I've chosen to take a detour from my scheduled series of articles. Not that I don't want to continue, it's just that sometimes I see a movie in which the script misfires so badly that I feel I cannot get over it until I do something about it. (See my May '08 article)
It pains me to write this article. Among filmmakers, I have always considered Terry Gilliam to be one of my role models. When I first saw Brazil at age 18, it changed my life. Until then, I never knew that a movie could be like that. As a self-proclaimed absurdist, I always felt a connection to Gilliam's bottomless imagination, his pessimistic fantasism, his irony pushed to its extreme. Gilliam always had a knack for finding the silly side of horror, and the grotesque side of the wholesome. And how much do young cinestes love to sympathize with the so-called “cursed genius,” a filmmaker who seems to have drama and misfortune fall upon every film he creates. Fans love to consider him as a poor underrated autuer, a tragic figure to the proportions of Greek myth, constantly kept from his rightful place in the heavens by the interference of studio nincompoops and bizarre acts of God. No one felt this way more than me. Which was why I was so excited to see The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus on its opening weekend.
And boy was I disappointed. Sure it was silly. Sure it was imaginative, ironic, fantastic and grotesque. Unfortunately, I know as a storyteller that none of these things mean a tinker's damn if it lacking in a certain important area.
What I remember most from the screening is me shifting in my seat – a lot. And feeling a sort of dull sensation right behind my forehead, the same sensation I feel every day on my hour-long commute home from work on the 10 freeway. My roommate was sitting next to me, and I also remember him shifting in his seat – a lot.
English is not my roommate's first language so, thinking he had maybe missed something important in the fast-spoken dialogue, he asked me on the way out of the theater, “So what was the deal with that flute Heath Ledger's character was always trying to swallow?”
My reply, “I have no freaking idea.”
His next question, “Okay. Why did all those people want to kill Heath Ledger?”
My answer, again, “I have no freaking idea.”
And it went on like that. See, no matter what language you speak, the problem with Imaginarium is that, despite its dazzling, mind-warping CGI, aside from its kooky, crazy, imaginative imagery, it is basically a movie with a story that doesn't make a LICK of sense! The film's premise is completely confused from the beginning to the end. The audience never really understands at any point just what the characters are trying to accomplish or for what reasons they wish to do it. Why is Parnassus putting on his Imaginarium show on the streets of London? What does he hope to gain from it? How exactly does the Imaginarium work? We are told that Parnassus has made a number of bets with the Devil. But the terms of the bet are never really explained. Neither is the reason why the Devil wished to make a bet in the first place. What in it for the Devil? How exactly does the Imaginarium “win souls”? Why is Ledger's character Tony first found hanging by a rope from a bridge? Why didn't he die? Why does Tony choose to join the show? What does he hope to accomplish? Why does Parnassus's daughter want to voluntarily throw herself into hell? Why is the Devil upset when he wins the bet? Why does the Devil want Tony dead?
It's not that Parnassus has a complicated story. The story is in fact very simplistic. It is just that none of these questions are ever, ever explained to the audience in a satisfactory way. And this is just a sampling the loose threads, logical holes, and unexplained information that plagues this movie from beginning to end. Imaginarium is so confused that it doesn't even seem sure of who it's protagonist is, Dr. Parnassus or Ledger's Tony.
Of course we know that the shooting of Parnassus was interrupted by the most tragic misfortune a film production could encounter with the death of star Heath Ledger halfway through it's production schedule. But this cannot be blamed for the movie's confused and piecemeal story. Very little rewriting was necessary to complete the film after Ledger's death. According to press releases, all important practical production involving Ledger had already been completed. All the was left was the green screen material for the scenes that took place inside the Imaginarium. A quick and easy script fix was found. All they needed to do was establish the fact that a person's appearance can change inside the Imaginarium, fill the Ledger role with three very able actors in these scenes, and the movie can continue to be shot as written.
No, the reason for the film's failure is quite obvious. When creating this script, writers Terry Gilliam and Charles McKnown overtly pursued theatricality to the complete expense of CLARITY. And clarity is something that ANY storyteller must never, ever do without.
Why? The reason is simple. How is it possible for an audience ever enjoy a story if they can't even understand it? Storytelling after all is an art of communication. Telling a story demands two sides: a storyteller to communicate the story's information, and an audience to receive and comprehend it. If you, the storyteller, fail to communicate enough proper information within your story so that the audience can follow along with what your characters are doing and why they are doing it, your story will come across as nothing but a garbled mess. The art of Storytelling is in the “-telling.” It doesn't matter how great the story is in your head if you do not find the right methods to communicate its information. Just like what Denzel Washington's character Alonzo keeps saying in Training Day, “It's not what you know, it's what you can prove.”
Notes on early drafts of Brazil show that Gilliam and McKnown had the same troubles as Parnassus when trying to bring that masterpiece to life. From what I have read, early drafts did not put much focus on protagonist Sam Lowry's problems or the story's conflict, but focused mostly on Sam's fantastic, visually thrilling dream sequences. Nearly half of the early drafts were supposedly made up entirely of Sam's dreams. The story's plot on the other hand remained weak and confused. Luckily for Brazil, the Universal Studios of the early 1980's could never afford a film with so many enormously expensive effects sequences and asked for a version that would focus almost entirely on Sam's waking life. (This is probably one of the few cases in history where a studio's penny-pinching actually worked to create a better film). To do this, respected British playwright Tom Stoppard was brought on board for a rewrite. With the exception of another round of drafts by Gilliam and McKnown, Stoppard is more or less credited with whipping Brazil's plot into what it is on screen. Oh, if only there where less CGI screens these days and more Tom Stoppards.
“If you must be obscure, be obscure clearly!” pleads E.B. White in the seminal handbook on writing, The Elements of Style. Oh, the tragedies of writing with ambiguity, says White. The “heartbreak among lovers caused by a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter. The anguish of a traveler expecting to be met at a railroad station, and not being so due to a slipshod telegram,” the “death on the highway caused by a badly-worded road sign.”
Cinema is a communicative art form. Communication that cannot be understood of worthless. You, the writer, are the audience's shepherd on their cinematic journey. Don't run them off the road by failing to present your story with the clarity the audience deserves.
And for the record, I still love Terry Gilliam.