Can’t hide it: I’ve been an avid fan of Terry Gilliam’s work since his cutout animations for Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Sometime in the 1980’s, my college roommate Tim and I did a paper on Gilliam’s three latest movies at the time: Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Münchhausen. Regrettably, we lost that paper to the mists of time and maybe a Commodore 64 floppy disk.
So, I have followed the long and complex history of Gilliam’s attempt to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. At first Gilliam planned to make this a time-travel fantasy. In the original script, marketing executive Toby Grisoni (Johnny Depp) would end up replacing Sancho Panza as Don Quixote’s squire. But the movie’s filming was beset by a nearly comic sequence of misfortunes. The actor playing Don Quixote took ill, the location was too close to an Air Force base, and then it flooded. Soon the completion bond agency took over, and shut the movie down. Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, who had been filming the standard “Making of…” supplement, turned the disaster into the documentary Lost in La Mancha (2002).
Eventually, Gilliam got his story back, and, managed to make his movie with the support of Amazon Studios. Amazon then pulled out its backing just before the film was to debut as the Cannes Film Festival. It has been making the festival circuit and playing limited engagements while looking for a wider release. And I somehow discovered it was running for free on the Crackle streaming service. So I stayed up late Christmas night to watch it on our big screen. As a bonus, the presentation had no commercial interruptions when I saw it.
Do we trust our eyes
The movie opens with Quixote in his familiar “tilting at windmills” scene. But then at the word “CUT!”, we find that the scene being filmed for a commercial. The Toby character is still here, only now he’s the commercial’s director, and played by Adam Driver. That evening, at the inn where the crew is lodged, Toby finds a bootleg copy of “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” his student film from 10 years before. Toby’s film, shot in the actual La Mancha region, using local residents instead of actors, had gotten his career started with a bang. Ten years later he’s pillaging his sources for a commercial.
Trapped in a fantasy of his own making
Grisoni ditches his production the next day and revisits the nearby village where he had shot his film. Time has not been kind to the locals who were in his film. His Sancho Panza had died, his Dulcinea left to pursue a modeling career. He finds his Don Quixote (Gilliam veteran Jonathan Pryce) now fully believes he is Don Quixote. Toby finds himself in a remote area with his Quixote and a dead cell battery, being sought by police. So he’s obliged to follow Quixote through the surreal La Manchan landscape.
Through the rest of film, Toby’s narrative keeps shifting. At one point he’s back shooting his student film. At another point, he seems to be back in the historical setting of the novel; each time with his Quixote pulling some, well, Don Quixote-ish stunt to get them further into trouble.
Münchhausen by Proxy
I was glad to find that Gilliam’s had taken a step back from his original “Connecticut Yankee in La Mancha” concept Like Gilliam, Toby had become consumed by Don Quixote over the years. The original Quixote was a fictional old man, obsessed with the fictional age of chivalry. The current Quixote adds a referential note as a small-time actor who believes himself to be a historical figure. Toby finds himself swept into this Quixote’s delusions while his own Quixote project falls by the wayside. Much like Gilliam was.
Gilliam’s use of visual incongruity is still a part of his movies. The location for the windmill scene shows a stand of miniature windmills placed for the camera, and a papIer maché giant’s head and hands. Just behind the film’s crew Is a row of modern-day wind turbines.
Like nearly all of Gilliam’s film’s he emphasizes the use of fantasy to escape issues in the real world, but his characters still face consequences after their escape. Gilliam’s characters can find themselves falling through several rabbit holes, or dreams within dreams. Gilliam himself had been in similar situations; not just with “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” but in his earlier fight to get “Brazil” released with his original ending.
Terry Gilliam has offered us an insight into how a creative project can become an obsession. His story has been turned into an allegory of his own Quixotic obsession with getting the story to the screen.