Posts Tagged ‘Lost in La Mancha’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published December 19th 2002: 

Long-time, long-suffering readers may recall that when this column was younger and still had some novelty value, we occasionally peered back into the mists of time for a look at the great, and not so great, films of years gone by. Well, I decided to knock this section of the column on the head in the end as while a review of a film that came out a fortnight ago has some spurious claim to relevance, the same cannot be said for an in-depth critique of a thirty-year-old opus about a rubber dinosaur. However, where do art-house films, wending their slow and convoluted routes around the country over a period of many months fit into this equation? Well, they may not be brand-spanking new, but they’re new in my local cinema at least, which makes them fair game in my book. Which brings us to Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s Lost in La Mancha.

Total masochists and members of the editorial team may recall last January’s review of 2001, wherein I listed the films which I was particularly looking forward to this year: Attack of the Clones, From Hell, Matrix Reloaded and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Attentive masochists will also have noticed that most of these films turned out to not be very good, or indeed finished yet. But I think I was truly alone in looking forward to the release of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, as this film was not only not finished, it had in fact been pretty much abandoned less than a fortnight into production.

Lost in La Mancha is a documentary about what went wrong. Originally intended as a DVD extra it’s been released in an attempt to drum up interest in the film, and it’s a fascinating piece of work. That this is so is mainly because making the film was a long-cherished dream of its director, one Terence Vance Gilliam, and Gilliam is always good value no matter which side of the camera he’s on.

Quixote and Gilliam seem made for each other – Gilliam’s classic 80s movies all deal with the clash between dreams and reality, the same theme as Cervantes’ classic novel. And the same theme permeates this documentary, as Gilliam’s dream of making his masterpiece slowly falls apart in the face of real-world difficulties. To begin with, all seems well, as Gilliam arrives in Spain to oversee pre-production, and the glimpses of his vision we see are truly tantalising: rampaging giants, an army of life-size puppet soldiers, and more. Gilliam’s enthusiasm is infectious and all-consuming, the test footage of the giants (low-angle shots of very obese, very ugly Spaniards) hilarious. But everyone on the project says repeatedly, and worriedly, how ambitious it is and how little room for manoeuvre there is in the schedule. As shooting approaches several of the lead actors have yet to show up for costume fittings and screen tests (the impressive cast includes Johnny Depp, Jean Rochefort, Vanessa Paradis, Bill Paterson and Christopher Eccleston). The production’s one and only sound stage has the acoustics of an oil drum.

And as shooting begins in earnest, things go only from bad to worse: the main location turns out to be next door to an active NATO bombing range. The extras have had no rehearsal. On day two the main film unit is washed away in a thunderstorm, in a sequence both funny and heartbreaking. The key image of the film becomes Gilliam storming around the shoot in a variety of eccentric hats shouting ‘We’re f**ked!’. Things go from worse to disastrous as the actor playing Quixote himself, French veteran Jean Rochefort – who learned English specifically for this film – is diagnosed with a double-herniated disc which effectively stops him from participating. Concerned investors and completion guarantors begin to circle the production like vultures…

As a behind-the-scenes look at the film industry Lost in La Mancha is not especially innovative: only as a glimpse at a film that never was (or at least, hasn’t been yet) is it of real interest. But there are so many thematic parallels between the story of Quixote the character, and the story of Quixote the film, that it’s almost spooky. Gilliam emerges as a dogged, almost eternally cheerful character – his refusal to accept the worst is perhaps understandable given that every film he’s ever made has involved a battle of some kind of other (he did, after all, develop stress-related hysterical paralysis during post-production on Brazil). But on the other hand, if this wasn’t a Gilliam project it’s doubtful things would have gone quite so badly wrong – First AD Phil Patterson (who comes across as Sancho Panza to Gilliam’s Quixote) admits the total chaos reigning as shooting approaches would normally make him deeply nervous – but this is a Gilliam project, after all, and everyone knows this is how Gilliam operates…

If I had to make a criticism of Lost in La Mancha, it’d be that the documentary style is a little lacking in narrative structure – the story of the production fizzles out a bit at the end. Admittedly, the production itself fizzles out, but the documentary doesn’t stress the final dissolution strongly enough. The rest of the time this is a fascinating, amusing, tantalising piece of work. I would perhaps hesitate to recommend it to anyone who wasn’t a Terry Gilliam fan or a film industry geek, but for that audience at least it’s a virtual must-see.

And the story may yet have a happy ending: the film closes with Gilliam embarking on yet another attempt to make his movie, struggling to buy his script back off the insurers. Will he succeed or not? Will what looked to be a tremendous feat of imagination ever reach our screens? No-one knows, yet. And you thought Lord of the Rings ended on a cliff-hanger!

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