Cinematic windmills

The tragicomic misadventures of Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote.

It’s no small wonder: Laughter sparkles in his wide eyes, tinkles on the verge of a giggle in his voice and inevitably bubbles out of him in playrooms strewn with expensive toys. And it’s all the more wonderful because he, Terry Gilliam — the man who would direct his own idiosyncratic version of Cervantes’ 17th century classic of picaresque madness, Don Quixote — is 60 years old. He rides the props and play-acts with the cast of what could have been The Man Who Killed Don Quixote with a childlike glee. Quixote is Gilliam’s dream-toy, 10 years of meticulously storyboarded fantasy on the brink of $32.1 million worth of reality. He can’t wait to have his friends — like his star, Johnny Depp — come over to play make-believe.

Didn’t Orson Welles once call the set of Citizen Kane the ultimate train set? From the start, Gilliam’s production recalls the “Addams Family” layout where Gomez pushes the throttles of his toy locomotives up to full speed, switches them onto a collision course and then enjoys the spectacular crashes with impish delight. Gilliam simply explains that his pictures are driven by the dialectical collisions of fantasy against reality and madness against sanity. Don Quixote’s tale of an insane, self-made and inevitably erring knight who tilts against such threats to humanity as windmills has been the primary source of his body of work since Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). Slipping Johnny Depp’s modern-day American advertising executive back 400 years and across the Atlantic into Quixote’s Spanish La Mancha is a plot turn right out of A Confederate Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. And it’s typical of Gilliam, a visual storyteller well practiced in stripping the gears of time and space, especially in films such as Time Bandits (1981) and 12 Monkeys (1995).

In Lost in La Mancha, Gilliam’s life imitates his art in cinematically tragic ways. After less than a week of shooting, his fantasy-train collides with the realities of the filmmakers and the gods. Gilliam’s romantic madness is straitjacketed by a motley crew of insurance men, doctors and completion bond guarantors; his Quixote derails in nauseating slow motion, still in sight of the station and before it can even pick up steam.

The gods seem set against Quixote, Gilliam and their insurers. On the second day of shooting, a near-biblical deluge washes out the arid wasteland of the film’s first location. Cases of equipment float like parodies of Noah’s ark across the screen. On the fifth day, it takes two crewmen to lift Gilliam’s perfectly cast Quixote, 70-year-old Jean Rochefort, off his horse and 40 minutes for him to walk again. The ailing Quixote is flown out of his La Mancha. Rochefort returns to his native France for an indeterminate span of medical care.

But “Captain Chaos” (as first assistant director Phil Patterson calls his fearless leader, Gilliam) marches ahead. “If it’s almost impossible to do, I have a go at it,” he once admitted.

Patterson presses Gilliam to fall back and regroup. But with investors flocking in to watch how their money’s being spent, while the completion bond guarantor circles the sets calculating not so much if, but when to pull the plug, it’s full speed ahead and damn the impossibility of shooting a film without your title character. Welles continued shooting even after his Don Quixote died. But then, of course, Welles’ Don Quixote was never finished either. The gods seem to be down on tales of ambitious human hope.

Soon, the adrenaline of the merely challenging floods to overload levels in what one crewmember calls “sheer panic.” The crew seems shell-shocked. Gilliam, Patterson, director of photography Nicola Pecorini and the producers rub their faces, smoke ’em if they got ’em, and pace like expectant fathers expecting a miscarriage.

In the end, recalling the end of Citizen Kane, the crew crates countless costumes and props. Insurance may cover the loss of equipment and much of the aborted film’s expenditures (though the insurance company sees Rochefort’s illness as an act of God that isn’t covered), but it can’t replace Gilliam’s visions of Quixote. And it doesn’t need to replace his innocence. Though he seems experienced at defending it from years of cinema’s onslaughts, it’s a wonder he hasn’t lost it yet.


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