The movie in your head is sometimes better than the actual movie. Think of the hype engendered by seeing good trailers and clips, or reading teases of the plot and descriptions of big scenes. The imagination fills in the gaps so well that the finished film might seem disappointing by comparison.
This phenomenon is heightened when it comes to unmade or unfinished films. These half-formed works are almost always much better as an idea than as something realized. Reality has a way of hobbling our dreams. Consider Alejandro Jodorowsky’s unmade adaptation of Dune. It would have been a disastrous boondoggle had he actually gone through with it, but its legend as an unrealized work made for an entertaining documentary (Jodorowsky’s Dune) that allows us to ask (and imagine) “What could have been?”
Which brings me to Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a film 25 years in the making. It was thwarted multiple times by NATO fighter jets, inclement weather, actors in declining health, and a lack of money. Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s Lost in La Mancha wonderfully chronicles this heroic act of cinematic misfortune and it fed into the idea of Gilliam as a quixotic filmmaker, someone kept down by the man but whose spirit was unable to be killed. It was the Hunter S. Thompson line from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which Gilliam also adapted, made manifest: “There he goes. One of God’s own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
Director: Terry Gilliam
Release Date: April 10, 2019 (Fathom Events)
The film centers on Toby (Adam Driver) an unhappy but successful commercial director slogging away at an ad campaign in Spain. The commercial has something to do with Don Quixote, with chintzy fake giants and modern wind turbines in rows on hills. As a student filmmaker, Toby came to Spain to make a Don Quixote film. He revisits the town and finds it in a sorry state as if he’d cursed the place years ago while realizing his young ambitions. He runs into Javier (Jonathan Pryce), a shoemaker who played Don Quixote in his film and is still convinced that he is the actual Don Quixote after all this time.
For a movie—especially one so troubled and long labored over—to live up to a fraction of its mythology would be impossible. I wanted to like The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, even love it. Gilliam was one of my favorite directors growing up, and I have longed to see him return to form. But I left feeling letdown despite admiring Gilliam for completing the plagued film. I was more appreciative of the perseverance of the man than the quality of the finished work.
The film darts between fantasy and reality, creating this wide-scale world of delusions and contradictions and doubles. While Toby may be Javier’s Sancho Panza, one can’t help but feel he’s also his own secret Don Quixote on this quest. It’s a tale of two Quixotes, three if you count Gilliam. Fittingly, Gilliam considers himself more like Sancho Panza. (I wonder if he feels more like Toby or Javier or neither.) There are nods to other Gilliam films throughout, though tonally I was most reminded of The Fisher King and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, just not as well realized or endearing as either.
The two Quixotes’ Dulcinea is Anjelica (Joana Ribeiro), a woman who appeared in Toby’s student film when she was just a teenage girl. They flirted back then and may have had some stirrings of a brief romance, though that is all inference based on the looks they exchange in flashbacks. It’s pretty creepy watching the American college student go gaga over the foreign barkeep’s teenage daughter; the film seems cool with it because it is so single-mindedly and chauvinistically masculine in all its pursuits. Since Toby left, Anjelica has worked as a model and an escort to make ends meet, and is now the kept-woman of an abusive Russian oligarch (Jordi Molla).
Gilliam and co-writer Tony Grisoni seem to espouse the well-worn truths about the creative impulse and artistic integrity, but there’s a jumble about it. I’m not sure what the film wanted to say even though it tries to say it emphatically. This might have something to do with the narrative, which is less picaresque than it is meandering. Meaning drifts as attention drifts, and I sometimes wondered whether I was watching out of interest or a sense of obligation. I was even disappointed by the look of the film, which is often flat and lacking dynamism. The colors don’t pop as much as they could have, and the compositions are serviceable but rarely memorable and arresting. That may be a consequence of shooting digitally instead of on film; the scant footage from the abandoned Quixote in Lost in La Mancha seems to have more depth and texture. At least one sequence in this film recalls the Gilliam of old. Late in the story, Javier Quixote is pushed to his psychological and imaginative breaking point in a room full of oligarchs. The images are delirious, nightmarish, and provoked an emotional response from me after being perplexedly passive for so long.
Even though the story and the visuals were lacking, I still think the performances are good. Ribeiro’s Anjelica is interesting as a concept, though she’s working with a script that doesn’t care about her as a character but more as a damsel for our two Quixotes to save. Driver is a loathsome brat as Toby, who is unlikable in almost the right way. Pryce is the scene and show stealer, leaning deep into Javier’s delusions, part impish madman and part sad old coot with nothing left to live for but faulty ideas. I think about these actors as these characters in a different The Man Who Killed Don Quixote and wonder what could have been. That’s the burden of long-gestating dreams.
If I like The Man Who Killed Don Quixote for something other than the performances, I like the movie as an idea or a metaphor. Not the muddy narrative metaphors in the screenplay, mind you, but the actual film production as a metaphor. Just looking over what I have written, most of my appreciation is built into the behind-the-scenes turmoil, the process of making it, the anxiety of whether or not it would be finished, and the idea of it all. Reality may compromise the richness of our dreams, but the reality of the film’s creation is far richer, more resonant, more emotionally satisfying to me than the film as a cinematic end product.
Bluntly, the story of the making of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote speaks to me more than the film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. (Maybe my experience has become an obliquely “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” reading of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.)
There was more compelling drama to me in finding out Gilliam secured funding and then lost funding, found an actor and then lost an actor, secured distribution and then may have lost distribution than there was in the plot of the film he completed. The real-world characters are silly and bitter and heroic and foolish, but they are in a way I find more interesting and humane than the ones in the film; the real world events are nonsensical and unbelievable and baffling, but in a way that doesn’t quite feel as messy and unfocused. How strange that the real world struggles to make Quixote are more enriching and ennobling for me than the on-screen struggles of Javier and Toby. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is irrelevant; what matters most is having made The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
What an impossible dream we all must live.