Is fantasy still relevant in today’s world? I recently saw a movie which seemed to argue that it isn’t. The odd thing is was it was not by some snobby hyper-naturalist, but by one of today’s leading mythspinners, Terry Gilliam. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is an emotional experience for reasons completely outside the film. Despite beautiful artistic vision and solid performances from the cast, it’s characters and plot leave much to be desired to pull the audience into its story, so faithful observers of the artists involved must look past the screen. As it turns out, this reveals an almost worldwide plot and cast behind it all.
As a general consensus, painfully vague descriptions are all that can be attributed across the board to this film. “Interesting.” “Creative.” “Different;” words people whisper as essential to the second coming of good cinema and art in general if it ever arrives. But most use them here as passive consolations for the two hours spent on watching Parnassus, unsure of whether or not it was a waste of their time. Looking at what a wide range of critics had to say about it, most could not even settle on a general theme let alone message or even clear plot of the film. It’s pretty convoluted, but you can find it here, if you haven’t seen the film yet.
(Spoiler warnings ahead). I often read too much into anything with religious symbolism, so initially, I immediately concluded that the film was a parable on the folly of religion. Parnassus seemed to represent the church, as most religions, Judeo-Christian sects in particular, hold great value in narratives. Only in vehement naturalism do people scorn the idea that stories hold great power, but religions seem to attribute ultimate worth and globe shaking abilities to stories they hold as true and sacred. The Doctor was getting old and both he and his stories were getting obsolete and irrelevant to the changing world. A strapping newcomer attempts to rev up these old tales for selfish means, and yes, the Devil is benefiting from both, but what of it? The person we are intended to care about is his daughter, and she is getting hurt by all three. The world of the stories are told as though they mean everything but they really apparently have no weight on reality. Everyone who bought into them ends up damaged by disillusion. Finally in the end, the Doctor’s daughter runs away and marries “the right man” who all along was plotting to whisk her away from her old father’s world of stories. She is free, and the war ends up being meaningless, except that it got bad enough to reveal itself as both ridiculous and devastating. Percy, the Doctor’s allegedly faithful friend, encourages him to keep telling his stories since they’re really all he has left, and suggests that it’s perhaps a good living just as long as nobody takes them too seriously, including most of all Parnassus, the storyteller. Bottom line: Religion is silly and dangerous, and while it’s fine if you practice it, don’t force it on your children and others or it will destroy everything, and it’s best if you let your kids be free of your religious stories, ideas, and worldviews (because they are probably more aware of what is going on in the world today, and thus right, anyway.)
After some thought, I don’t think this is necessarily what Gilliam intended to project, however I did get an interesting result from this first interpretation. Sometimes online I will encounter people who drop into a forum simply for a chance to give another “all hail satan” comment. I’ve never understood this, and ultimately regarded such comments and their authors as banal at best. But I think I can begin to understand their sentiment. If you don’t believe in God, you don’t believe in Satan, and both can be responded to however you like since they don’t exist in your mind. So to promote the devil rather than damn him, as is the status quo, would be counter cultural, humorous, even enlightened, or so the comment author would hope. I sympathize with this, not in the least reasoning being that I also do this myself, not with God and Satan but with other things I find to be ridiculous and not real or worth talking about which others find great meaning and value in. Not everyone believes what I believe so when they display a behavior that I also display identically, only directed at something I wouldn’t, then it’s suddenly not funny to me. I’m really scorning my own humor techniques. Funny how we can’t see our own hypocrisy. Granted, it is still heresy if what I believe is true, but it’s hard not to sympathize to a deeper level after realizing this. But I digress…
Going back to the meaning of the film, it seems it was far more of a searching, rather cathartic expression rather than a cocksure admonitory message. Gilliam’s philosophy on film is one that is, or at least has been for a long time, enchanted by the idea of the magical. The “magic realism” he strives for is a cornerstone theme of his work, the idea of a tyranny of the naturalistic or at least canonized facts about how things are, and the profound need to expand this barrier. In today’s age most of all this is needed, yet even films that both capture the zeitgeist and claim to question what is real or not, such as Inception, are in some way or another slaves to some form of scientism or laws of academics and philosophy which grips our generation. This isn’t wrong, but there is a rather oppressive attitude towards the artist who possesses both an affinity for the fantastic and a desire to be taken seriously as a creative force. No fantasy film save for Oscar winner The Return of the King has ever even been considered for the award for Best Picture or Director. The amount of fantasy films in the history of the Oscars that have ever been mentioned before Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings can be counted on two hands, and all were for costume design or visual effects, and all lost. Freelance exhibits of photojournalistic work is counted as a high art, while the painters who painstakingly reproduce the world in their mind on the page or screen are just looked at as silly entertainers for geeks.
Basically, Gilliam feels he is in a world where few people cherish the art he does, and this film seemed to be a reflection of his own thought processes in where exactly he stands as an artist. He’s likely a bona fide genius who has occasional trouble communicating the profound ideas in his head to the outside world, which must be frustrating and difficult to honestly articulate. He’s basically done just that though: through this film…
Gilliam himself seems to be Parnassus, and is trying his best to save the world with his stories, but they are apparently being ill-received and his audience dwindles. Is the world to blame? It seems the only fair conclusion. So there are peppy geniuses who know what sells, perhaps Tony’s character represent the intentions of the Weinsteins who made large “improvements” to Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm in hopes that it would sell better. Perhaps he represents other directors who make popular art which also destroys or cheapens it’s deliriously pleased audience. Either way, the only character that wins out in the end is Valentina, Parnassus’ daughter who runs away from the mad traveling sideshow circus of fantastical storytelling.
Movies like this are rarely helpful to the audience. A similar one would be Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, which seems to be nothing more than his own personal musings on life after death. It would have made for a profound conversation, perhaps even a priceless one, but to have it packaged as a movie makes even the $12.50 seem like a fortune for a film that’s basically a confused and unresolved meandering of talking heads representing conflicting arguments in the director’s mind. That said, they do invoke two responses: one being that it’s a dumb film, the other being that maybe the world exists in such a way that truth and the way things might ought to be are so skewed that even smart and talented artists feel that even ultimate issues are too nebulous and indefinable that their only honest art looks like projecting onscreen their own personal uncertainties.
For Gilliam’s film, the ironic thing is that the worse Parnassus is received, the more the film’s point is being proved. This idea of the actual reception of the film rather than the film itself as being the genius of it’s creation is something of what I think M. Night was going for in making The Happening, his first R-rated major studio release, intentionally cheesy. But I often fight a losing battle with that argument so I won’t go into detail, and as it stands only time will tell if M. Night stays a Parnassus character, since he’s quickly looking a lot more like Tony. The point might be that authors of fantastical stories these days are regarded as generally creators of lower art, and only the most outstanding will be able to contend for a slice of life in the public eye. Sci-fi is far more easily forgiven, since it leaves room for naturalistic phenomenon rather than some kind of magic or mysticism to carry foundations of the plot and characters. Artists like M. Night, Gilliam, J.J. Abrams, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, and Tim Burton have a lot to prove to be taken seriously and are fighting a battle to remain relevant.
So does this battle need to be fought, and should the authors of fantasy to the mass public win it? Gilliam is right about one thing, the times have changed. People’s intake of messages tend to be less inclined towards anything that ‘can’t possibly be true,’ but will give some thought to any story driven by categories which are ‘simply undecidable’ including science anomalies, future inventions, even communication with the dead. But to think that magic or the fantastical can exist and drive a world and have people act as though that were normal? That falls out of bounds. In the rare case that it’s accepted, it seems little more than one of these stories at a time can exist. They are often very enormous and loved by all, yet short lived, slipping back into obscurity. The Lord of the Rings once held this title, but on a large scale, people don’t seem to be talking about it and wrestling with it’s content like it deserved. Even Star Wars, where The Force was revealed to be science based and naturalistic, has a bigger following and it’s themes and morals are generally agreed to be shoddy and contradictory. The Chronicles of Narnia had a chance but it’s slipping away, and now it’s Harry Potter. Aside from a waning but constant stream of mostly cheap superhero movies, few if any new quality fantasy films are being produced. Personally, I believe this is a result of funds primarily, but it’s also a cause and result of the culture. Fantasy stories can more easily tell lessons by means of allegory, and this is not detrimental to the elegance of the art of speaking a message, rather it’s a style and artistic preference. These stories more than any other can open us and liberate us from overly naturalistic worldviews, and can inspire imagination in ways that ‘realistic’ stories simply cannot dare to explore. It’s an entire genre of storytelling where it’s whole being is built around challenging, braving, and venturing past what is perceived, and breaking rules of the mundane and redefining what normal is on a scale of all reality as a whole. Gilliam might be right in diagnosing that people are not as interested in this at the moment, but can the hunger for this kind of story really killed completely in humanity? Probably not. His conclusion that his failures should make him realize that fantasy needs to die with the times is a tragic one. Hopefully he will reconsider and decide that he must soldier on and wait for the world around him to recognize their mysterious yet essential need for wonder, because for many truths, it’s only through wonder that they can be reached.