alone lose the ability to adapt with the times.