I have written many times over the years about how the career of Terry Gilliam resembles the career of Orson Welles, including in my review for Gilliam's Tideland. Of course, the types of films they made are different -- Welles was more focused on the qualities of age and experience, while Gilliam is more interested in juvenilia and fantasy -- but there are certain stylistic similarities, as well as biographical ones. Both men attempted and failed to make a Don Quixote, both men's films have suffered from poor distribution and advertising, as well as various forms of studio meddling, and both men saw the death of a leading actor during a production.
In the early 1970s, Welles was making The Deep when star Laurence Harvey died. And Gilliam was shooting his latest film when actor Heath Ledger died in early 2008. Welles was never able to get his film together, but Gilliam -- thanks to the film's fantasy format -- patched the holes in Ledger's performance, filling them in with guest stars. A plot mechanism nicely explained the character's new "faces." The finished product has been released, currently in limited run on 4 screens, as The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. I love the film and consider it a return to form for Gilliam; it's of a piece with his majestic The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989). But guess what the buzz is about? It's about Ledger, Gilliam's patchwork and whether it does or does not hold together.
This is pretty typical, since, like Welles, Gilliam has hardly ever made a film that was understood and appreciated during its initial release, including his masterpiece Brazil (1985); 12 Monkeys (1995) is the one notable exception. It's not all that surprising that no one is noticing Gilliam's gloriously fluid, dreamy camerawork -- with at least one traveling shot reminiscent of Welles -- and his fantastic, unpredictable use of visual effects that seem to spring directly from the id. Moreover, the entire production has a personal, handmade quality. The fingerprints occasionally show, which happily reminds me that human beings were actually involved. This is the same reason that the original King Kong is better than the more technologically advanced remake. Most recent fantasies concentrate on being streamlined and perfect, and actual imagination is kept to a minimum.
I suppose it's nobody's fault. Movies are measured by the masses and by the gross number of tickets sold, and so bigger, factory-produced, impersonal movies are always going to get more attention than anything unique. Not to mention that it's much harder to sell "unique" than it is the "newest, latest." But I take heart that someday, like many of Welles' movies, Gilliam's films will be re-evaluated and newly appreciated by a new generation of film fans. That, appropriately enough, is one of the themes of Imaginarium. According to the film, the world would simply cease to exist if someone, somewhere wasn't telling a story at every given second. We must keep on telling stories, forever. I wouldn't be surprised if Gilliam believed that with all his heart, and this kind of belief and obsession goes into every frame of his work. And, frankly, if you don't believe it, you're just a businessman making widgets.