Lost in La Mancha (2002)

Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece

Even in the midst of chaos and catastrophe, Gilliam's drive to create fantastic worlds can be as damning, and as appealing, as Quixote's.

Lost in La Mancha

Director: Louis Pepe
Display Artist: Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe
Distributor: Docurama
Studio: Quixote Films
Cast: as themselves): Terry Gilliam, Jean Rochefort, Johnny Depp, Bernard Bouix, Bernard Chaumeil, René Cleitman
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2003-01-31 (Limited release)

Terry Gilliam long yearned to make a film of Don Quixote. In 2000, after some great movies (Brazil and The Fisher King) and one of the most infamous cinematic duds in recent history (the underrated Adventures of Baron Munchausen), he endeavored to make his dream a reality.

It's easy to see why Gilliam, the only U.S. member of Monty Python, would be so attracted to the material. Some of his favorite themes -- fantasy within the everyday, the line between sanity and insanity, and misunderstood outsider protagonists -- run through Cervantes' much-beloved narrative. Gilliam's script adds a frame story about an ad executive (to be played by Johnny Depp), magically transported to La Mancha and mistaken by Quixote for Sancho Panza.

Sadly, this film was never to be completed. After months of troubles, including a crew who spoke approximately 50 different languages, about half the budget needed for a film of such scope, an ailing star, hailstorms, and mudslides, Gilliam abandoned the film after just a few precious days of shooting.

But something came of this tremendous disappointment. Along for the ride were Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, filming Gilliam and crew for a special feature on the DVD release. Their efforts have yielded a kind of object lesson on how not to make a movie, how to read an insurance policy, and how even the most visionary of geniuses can overreach his (and his partners') capabilities.

Lost in La Mancha begins when the problems begin: in pre-production. Gilliam points out that the $32 million budget for The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (entirely financed internationally and a large sum for a production with no U.S. backing) is "about half" what he needs. Still, his designers create a warehouse full of elaborately distressed costumes and gigantic handmade puppets, pictured here as a kind of grown-ups' secret garden: Gilliam, for one, is visibly delighted. Despite financial restraints, a beautiful film is evidently in the making.

But with the promise comes difficulty. The documentary has a familiar plot, one that occurs on virtually every non-Hollywood production: the crewmembers tell the director they can't achieve what he wants with such small budgets and the director convinces them to find ways to do it anyway. Gilliam is well acquainted with the process. As narrator Jeff Bridges observes, the director's grand ideas tend to be too expensive for an independent film budget, too "out there" for Hollywood investors. He's become used to creating entirely new worlds for the cost of about half an hour of Titanic.

Lost in La Mancha shows how this "responsible enfant terrible" marches on, despite the odds. Certainly, warning signs abound: his Quixote is a fragile 70-year-old Frenchman with a thick-as-porridge accent, other actors never arrive for rehearsals, and the only available soundstage in Madrid is cavernous and booming with echoes. One wonders when, exactly, the thought occurred to him that perhaps things hadn't been planned out enough. When F-16s buzz the set, a wildlife preserve, you think, didn't the location scout note the adjacent military base?

The film suggests that Quixote is a cursed project, citing a previous effort by Orson Welles to mount it. But it resists the greater likelihood, that Gilliam's dream is destroyed by a combination of poor organization, bad luck, and his own intense passion for the material. It may be dramatic and epic to blame the film's failure on mysterious forces, fates and curses. But in the midst of these acts of an apparently vengeful god, the director makes some impatient, unwise decisions. Unlike Don Quixote, to whom Gilliam is compared throughout the film, the director is quite sane and knows what he's doing, choosing to follow a risky path.

Computer-generated collage animations evoke Gilliam's animated work with Monty Python, telling the story of his struggles to make movies outside the system. In one segment, a silhouette of a man pushes a giant reel of film up a steep hill marked "Hollywood." There's an obvious nod to Sisyphus and other great "misunderstood" directors, like Welles. But these associations are laid on a bit heavily, and the Gilliam-esque animations have questionable function. They mirror his own style, but the only reason for using them at all seems to be to further canonize Gilliam's contributions to cinema.

Like the makers of Lost in La Mancha, I want to see The Man Who Killed Don Quixote completed; it would doubtless be a masterpiece. But Gilliam is no Don Quixote. He may be tilting at windmills, but he makes a conscious decision to do so. As stated in Lost in La Mancha, at the end of Cervantes' Don Quixote, the aged "knight" becomes sane and, as a result, dies. At the end of Lost in La Mancha, we learn that Gilliam is again attempting to make his Quixote; effectively, he's lost his mind again.

Therein lies the difference -- and the parallel -- between Quixote and Gilliam. Insanity, for Gilliam, is a choice, perhaps even directly related to the creative drive. Unlike Quixote, he knows the difference between fantasy and reality and can decide which he wants. But sanity (or, adhering to mainstream filmmaking standards) could very well kill Gilliam. And even in the midst of chaos and catastrophe, his drive to create fantastic worlds can be as damning, and as appealing, as Quixote's.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Nowhere else in the merging of modern cinema and film criticism can you find such a strangely symbiotic relationship.

Both Roger Ebert and Werner Herzog are such idiosyncratically iconoclastic giants in their respective fields that it's very likely the world will never see an adequate replacement for each. While Herzog continues to follow his own singular artistic vision, the world has since lost the wit and wisdom of Ebert, arguably the last of the truly great film critics and custodians of the sacred medium. Between the two it becomes clear that there was an unremarked upon but nonetheless present mutual respect and admiration. Though here it tends to come off far more one-sided, save the opening transcript of a workshop held at the Facets Multimedia Center in Chicago in 1979 hosted by Ebert and featured Herzog and a handful of later interviews, there still comes through in their dialogue a meeting of like-minded, thoughtful individuals with a great love for the cinema and exploring the extremes of human creativity.

Keep reading... Show less

If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

Related Articles Around the Web
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.