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The Imaginarium of Doctor Gilliam

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Terry Gilliam's latest film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a work of art. It is probably a masterpiece but it's too early to say. Movie critics see it somewhat differently because, as a result of their job description, they are judging it by the wrong criteria. Gilliam's film is like a rose entered in a competition for vegetables: it's never going to win 'best in show' but that doesn't mean it isn't a pretty good rose.

The word 'masterpiece' is generally associated with great paintings or great pieces of music and, occasionally, great works of fiction. Motion pictures, the product of collaborators and the result of compromise, don't generally qualify for the epithet, even if they are called Citizen Kane, On the Waterfront or Battleship Potemkin. There are many truly great movies which stand the test of time, but they are not the result of a single-minded, stubborn, visionary having his own way to the same degree as Terry Gilliam. The French director Francois Truffaut originally coined the term 'auteur' to argue that the normal conventions of storytelling in film do not apply to directors with a single and very personal vision of the world.

Any visual artist has a choice of media in which to work. At one time the choice was limited: the cave-painter in Lascaux didn't sit around wondering whether to employ oils or watercolours. He grabbed whatever passed for a paintbrush and got on with it. He had a myriad of totally original ideas and he slapped them all down, for good or ill, on the walls and the ceilings. Leonardo and Giotto had a bit more choice of medium, while Hockney, Doig, Bill Viola and Emin can really play the field.

We should be measuring Gilliam against figures like this and not against Ang Lee or Steven Spielberg. He is that very rare being, an artist who has chosen to work in film, as opposed to a film-maker who is also an artist. You don't have to like or admire what he does but you do have to place him in the right genre. That's difficult because there is currently nobody else like him, he is sui generis. Criticising Terry Gilliam for the narrative weakness in Doctor Parnassus is like visiting the Sistine Chapel and declaring that Saint Bartholomew's story arc lacks consistency. Gilliam's medium is visual and he expresses his extraordinary ideas in a visual way. We don't always understand what he's on about, just as we don't immediately grasp Rothko or Bacon, but he wants us to see and then think, rather than think and then see. There is a sequence in Doctor Parnassus set in a Buddhist monastery (at least I think it's Buddhist and I think it's a monastery) which, despite the presence of the Devil (at least I think he's the Devil), fills the viewer with exultation. It speaks to the soul. However, when I see the film again I might re-evaluate that scene. Sometimes you like a particular Caravaggio, other times you have your doubts, but at least you know that it was Caravaggio who dreamed up that powerful visual image and you, the spectator, can make up your own mind if he was a genius or a charlatan, or even both. You do not look at a Caravaggio and think 'Well, OK, but he had a great director of photography and Tom Stoppard wrote the script'. Gilliam, like Caravaggio, is on his own.

Terry Gilliam's regard, some would say disregard, for conventional storytelling has illustrious precedents. Shakespeare's plots are famously the least interesting and least important aspect of his work. He pinched them from wherever he could. King Lear, the greatest play in the English language, has a dotty storyline in which one of the most important characters is absent for much of the play; in which people fail to recognise each other despite being friends or even related; and whose eponymous hero doesn't really give up that much in the first scene despite making a huge song-and-dance about it later. That, though, is not the point and it didn't interest Shakespeare in the least. He was an ideas man, he was a philosopher, and his canvas was the human condition. As with Shakespeare and the great masters, it is the mythic which attracts Terry Gilliam and which dominates his work. Who is Doctor Parnassus? I don't know and I don't mind that I don't know. Is he God, is he Prometheus, is he Lear on the blasted heath, is he Faust? Is he all of these 'people' or none of them? The poet John Keats (the subject of another new film) coined the phrase 'negative capability' to describe the way in which it is possible to be a great artist yet not know everything, "when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact or reason". Harold Pinter, directing one of his own plays, said of a particular scene "I wonder what the writer meant".

Terry Gilliam's enjoyment of the quirky and the fallible in human nature can lure audiences into thinking that his metier is a heightened version of reality. Much of Doctor Parnassus is set in a world we can just about recognise, a world of shopping malls and seedy wasteland. The film's characters stumble about like Beckett's tramps, but this seeming familiarity is a chimera just as Lear's 'Britain' is a chimera. The way, the only way, to view a Gilliam picture is simply that: to view it. The critics have, rightly, praised the visual imagery in Doctor Parnassus but as if that imagery was just part of it rather than the main event. Parnassus looks like a movie; it plays in cinemas; the audience eat popcorn and then walk out during the end credits; Johnny Depp is in it; so, it must be a movie. We categorise it as a movie and then wonder why it doesn't follow the conventions of film and of film narrative. Before seeing Doctor Parnassus think of an artist you really admire and the excitement of anticipation when going to a new exhibition of their work. Go to this film with your eyes, let it wash over you, and let the imaginarium of Doctor Gilliam take charge of your subconscious. You can try to work it all out later. After all, that's what many of us are still doing with Goya, with van Gogh, with Francis Bacon. And do you know why the Mona Lisa is smiling? I don't.

©Richard Broke, November 2009