Not Coming to a Theater Near You 2000–2009 The Decade in Review

The Man Who Wouldn’t Let Don Quixote Die by Victoria Large

The Man Who Wouldn’t Let Don Quixote Die by Victoria Large “It’s not a giant! It’s a windmill!” So goes a repeated line from Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, the thus-far-unfinished Cervantes adaptation immortalized in Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s affectionate 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha. The tortured production history of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote reads something like a cinematic Book of Job--the leading man has health problems, a location is adjacent to a NATO bombing range, a raging storm destroys the sets, the already too-tight schedule gets held up, and the already too-small budget falls through. It makes for a compelling documentary subject, to be sure, but why is this film – a film that never was – lingering on my mind as the decade comes to a close? Why those words? “It’s not a giant! It’s a windmill!” I wasn’t entirely sure at first, but my impulse to write on the subject was so strong that I decided to pursue it.

Fulton and Pepe’s film isn’t the only documentary on my mind as I look forward to the next ten years. I enjoyed movies of every stripe throughout 2009, but the documentaries were the ones that I rearranged my schedule for: I scrambled to make it to screenings of Abel Ferrara’s Chelsea on the Rocks, Davis Guggenheim’s It Might Get Loud, and Gerald Peary’s For the Love of Movies. When I searched for a common thread among those films and some of the other docs that moved me this year – such as Brendan Toller’s I Need that Record! at IFFB – I wondered if it wasn’t my well-documented penchant for nostalgia that connected them. (Remember that my past two year-end essays found me clinging stubbornly to film culture archaisms: the movie musical and VHS tape.) After all, Ferrara’s film pines for the spookier, artier old days of New York’s Hotel Chelsea, while Guggenheim finds guitarist Jack White striving to match the raw emotion of blues records that sound still more ancient than they are, and Peary and Toller – concerning themselves over the futures of film criticism and independent record stores, respectively – can’t help but look back with a degree of longing. Yet on closer inspection, these films aren’t so much about nostalgia as they are about art and its trappings, and specifically about the people who care so much about art that they get a little quixotic about it. So they keep their flagging record store open, or they spill an inordinate amount of ink over a film that made them cry, or they make a guitar from a coke bottle and a scrap of wood, or they let a film director live in their hotel for free.

All of which brings us back to Gilliam and Lost in La Mancha. Fulton and Pepe exploit Gilliam’s similarities to Quixote, encouraging us to see the value – and even the romance – of the director’s doomed production. “If it’s easy, I don’t do it,” Gilliam says is the documentary. “If it’s almost impossible to do, I have a go at it.” Some of La Mancha’s best moments reveal Gilliam briefly making the impossible possible: by calling for grimaces from his large but still fairly ordinary actors, and angling his camera just so, he makes us see giants where there aren’t any. Watching him stomp around shirtless to demonstrate just how his giants should act makes for an amusing moment that reminds us of how artistry and insanity can appear to be a bit similar. That’s only reinforced later in the film when a powerful storm ravages the set of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote and Gilliam asks, only half-joking, “Which is it? King Lear or The Wizard of Oz?” Is the man behind the curtain inspired, or has he simply lost it?

The quixotic spirit, and its attendant questions about what’s mad and what’s noble, informs some the most indelible images from the past decade of cinema. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’s would-be star Johnny Depp found surprise box office success in the noughties by playing the perpetually overmatched antihero Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, making his initial entrance on a sinking ship. As the Bride in the first of Quentin Tarantino’s iconic Kill Bill movies, Uma Thurman steadily raised her sword, a lone warrior against an army of henchman, then dug herself out of her own grave to the strains of Ennio Morricone in Vol. 2. But perhaps the quixotic spirit was most inspiring when the scrappy story off-screen matched the scrappy story onscreen. Think Don Coscarelli’s deliciously bizarre Bubba Ho Tep, where the geriatric heroes doing battle with the soul-sucking mummy of the film’s title faced only slightly more daunting odds than Coscarelli himself, helming the film on a shoestring budget and shooting its final pick-up shot in a wading pool in his backyard. Or think John Carney’s Once, carried to an unlikely Oscar win by the same stirring music that changes its character’s lives for the better.

I don’t need to rattle off the events of the past ten years to explain why the decades’ underdogs, Gilliam included, hold so much appeal for me. Suffice it to say: we’ve all been through the wringer, and it’s nice to believe that we can pick up the pieces and fight on. For his part, Gilliam has done just that. He’s announced that he plans to complete Quixote in the coming decade, and whether her does or not, you have to love that he’s trying it. Lost in La Mancha’s end credits are followed by a playful stinger: a mock-trailer made from some of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’s scant footage (Those giants again!) proclaiming that the film is “Coming Soon!” The last thing we hear is Gilliam’s distinctive laugh. As we face a new decade uncertain about what will become of film criticism, of film itself, of anything at all, I’m willing to let that laugh drown out those echoes of “It’s not a giant! It’s a windmill!” We make a habit of rooting for the underdog on this site, and I have no plans of stopping any time soon. I’m ready for another decade of art, insanity, and the many films and filmmakers that reside somewhere in between.


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