Film Versus Imagination

An Analysis of Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
by Brett V. Hoxie | 17 April 2012

“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.” T.E. Lawrence quote is represented by Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. The film is a representation of Lawrence’s insight to the human mind. The plot of the film draws the comparison using a unique analogy of man versus the devil. Parnassus represents surrealist imagination versus the Devil’s realism in human ambition and desire. Although Gilliam’s film is presented in a formalist way, the film makes a parallel between the cinematic medium and the human mind. With changes of perception through the use of different actors playing the same character and the constant use of the mirror symbol as a window to the soul help to convey what the human mind is capable of imagining. The challenge presented in the mirror of imagination is that of realist human vices in a world of dreams. The film helps to draw the comparison to motion pictures and the ability of imagination and dreams. Film then becomes the closest medium to physical imagination while still being a real and physical object. The movie itself is a critical analysis of surrealism versus realism, which Gilliam concludes is not won by surrealism.

 The film can be broken down into two parts. Gilliam first presents us with dreams versus the real world as stated in the actual plot of the film. Parnassus describes to the viewer his long battle with the devil over ideals. Their ideals can be boiled down into surrealism and realism; Parnassus’ idea that imagination and dreams are the forces that drive humanity versus the devil’s idea that humanity is driven by addictive realistic feeble desires. The two of them bet souls by allowing people to live out their dreams through a mirror. The devil then corrupts their dreams by adding elements of realism to make the dream decide whether it is better to live or dream. “The contamination of reality by the imaginary – is the crux of surrealism, (Hammond 19). Moments through the mirror are then surrealist by definition. The film becomes a challenge within a challenge within a challenge on surrealism. The film as a whole is in conflict against imagination; real life depicted in the film versus the dreams within the mirror, and dreams being subjected to realistic desires within the mirror. Gilliam beautifully paints a tapestry of his argument by allowing the observer to see multiple perspectives. Within 4 minutes of the film, a drunken man is thrown into the argument where he is persuaded by both Parnassus and the Devil (00:04:40). Gilliam depicts the dreams as a combination of realistic elements while still remaining abstract. As the dreamer spends more time within the mirror, the abstract elements begin to dissolve until the dream is more lucid. The drunkard falls into the dirt washes his face in a puddle. In the puddle, he himself not for what he is but what he believe himself to look like. At this point, the wooden dream trees become a vast and ancient forest. His surrealist perspective now becomes a realistic one. Parnassus then ventures the man a choice, a long hard journey to spiritual awakening, while the devil breaks the surrealist dream by allowing the choice of a pub. The realistic vice beckons the drunkard until he is consumed by his ambition. The devil wins. Realism wins. Paul Hammond presents the battle between the Devil and Parnassus as a cycle,

“Freud underlines the materialism of the dream, its origin in everyday life, the secret, parallel life of unconscious thought during waking, process the other, to complete the circle; surrealists wanted to extend the process the other way, to complete the circle: they wanted everyday life to be more emphatically contaminated by the dream, its language, its freedom from logical though” (Hammond 6).

Not only is the mirror, the devil, and Parnassus attempting to complete this cycle, the film itself completes the cycle by allowing the observers to witness the differences of imagination and the real world as they are watching an imaginative world within the confines of their seats within a real world.

The film versus the real world becomes the second part of what the film proposes. Gilliam wishes to make the analogy of the film to actual life. “The cinema is a magnificent and perilous weapon when wielded by a free spirit. It is the best instrument to express the world of dreams, of emotions, of instinct” (Buñel 68). Gilliam uses the film to express dreams in a vivid and lucid manner. Using symbols such as the mirror into dreams and characters representing different perspectives of self, Gilliam allows the spectator to witness creation of the mind without closing their eyes. Buñel goes on to say, “The creative mechanism of cinema images, through its manner of functioning, is among all the means of human expression the one which comes nearest to the mind of man, or, even more, which best imitates the functioning of the mind in the state of dreaming (Buñel 68). The film tries to exhibit this, but fails in a physical sense. Gilliam provides adequate examples of surrealism in dreams sequences to express what the human mind might portray in ones sleep. Heath Ledgers character provides the focal point by showing a man who’s main goal is to escape real life dangers by traveling with Parnassus and helping other dreamers save their souls. This allows the audience to experience Ledger’s own reflections within the dreams as he sees himself and as others see him. Unfortunately this is where the film medium breaks down to the actualities of dreams. As Hammond says, “Man Ray used to transform any film that bored him by blinking rapidly, making a grill with his fingers, covering his eyes with a semi-transparent bit of cloth, even wearing a pair of prism spectacles he had made himself.  (Hammond 10). Even though Gilliam provides a wonderful portrayal of what dreams are made of (random displacement of time, abstract elements in a realistic world, spontaneous creations universes), the film fails to become realistic portrayal in the simple sense that we cannot live in this world and can only see. This proves that film is closest the portrayal of the human mind, through its representation of visual and sensual feeling, even if it still lacks the physicality of being imagination. The film also provides a comparison to real life and the imaginative within the movie by balancing scenes within the mirror and out of the mirror. This allows the audience to compare their experiences of dreaming and being awake to the characters as they experience the same situations.

Terry Gilliam crafts a beautiful and imaginative movie in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Through parallels of realism and surrealism, he creates a comparison between the two allowing the audience to analyze their own experiences in the film. The use of multiple actors portraying different perspectives of themselves through dreamlike experiences within the mirror provide a beautiful surrealist experience that the characters and audience can both escape to.