Mar 15, 2010

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something Gilliam

The best scene in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus comes early: Tom Waits, typecast as Mr. Nick, the bowler-hatted Devil, sucks the stories out of devout, story-telling monks in a Tibetan-like monastery, using an instrument that's half vacuum, half ear-piece from an old telephone. Hear that? Waits says. Silence.

One imagines this is a version of what Terry Gilliam fears, as the director seems fated, or at least prone, or at least characterized by all his reviewers, to bad luck and disaster, and he has to struggle with the studios and the fiancers for the money and freedom to make each film. The image is, in this sense and also maybe for each viewer, familiar. It resonates. It's also delightful, though, because it's surprising. I haven't seen this before, it isn't pasted in here as a stock image from somewhere else and it seems, if not exactly original or ex nihilo, then newly evolved, weird and organic and surprising.

Gilliam gets reviewed like he has two styles: free or restrained;trusted by the financers or not trusted by the financers. There is, of course, some historical truth to this, but watching Parnassus, which I really wanted to like, and even parts of Tidelands, which was supposed to be an almost impossibly free and a creatively unrestrained film, there seemed to be an infliction of tiredness, which has nothing to do with money.

Really, I asked when I watcted Tidelands, creepy doll heads?

Oh, right, I said to Parnassus, a dwarf. Never saw that coming.

Some of Gilliam's most commercial successful work, such as 12 Monkeys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, seems to share the creative spirit of his better work and even his masterpiece, Brazil. And some of his worst work, like the meant-to-be-commerically-successful Brothers Grimm, is not as limited by budget as it is just weiged down by exhaustion.

Parnassus was tired, with enough borrowed images and obvious ideas and enough of a cut-and-paste feel that I stopped, when I was done, and wondered what it was that I liked about Gilliam in the first place.

I think it was the surprise. His best work surprises me. In his best work, watching is like having a conversation with someone who's significantly better read than you and can always pull in some detail, some argument or angle, from a fascinating book or time or era that you know nothing about. Instead of always citing the same one book, or using Hitler as an example. And Gilliam's surprises, too, were revelations, so that when one saw them and was surprised it also felt familiar, or there was this recognition, not of something you already knew or saw somewhere else but of a feeling, unarticulated until know.

When, in Time Bandits, a boat turns out to be a giant's hat, it works not only as a joke, but also as an articulation of the feeling there was more underneath the surface. When, in a live-action short, old employees make their manager-overlord walk the plank and then turn the insurance building into a pirate ship, it is crazy and fanciful and elicits a "ha!", but also the desire is exactly like that.

Maybe Gilliam forgets that there are more things than financial restraint and fiscal accountability that can suck the story out of you. He might think the question is, as Heath Ledger's Tony says in Parnassus, "can you put a price on your dreams?" but would do better to take as an answer what Waits says, as he waves the smoking hose of his surreal hoover: Well, we're still here.