Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Tripping The Blight Fantastic

After some 50 years of intense dreams, I've gotten used to the fact that I have an overactive imagination. Instead of waking up profoundly shaken by my dreams, I've come to accept and embrace the bizarre as an integral part of my lifestyle. My night visions have includes such unearthly visions as:
  • Being air-lifted by helicopter to escape from Gavin Newsom's performance as a sweaty, bare-chested singing & dancing podiatrist.
  • Trying to escape the thugs who have entered my car from both sides and trapped me between them on the front seat (only to wake up and actually see my legs still moving as if I am running).
  • A visit with a long-deceased friend or relative who stops by to chat and let me know that he's okay before disappearing back into the ether.
  • Rolling down West 51st Street on a four-wheeled toilet while talking to Angela Lansbury after she has exited the Mark Hellinger Theatre's stage door in a floor-length mink coat following a performance of Jerry Herman's 1969 musical, Dear World.
  • Soaring over New York harbor and pointing to ships that immediately capsize on my command.
  • Lying on my stomach in an empty parking space as an alien form -- nicknamed "the green slime" -- approaches from behind, enveloping and then entering me (if memory serves, I may have had this dream after watching Killer Klowns from Outer Space).
  • Listening to Jules Massenet's Act IV aria for Manon ("Ce bruit de l’or, ce rire, et ces ├ęclats joyeux") while watching slices of multi-colored Jell-O parfait float through the air.
I mean, really. Who needs drugs?

This weekend I actually managed to indulge myself in some wretched excess while awake, wallowing in the hyperactive imagination that went into the creation of two cult films that hold up remarkably well against audience expectations. When South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut was first released in 1999, people thought it was hysterically funny and boldly offensive in ways that seemed daring at the time. However, watching it after a year's worth of tea party protests (not to mention the insanity of the past decade) only proved how prescient its creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, have been in their animated satire.

After a decade in which celebrity crotch shots, wardrobe malfunctions, and Jersey Shore made national headlines, one of South Park's rudest songs (with its last minute spelling shout-out to the title song from Rodgers & Hammerstein's groundbreaking 1943 musical, Oklahoma!) seems downright sweet:

The other unexpected treat from my New Year's weekend was an opportunity to finally get around to watching Mega Shark versus Giant Octopus. This is, of course, the science fiction craptacular in which two ancient creatures -- a megalodon and a giant octopus -- wreak havoc on the world.

Although paleontologists estimate that the megalodon (a giant prehistoric shark) was about 67 feet long, in this movie it is capable of leaping through the air to bite a 747 flying above the clouds, biting the Golden Gate Bridge in half, using a modern submarine like a toothpick for better dental hygiene, and reportedly cruising at 500 knots (faster than most jetliners).

However, if you have a decent musical score, know how to edit clips to properly build suspense, and have some decent actors on board, it's possible to craft a reasonable disaster film with some state-of-the-art CGI scripting. Written and directed by Jack Perez (a/k/a Ace Hannah), this 2009 release had its leads quoting from Shakespeare's 1599 tragedy, Julius Caesar. It also highlighted the hydroacoustic and neurological damage inflicted on whales by underwater sonar transmitters.

Monster movie fans will, no doubt, be impressed at how closely the film follows in the giant footsteps of this particular genre. In an interview with a shark conservationist on Southern Fried Science, Perez explained that:
"The title was presented to me by the producers. That’s all they had – a nutty title. And they basically asked me to work up a story that would support it. I had seen every Godzilla movie and 1950s atomic mutation pic when I was a kid, so the script came pretty naturally. I mean, the directions were right there in the title."
As the three marine biologists -- Lamar Sanders (Sean Lawlor), Seiji Shimada (Vic Chao), and Emma MacNeil (Deborah Gibson looking like a nerdy Kathy Griffin) -- struggle to explain primitive animal responses to military forces, in particular the super macho Allan Baxter (Lorenzo Lamas), the military loses every battle to forces of nature much larger and more ferocious than it could ever imagine. The solution? To let the two prehistoric beasts destroy each other in what MacNeil calls a reprise of Thrilla in Manila.

Compared to many overblown monster films, Mega Shark versus Giant Octopus is surprisingly well written, acted, and edited. It was infinitely better than I anticipated -- a guilty pleasure I'm happy to recommend. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * *
All this talk about dreams, fantastic monsters, and bizarre fantasies is, of course, leading up to a discussion about Terry Gilliam's brilliant new film, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. However, I must confess a critical weakness: As soon as one of Gilliam's characters uttered one of my favorite words (scrumptious), the filmmaker had me eating out of the palm of his hand.

After that it was a quick trip from the hallucinogenic feeling of watching giant jellyfish floating through the mind to a fantasy world filled with shoes that would leave Imelda Marcos in a state of perpetual orgasm. And so much more. So very much more.

From the very first shots of the Imaginarium, one thinks about a grand tradition of street entertainment from commedia dell'arte performers to Punch & Judy shows, from Grand Guignol to Signor Pirelli's traveling cart in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. However, Gilliam is quick to identify the source of inspiration for this complex prop:
“The design of The Imaginarium probably began with Pollock’s toy theatres in London. When I first came here there was a shop that still exists today that makes these Victorian toy theatres, which are cardboard cut-outs. They have always intrigued me. I went down to the Museum of Childhood (because I knew they had several old original ones there) and photographed several and fiddled with them in Photoshop.

For the designs on the outside of the Imaginarium, we had books on arcana, hermetic symbols, Robert Fludd. I’ve always loved that stuff. I don’t know what half of them mean, but they trigger ideas and so we started gathering them together and applying them to the theatre. There are snakes, devils, evil eyes, pentagrams, all sorts of things -- probably a mixture of every kind of arcane symbolism ever invented.

Medieval imagery and iconography is so good and healthy for your imagination. Alchemists were trying to describe the world, trying to describe the cosmos, trying to make a visual, philosophic sense of it all. It’s unlike modern reality and it always seems to stick in my mind more than our current view of reality does.”
Heath Ledger as Tony

Gilliam's movie achieves a masterful convergence of profound intelligence, an astounding artistic vision, brilliant stagecraft, film magic, magnificent acting, and a vivid imagination that has been aided and abetted by the most flamboyant sense of costume and set design. It stars 80-year-old Christopher Plummer -- who has another choice role as an aging Leo Tolstoy in the soon-to-be-released The Last Station -- as Dr. Parnassus, a former monk who, thousands of years ago, made a deal with the devil (Tom Waits).

Christopher Plummer and Tom Waits

While most of the press will probably focus their efforts on describing how the death of Heath Ledger midway through the film's production led to powerful contributions by Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell (who broadened the character of Tony by acting out other facets of his persona during the character's fantasy sequences), it would be criminal to overlook two smashing performances by Verne Troyer as Percy and Andrew Garfield as Anton.

Heath Ledger, Lily Cole, and Andrew Garfield

As a filmmaker, Gilliam is renowned for his use of wretched excess. If you thought 1985's Brazil was too bizarre for words and 1988's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen too exhausting, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus shows a mature artist triumphing over a huge artistic setback (Ledger's death) and using his fervid imagination to deliver an even better film than he had originally envisioned.

Over the years, Gilliam and his long-time co-writer, Charles McKeown, have developed an interesting writing process. Although Gilliam began to formulate his ideas for the film in 2006, the two writers would trade ideas by email, adding thoughts, text, and questions as they volleyed back and forth in a kind of intellectual ping pong game. As McKeown recalls:
“The theme of imagination is central -- the importance of imagination to how you live and how you think and so on -- and that’s very much a Terry theme. I insisted that Terry write the treatment because he had a better grip of what it was he wanted than I did at that stage. I didn’t really quite get it at that point, I don’t think. Although it was fun and I could see the story, I thought that Terry had a clearer view. Then I started writing scenes, dialogue, characters, settings and so on, clarifying it a bit.

I would send him six or seven pages by e-mail and he would work on that. He’d change it, embellish it, take what he wanted, add what he wanted, and so on. Meanwhile, I’d send him another lot of pages. He would send that back and show me what he’d done. It was a rolling process, going back and forth. At one point, we’d stop when we got right to the end of the script and discuss where we were going and where we were so far.

Christopher Plummer as Dr. Parnassus

We break the rules really. You are supposed to focus on a central character. That’s one of the recipes for success -- to have a central character with whom the audience can identify. But this is a group piece. Although it’s called Doctor Parnassus, and he’s very much the center of it, everything goes on around him. Nevertheless, you are caught up in everybody else’s story as well. I don’t think what we ended up with was what we started out with, in every respect. Maybe Doctor Parnassus is fairly close to how he started, but the other characters changed a bit as we went along. Certainly, the character of Valentina (Parnassus’s daughter) changed a lot. The other characters shifted too, when they weren’t quite working as well as they might."
Maggie Steed and Johnny Depp

Much of the film's artistic brilliance results from Gilliam's collaboration with cinematographer Nicola Pecorini, who explains that:
"We tried to plan every single detail in advance. The Imaginarium sequences, especially, are broken down shot by shot, frame by frame. But even the most careful planning cannot avoid the unexpected, nor human failures in delivering what's needed in a timely and precise manner. Terry and I share a common vision of the ‘cinematic stage’, namely a 360-degree approach to framing. We reached a total symbiosis. Without talking, we always reach the same conclusions and adopt the same solutions. I find it very easy to work with Terry, even if technically it’s very difficult. Lighting for a 360-degree field of view is certainly more complicated than sticking to long lenses. The major difficulty is to have other people understanding our approach.

It is true that he uses wide-angle lenses, but the reality is that the world is made of wide angles. The human vision is wide-angle, so the reality is that you want to offer choices to the spectator and that’s Terry’s approach. With wide-angle you have the choice of what to look at and you must use your brain to look at things. When you start going tight and have little depth of field you are deciding for the audience what they get to look at. Terry doesn’t have that approach in filmmaking and I’m totally with him."
Colin Farrell in one of Tony's fantasy sequences
The level of poetry present in the script appealed to me the most. Having shared Terry's last ten years of passions and frustrations, I totally understand where Parnassus comes from. A tired man, who has been trying to enlighten his fellow humans, to teach them to let their imagination fly and flourish, to consider the power of dreams as a richness and not as a burden. Parnassus is Terry. The script is the fortunate child of years of battle against the system, of frustrations accumulated trying to give shape to sublime ideas.
I read the story as a fantastic sum of Terry's entire artistic career: you can find in it all the elements that were present, in one way or another, in a veiled or blatant manner, in all of his previous works. It's definitely a very mature script. I firmly believe that all those out there (and luckily there are a lot of them) that love and appreciate Terry's previous works will find that ‘Parnassus’ is the apotheosis of Gilliam's art."
Gilliam's film is a triumph in the art of reining in one's imagination and finding a way to direct it with master strokes. Just as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland took readers through a world of fantasy creatures and a jaw-dropping defiance of logic, every time someone steps through Dr. Parnassus's silver curtain into the world of imagination, the audience encounters a lush landscape of dreams which start euphorically and gradually darken until critical choices must be made.

You can read anything you want into the significance of Gilliam's new movie. Whether you're hoping for a morality tale about good versus evil, the forces of light and darkness, or simply the joys of foresaking materialism for a spiritual awakening, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is a film that you will definitely want to see more than once. Here's the trailer:

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