Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Imagination

I finally saw The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus at the weekend, and as much as I'd like to discuss the film as a fantastical swansong for the much-missed (by me, at any rate) Heath Ledger, I'd much rather discuss the film in slightly more highbrow terms. Terry Gilliam presents the film as a meditation on the inherent benefits and downfalls of immortality, particularly the peculiar form of immortality presented by a life captured on celluloid (see the rather ham-fisted attempt during the Johnny Depp segment to prove that those that die young, e.g. James Dean, Princess Diana, will always live on). However, scratch the surface of this visually impressive, though occasionally slightly gaudy, piece, and you'll find that at its heart, the film would much rather discuss the dichotomy of Imagination vs Temptation.

Christopher Plummer's Dr Parnassus represents Imagination, a fertile inner land particular to every individual. In this mental expanse, stories are born, and these stories offer the path to Immortality. Indeed, he firmly believes that the universe is sustained because someone somewhere is always telling a story. The film itself tells a story, and thus maintains this belief in the mind of the viewer.

However, his nemesis is film's old friend, the Devil, played here to excellent effect by Tom Waits, and he, as ever, represents Temptation. It's not such a stretch to boil these two opposing forces down to the Mind (or Soul) vs the Body. It has long been held by many schools of thought that the Body is somehow dirty, and sinful, and purity can only exist within the Mind, and by extension the Soul. Clearly, if we pursue this particular theory, Dr Parnassus represents Good, while the Devil represents Evil. So far, so typical.

Yet this eternal struggle between Imagination and Temptation goes back further than Terry Gilliam's concept for this film. Indeed, the poetic genius that was John Keats continually tussled with the two throughout his career, perhaps reaching its apogee in his epic, Lamia. In it, Lycius must choose between the pure world of Apollonius (the Imagination) and the senuous world of Lamia (Temptation). Apollonius exposes the cruel reality of Lamia, and the deprivation of one option proves too much for the young chap and he dies. Keats believed that only a balance between the two could sustain man, and that by living by one or the other, he was only living half of a life.

What does this then mean for Dr Parnassus? In forcing humans to make a choice between Imagination or Temptation, these people are surely doomed to living their lives to only half of their potential. Or is there in fact a deeper paradox within the entire situation, since in order to choose the path of the Imagination, one must first be tempted by it?


Top image: Lamia, by John William Waterhouse

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