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Nothing Is Permanent: The Triumph of Doctor Parnassus

By  · Published on November 18th, 2016

Junkfood Cinema looks back at The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

Like any other facet of existence, filmmaking is not spared from tragedy. Whether you subscribe to the life-imitating-art/art-imitating life construct of cinema, the fact is that as transcendent as art can at times be, it is still beholden to having to be created by flesh-and-blood humans with finite lengths of existence. This is an adversity any director is in danger of facing, but when it comes to behind-the-scenes struggles, one filmmaker always seem to have more than his or anyone’s fair share.

Terry Gilliam’s career has been fraught with uphill battles; the man knows no smooth road or calm waters. His attempts to produce his Man Who Killed Don Quixote were so ill-fated as to inspire a fantastic documentary. Evidently the only thing not Lost in La Mancha was the irony of that scenario. Gilliam’s distinctly outside-the-box visual style and depth of storytelling put him several times at odds with producers and studio execs on various projects; one need only note the number of cuts of Brazil currently in existence.

It is therefore somehow unsurprising, perhaps even cosmically appropriate that it should be a Gilliam’s Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus that would be the very last for Heath Ledger. Now when the young star of a particular film unexpectedly and tragically passes away before the completion of his scenes, most filmmakers are faced with one of two options: recast and start over or scrap the movie entirely. Gilliam instead turned hardship into reflection and lent a new and fascinating subtext to his movie.

The fantastical nature of the story at the heart of Doctor Parnassus meant that Ledger’s character could logically be played by different actors at different points in the narrative. That inspired Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell (all of whom were close friends with Ledger) to agree to step into his shoe ‐ his entire costume actually —to also play Tony . The agreement this trio made was that their salaries would be diverted into a fund for Ledger’s daughter so her future would be secured; a sincerely beautiful gesture.

This, and slight revisions to the script, ended up transforming The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus into a deeply introspective piece of cinema. The struggles of the titular old man became the antecedent for Gilliam’s own struggles as an artist and storyteller. Parnassus’ wagers with the devil ‐ played to perfection by singer/songwriter Tom Waits ‐ and the hustles of the character of Tony became cathartic reflections on Gilliam struggling to maintain his own soul as he navigated the studio system and battled his own production demons.

The film becomes triumphant when this subtextual self-awareness is paired with the fact that (apart from The Man Who Killed Don Quixote), Gilliam continues to best these demons and, against the greatest of odds, produce his staggeringly unique visions. Ledger’s death did not shutter The Imaginarium, but instead instilled it with new life which then paid immortalizing tribute to Heath himself. Parnassus himself espouses, to much offscreen relevance, “you cannot stop a story being told,” and the equally appropriate, “nothing is permanent, not even death.”

What is truly kismet for what ultimately became Gilliam’s most self-reflective film is the device that allows people to enter Parnassus’ Imaginarium: the mirror.

For more mirror-facing musings on the brilliance contained within The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, give a listen to this week’s episode of our Junkfood Cinema podcast.

As a special treat, anyone who backs JFC on Patreon will have access to a weekly bonus episodes covering an additional cult movie, a new movie in theaters, or a mailbag episode devoted to your submitted questions! Have a couple bucks to throw in the hat, we’ll reward you!

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.