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Posts Tagged ‘Terry Gilliam’

I first started writing about films on the internet back in 2001, and at the end of that first year announced the list of films I was particularly looking forward to – one of them was Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Well, it has taken somewhat longer than anticipated, but I am finally in a position to write about this movie. I must express my gratitude to Terry Gilliam for finally finishing it and getting it into cinemas, even with the disgracefully limited UK release it has eventually received – I could have ended up looking quite silly otherwise.

The travails of Gilliam’s Don Quixote have become legendary, helped by the release of Lost in La Mancha in 2002 – intended as a making-of film to go on the DVD, it ended up as the chronicle of a collapsing film shoot, as an already-chaotic production was sent into a terminal spin by scheduling problems, terrible weather, injured stars, and much more. It would have been enough to win The Man Who Killed Don Quixote a spot in the book The Greatest Movies Never Made – but, as I have previously noted, ‘never’ is a bold choice of words, and just as a few of these projects have finally crept out into the world, so Gilliam has finally finished this movie.

You can’t accuse The Man Who Killed Don Quixote of a lack of self-awareness, as the opening credits ruefully acknowledge the long and troubled history of the production (‘and now, after 25 years in the making, and unmaking’). This kind of playfulness continues on into the movie itself, where we encounter Toby (Adam Driver), a pretentious director surrounded by obsequious hangers-on, engaged in what looks like a troubled and chaotic production of a film of Don Quixote on location in Spain. Things are not going well, with abrasive crew-members, endless hold-ups, and a distinct lack of inspiration. The situation is not helped when Toby’s boss (Stellan Skarsgard) leaves his trophy wife (Olga Kurylenko) in his care: she turns out to be much taken with Toby, and the director finds his amorous instincts over-riding his better judgement.

It all takes an odd turn, however, when a chance encounter with a gypsy selling various wares reunites Toby with a copy of the student film that made his name, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. He realises he made the movie in the same area, a decade or so earlier, using local people in the key roles – an old shoemaker, Javier (Jonathan Pryce) as Quixote, and a bar-owner’s teenage daughter, Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), as Dulcinea. But a brief visit to the locations of the movie reveal that it has had a less positive effect on the other participants: Angelica became fixated on becoming a famous film star, which led to her being sucked into a netherworld of crime and degradation, while Javier became convinced he really was Don Quixote and abandoned his old life entirely.

Various misunderstandings from Toby’s chaotic life lead to him being arrested by the police, but he is less than entirely delighted when the old man appears on horseback and ‘rescues’ him. The self-styled Quixote addresses Toby as Sancho Panza and declares that great deeds and adventures await the pair of them…

Don Quixote defeated Orson Welles long before Terry Gilliam ever attempted to film it, and entire films have been made recounting the tortuous progress of Gilliam’s version to the screen: two of the director’s choices to play Quixote died while the film was trapped in development hell, while other cast members have shifted roles in the meantime (Jonathan Pryce was originally supposed to be playing an entirely different part). Perhaps most significantly of all, the script of the movie has been significantly rewritten since Lost in La Mancha came out: I was expecting there to be an explicitly fantastical, time-travel element to this movie, but it has been removed.

In its place is something more subtle and unexpected, and rather more in keeping with Cervantes: the novel was published in two parts, many years apart, and the second volume opens with Quixote and Sancho rather nonplussed by the fame they have acquired as notable literary figures (not to mention outraged by an unauthorised sequel penned by other hands). The Man Who Killed Don Quixote manages a degree of the same kind of witty self-referentiality – nearly all the characters in it are aware of the book, and intent upon acting various bits of it out for different reasons. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, it is also a remarkably faithful adaptation of a novel which doesn’t easily lend itself to other media.

You could argue this is a double-edged sword, for Don Quixote is a sprawling, episodic, picaresque, apparently undisciplined book, and Gilliam’s film is arguably many of these things too. The first act in particular feels slow and rambling, the story unsure of which way to go. But once Toby and Quixote set off on their peculiar exploits, it lifts enormously, and it slowly becomes clear that in addition to being an adaptation of Cervantes, this is also an engaging and affecting comedy-drama about Toby’s own personal redemption and discovery of his own inner knight-errant.

Adam Driver wouldn’t necessarily have been my first choice for this particular role, but he carries it off well: this is a proper leading role, which he does full justice too. While I would deeply love the chance to peep into the parallel quantum realms where this film was made five or ten years ago and John Hurt or Michael Palin played Quixote, I honestly can’t imagine either of them doing a better job in the role than Jonathan Pryce does here – Pryce is enjoying one of those periods of late bloom that actors sometimes have, and this is one of his best performances.

Of course, Pryce and Gilliam have worked together a number of times in the past, and I first became aware of the actor following his lead performance in Brazil. His presence here isn’t the only thing that recalls some of the classic Gilliam movies of the past: there is the way in which the present day and the medieval collide with each other (mostly figuratively, here), and also the film’s focus on the conflict between imagination and dreams on the one hand, and dreary old reality on the other. You’re never in doubt as to which side the director is on; you could probably argue that Terry Gilliam’s whole career has been building up to doing a film of Don Quixote.

I’m not sure this is quite as consistent or as impressive as some of Gilliam’s other feats of cinematic legerdemain, but neither is it far from the standard of his best films, and there are moments which are as accomplished as anything he’s done in the past. It feels like a minor miracle that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote has been finished at all; the fact it is as good as it is simply adds to the sense that it is something we should be grateful for. (It’s just a shame that – true to form – the film is still entangled in legal difficulties affecting its release and distribution, which is presumably why it has barely appeared in British cinemas.) A heart-warming achievement for Terry Gilliam, anyway, and a treat for those of us who’ve loved his films for years.

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I did not get into music as a teenager – not until my late teens, anyway. I’m not sure why this was, possibly because we just weren’t that kind of a family. It was always Radio 4 that was on in the kitchen, not Radio 2. And I suspect liking music was just not my thing. With hindsight, I can see I took a kind of perverse, masochistic satisfaction from being into stuff which was incredibly obscure and peculiar – which is why I became a kind of comedy geek. Not even the present day stuff: I suspect I was the only 13-year-old at my school who knew the names and birth dates of the cast of Beyond the Fringe. Lots of people could quote all the usual Monty Python sketches: I was the only who’d heard of The Frost Report, At Last the 1948 Show and Do Not Adjust Your Set, and could trace the lineage leading up to Python itself. Yes, it is a strange place, inside my brain; I have learned how to hide it much better in the last thirty-odd years.

The strange thing is that I’d committed all this information to memory before even seeing or hearing most of the shows and performers concerned – a lot of it came from Roger Wilmut’s book From Fringe to Flying Circus, an exhaustive history of the generation of Oxbridge comics who rose to prominence in the late 1950s and 1960s. Strange to recount, but when the BBC actually repeated the second and third series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in the summer of 1987 (inconsiderately scheduled to regularly clash with their thirtieth-anniversary season of Hammer horror movies on the other side), I was not entirely sure who was who amongst the team. I knew John Cleese from Fawlty Towers, of course, and I knew the American one who didn’t get many lines was Terry Gilliam; I was also pretty sure which one was Michael Palin, too. But for quite a long while I was under the impression Eric Idle was Graham Chapman, and vice versa. Which just left Terry Jones, who – and this is the reason we are here, of course – has just left us.

Things were different back in the early 1980s, of course. Things popped up in strange places. I distinctly recall an episode of Python being shown long before the watershed when I was about eight. Similarly, I remember possibly the first time I saw Terry Jones on TV: he was being interviewed on a Saturday morning kids’ TV show, Lord knows why – possibly to publicise one of his childrens’ books, I don’t know – and this was accompanied by a clip from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Monty Python and the Holy Grail! On Saturday morning TV! It was a different world, I tell you. (It may be that someone on the editorial team was an avid Python fan, for they ran an equally inappropriate promo for Brazil in the same slot a year or two later.)

I get the impression that Terry Jones was quite proud of the fact that his films tended to be controversial – his first three solo projects as a director were all banned in Ireland – and this may be why they dragged their feet a bit in reaching the TV screen. These days we’re used to films arriving less than year after their cinema debut, but part of me is quite sure it was eighteen years before Holy Grail was eventually shown in full on British TV: it was at Christmas 1993 that I finally got to see the whole thing. (I should of course make it clear that this particular Python extravaganza was directed by Terry Jones in tandem with Terry Gilliam.)

Here is where I traditionally describe the plot, but this being a Monty Python movie, various gags and conceits keep rocketing off at right-angles to the actual story (which is still reasonably cohesive, all things considered). Ostensibly set in the Dark Ages, the film concerns King Arthur of Camelot (a silly place) and his Knights of the Round Table. (Graham Chapman plays Arthur with his usual, worryingly plausible glassy-eyed authority; the rest of the team play Lancelot and the others.) God, or possibly W.G. Grace, commands them to find the Holy Grail, that their efforts should inspire the rest of the populace.

This is basically just a simple but wonderful framework on which to hang a selection of skits and sketches. It’s almost a cliche to describe the Pythons as comedy’s answer to the Beatles, but there is some truth to that, and their range of styles is fully on display here. Some of the humour is brutal (most obviously the encounter with the Black Knight), some of it is cleverer than it looks, much of it is gleefully silly, and some of it is knowingly puerile. The practiced viewer can often figure out who wrote a particular sketch based on its style – ‘Anything that opened with rolling countryside and music was Mike and Terry, anything with really heavy abuse in it was John and Graham, and anything that got totally obsessed with words and vanished up its own backside was Eric,’ according to Gilliam (if memory serves) – but personally I don’t really feel the need to pick it apart in quite such detail.

Even so, one does note that they are generating some of the gags here by giving mediaeval characters twentieth-century attitudes and outlooks (for instance, the anarcho-syndicalist peasants Arthur encounters near the start of the film), something which would go on to be one of the main drivers of Life of Brian, and also that some of the more anarchic assaults on the structure of the film itself have obviously developed from jokes in the TV show. The opening gag (of the DVD release, if not the theatrical version) where the wrong film – Bob Monkhouse in Dentist on the Job – is shown by mistake is a close cousin to a joke where an episode of Flying Circus is introduced by a continuity announcer from the commercial network, while the subversion of the opening credits by the Swedish tourist board does recall the way in which Njorl’s Saga was infiltrated by a group seeking to promote North Malden.

I know that Life of Brian is the Python movie one is supposed to like best of all, and I do think it has some very good moments. But this one is honestly still my favourite, and that’s partly because it is still very much in the style of the TV series at its best: there is kind of a plot, but this still feels very much like a revue movie, and it does have the kind of formal daring one expects from Python – particularly in the total lack of a conventional climax, or indeed an ending. Plus, on top of this, it does look remarkably good for what was clearly quite a low-budget movie: the surreal grotesqueries of the dark ages are clearly right up Gilliam and Jones’ street (not really surprising, when you consider Gilliam would go on to make several historical fantasy films while Jones would do some substantial historical documentaries). Was it this film or Jabberwocky that earned Gilliam a complimentary phone call from Stanley Kubrick, telling him it looked more authentic than Barry Lyndon? I can’t remember.

Still, you don’t argue with Kubrick. History does not recall what Stanley’s favourite Python movie was, but this is mine. Watching it again is a reminder of just how good these boys were, all those years ago. No wonder the Black Knight and the Knights Who Say ‘Ni’ and the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch have all infiltrated popular culture to some extent. Terry Jones had one of the more diverse and eclectic careers of any of the Pythons – rather than just writing and performing comedy, he was also a brewer, a historian, a poet and a film director – which may be why he never seemed to get quite the recognition and plaudits of some of the other members of the team. Certainly he deserved them, because he was very good at all these things. Possibly that may be rectified now; better late than never. The Pythons were the closest thing I had to a favourite band as a teenager. I hope we will cherish the remaining quartet appropriately while we still have them.

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I first saw Terry Gilliam’s 1977 film Jabberwocky on its British TV premiere, over thirty years ago. It almost goes without saying that the world was a very different place back then – the fact that a film could be ten years old before turning up on a TV channel or streaming site in itself confirms that we are discussing a very different world. And of course, if you’ll forgive a little personal reminiscence, I was a very different person myself at that time in my life: most specifically, I was barely familiar with Monty Python except from what I’d read about it in books and magazines – I hadn’t seen any of the TV shows or movies, and to be perfectly honest wasn’t really sure which members of the group were which. As I say, another time, another place.

Then again, as a 1977 fantasy movie, Jabberwocky is a product of the pre-stellar conflict era, and – perhaps appropriately enough – is a rather peculiar beast in many ways. It is, as I hope you do not need telling, based on (or perhaps inspired by would be more accurate) Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem of the same name. The poem’s setting is essentially indeterminate, but the script (by Gilliam and Charles Alverson) relocates the story to the Dark Ages, at a time when the land is being ravaged and despoiled by a ferocious beastie, causing panic and upheaval.

None of this penetrates the notably thick brain of Dennis the Cooper (Michael Palin), a young man who seems less interested in actually making barrels than in time-and-motion studies and efficiency in the workplace. This so disgusts Dennis’ father that his dying act is to disinherit him, and in order to win the hand of the girl he loves (a young Annette Badland), Dennis is forced to set off and seek his fortune.

He ends up in the city, which is bursting at the seams with survivors fleeing the depredations of the jabberwock, causing some consternation to King Bruno the Questionable (Max Wall) and his chamberlain (John le Mesurier). The chamberlain hits upon the plan of holding a contest to select a champion to slay the monster, with the hand of the King’s daughter (Deborah Fallender) and half the kingdom as a reward, and Dennis inevitably finds himself caught up in this. The crisis, however, is proving a bonanza for the wealthy merchants and guild leaders of the city, who have embarked upon their own scheme to ensure continuance of the monster…

This was Terry Gilliam’s first film as sole director; he had previously co-directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and there is perhaps an obvious sense in which the two films are connected – they share the same Dark Ages setting, and various members of the Python collective appear on screen (in addition to Palin, there are cameos by Terry Jones and Gilliam himself, not to mention associate Python Neil Innes). Gilliam was unhappy to find the film being billed as Monty Python’s Jabberwocky for its initial American release, and unsuccessfully tried to have this stopped.

That said, however, Jabberwocky isn’t just a product of members of the Oxbridge tradition of British comedy, although various members of it appear. This is one of those films which is stuffed with familiar faces from both the big and small screen, drawn from a broad range of comic backgrounds – Max Wall started his career as a music hall clown, John le Mesurier was a hugely familiar face from both films and mainstream sitcoms, as were Warren Mitchell and Harry H Corbett. Bernard Bresslaw, who only a couple of years earlier had been appearing in Carry On films, also turns up.

If it isn’t quite a who’s who of British comedy in the middle 1970s, then it’s certainly a film with no shortage of talented comic performers. Which really forces one to wonder why it is that Jabberwocky is not actually particularly funny. You can certainly recognise the jokes as they go by, but you just don’t feel especially inclined to laugh – which is odd, as it’s the same kind of humour that worked quite well in Holy Grail, specifically the subversion of the conventions of this kind of fairy tale, and also the insertion of modern stereotypes into a historical context. There are also occasional forays into slightly laborious absurdism – the horrifically high casualty rate amongst the knights taking part in the joust forces the King to cancel the event and choose his champion via a hide-and-seek contest.

The strange non-funniness of Jabberwocky is perhaps explicable by the fact that while most of it is written and played as comedy, on the whole it is filmed and edited like some kind of art house film or costume drama. It is certainly very atmospheric, with an almost palpable sense of the mediaeval. Of course, this usually takes the form of filth, squalour and brutality, to the point where the film is probably quite off-putting to viewers of a sensitive disposition: Jabberwocky is filled with spraying blood and severed limbs and people taking care of bodily functions out of windows or off the top of battlements. It’s all quite authentic, though not necessarily what you associate with an actual comedy, except in its sheer grotesqueness.

Also notably grotesque is the titular beast of the film, the jabberwock itself. This isn’t really a monster movie per se, although there are a few nods in the direction of the form. When the beast finally appears, it is through the magic of suitamation, with perhaps just a touch of puppetry also involved. It’s quite amusing to look back at responses to Jabberwocky from close to the time it was released – one 1980 book asserted that the jabberwocky was the best monster in the history of cinema, up to that point. Well, to me it seems like a qualified success at best, a brilliant design somewhat sabotaged by somewhat clumsy execution.

The same is really true of Jabberwocky as a whole – it’s a minor miracle that the film looks as good as it does, given it was clearly made on a very low budget (at one point Dave Prowse, doubling up as two characters, has a fight to the death with himself). You come away from it feeling entertained, and impressed by the consistency of the film’s vision and atmosphere, even if it is a view of the middle ages more inspired by Hieronymous Bosch than Hollywood. But you most likely won’t come away having laughed your socks off. Gilliam seems to have felt obliged to make a comedy, given his career up to that point, when he was really more interested in something more ambitious. Subsequent films would be considerably more successful, but this is still a pretty good and very interesting debut.

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Whatever else you want to say about 2016, and let’s face it you’re not exactly short of raw material, it has been a bumper year for the Death of Celebrities: the glitter-spangled reaper got going very early on with David Bowie and Alan Rickman, then never stopped to draw breath (appropriately enough): Terry Wogan, Ronnie Corbett, Victoria Wood, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Gene Wilder, Leonard Cohen, Robert Vaughn… if you sat down and tried to do justice to everyone who shuffled off this year, you’d be overwhelmed. So perhaps best to just pick a couple and at least do that much properly.

So, then: a film co-starring the always-memorable Peter Vaughan, whose notices tended to focus on his roles in Porridge and Musical Chairs, when of course he was in so much more. Including something which is quite possibly my favourite specifically Christmassy film of all time (stop complaining, of course it’s not too early to do a Christmassy bit, they’ve been showing Christmas films non-stop on Channel 5 for the last fortnight) – Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

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Brazil is about bureaucracy, tyranny, paranoia, despair, and madness, amongst other things, which may be why it does not typically feature higher when lists of the great Yuletide films are drawn up – but then it’s a film which seems to drift in and out of public awareness with the passing of time. It was released in 1985, but I don’t think I was even aware it existed until trailers started showing for it ahead of its TV debut at Easter 1988 – which, to be fair, was accompanied by some fanfare from the BBC. I remember that the trailers themselves were like nothing else on TV, even in the late 80s: monolithic skyscrapers erupting out of an idyllic country landscape towards a winged figure, a trick perspective shot where an enormous tramp’s face looms into view over a set of cooling towers, striking retro-40s design…

I made an extremely specific point of watching it, of course, for something so very different hardly ever came along, and I was very impressed by the atmosphere and imagery of the film even if the story didn’t seem quite to hang together. Impressed enough to watch it again the next time it was on a couple of years later (by this point everyone seemed to have decided it was a cult classic, whatever that means, as it was showing as part of Moviedrome), this time I managed to keep myself from getting too distracted by the art direction, realised what it was all about and promptly awarded it a spot on my all-time favourites list, which it has retained ever since.

So what exactly is it all about? Well, Brazil is, I suppose, essentially a grotesque, non-naturalistic fantasy about the horrors of life in the 20th century: but a strange, amalgamated 20th century, where computers and drones and automation exist, but the microchip hasn’t been invented (everything seems to function using valves), where baseball caps and overalls are worn alongside fedoras and suits. A faceless government, basically embodied by a labyrinthine bureaucracy, is doing battle with terrorists (apparently), and is quite prepared to brutalise its own citizens to do so.

Trying his best to ignore all this is Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a lowly clerk in the records department, who to the despair of friends and family is doing his best to disappear – not trying for promotion, not trying to distinguish himself, just live a quiet life where can find escape in his dreams and the beautiful woman he fantasises about there. However, events conspire to force him across the path of the exact lookalike of the object of his affections (Kim Greist), and his increasingly desperate efforts to first find and then protect her lead to the destruction of his quiet little life…

A peculiar kind of nostalgia is part of the rich mixture of elements that makes up Brazil, but even so, watching it now one is reminded that thirty years ago, not only was the British film industry willing to mount a challenging, big budget fantasy film for grown-ups, but that Terry Gilliam could actually get a gig directing it. Neither of these things could happen today: I for one found it bitterly ironic that one of the Harry Potter films included a homage to Brazil, when the studio had rejected JK Rowling’s choice of Gilliam as the director of the first film in the series, due to his perceived unreliability.

Still, the 80s were a different time, I suppose: Python had been a going concern very recently, and you can perhaps detect attempts to position this film to appeal to an audience expecting the same kind of thing – most obviously, the presence of Michael Palin, cast firmly against type and giving quite probably the performance of his career as an utterly immoral government torturer. There’s also a tendency towards the surreal, not to mention a lot of extreme black comedy. The actual jokes included in the script tend to be less successful, however, and sometimes come across as a little bit affected.

The gags do feel like a bit of a sop to audience expectations, anyway, as for all that this film has a remarkable cast of character actors noted for their comic ability – apart from Palin, there’s Ian Holm, Ian Richardson, Jim Broadbent, Bob Hoskins, and of course Peter Vaughan himself – it’s clearly dealing with quite serious and indeed very nearly heavy topics. Like many British films of its time, it’s almost impossible to look at Brazil now and not conclude that it is on some level about Britain under Margaret Thatcher – not that the film has a particular political message to promote, unless it is that every system crushes somebody.

In the end what sticks with you is the extraordinarily vivid and coherent visual world that Gilliam creates for the film – like others before him, he appears to have realised that nothing dates quicker than attempts to predict the future, and quite sensibly has hasn’t even tried. It’s somewhat confounding that such an obviously stylised, abstracted world can seem so real while you’re watching it, but it does, simply because of how thought-through it all seems. No wonder the story can sometimes feel like it gets a bit lost amongst all the production designs.

Brazil is explicitly set ‘somewhere in the 20th century’ and does seem to be both a homage and a reaction to the great 20th century dystopian satires (one working title was apparently 1984 and a Half). And yet, particularly after the 2016 we’ve just lived through, it still feels like a very timely film for the 21st century too: the urge to retreat into fantasy and abandon the real world entirely is as strong as it ever was for many people, or so I would imagine. The film itself suggests that this may be the only real means of escape, although whether it actually encourages it is another question. Brazil may look surreal and peculiar, but it is at heart a serious film about a serious world, and one which looks every bit as impressive and relevant now as it did three decades ago.

 

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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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