Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Lost in La Mancha

Hard to tell from all this what exactly has been lost. I have almost enjoyed nearly all of Terry Gilliam's previous films, but this documentary left me with the strong suspicion that this was one best left unmade. Perhaps it should have been titled 'The Man that Nearly Killed Don Quijote'.

Gilliam is undoubtedly a talented artist, but from this account at least lacks leadership skills and the ability to infect others with his singular visions before committing them to celluloid.

He pondered his approach to Cervantes for a decade before miring himself in European mediocrity. Before the overt acts of God start to flow against him he openly admits that he is undertaking a production with half the funding it really needs. This project had no sink fund, so when it started to sink, it went down very fast. But even if Gilliam had got his hands on the $60m he claimed to require, there's clearly something about the whole set-up around him that would have tended towards disintegration.

The only people in the luck here are American documentarists Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe who happened to be preparing the DVD extras when the deluge started.

The main reason that the script ended up in the hands of the insurers is the sudden infirmity that beset Gilliam's Quijote Jean Rochefort, an actor seemingly picked for his age, his look and his horseriding ability. It was this latter skill that so dramatically deserted him. His recently-acquired, Frenchly-accented English would surely have been a more chronic hindrance later on.

Johnny Depp makes an inauspiciously timely entrance and starts acting like he's trying too hard to look as if he's not trying at all - "windmills and shit".

Towards the end of his life Beethoven dedicated himself to the personal meditations of his late quartets. Many other writers, artists and composers have greeted their personal Autumn this way, and with little risk except perhaps to their reputations. In contrast there is something rather absurd and presumptuous about a film director taking $30m of other peoples' money to undertake what is essentially a reflective work of art.

This documentary is not only instructive about the movie business, it reveals a great deal about business in general and bad business in particular. And it demonstrates why of all the arts, the cinematic one needs to conform to commercial protocols. The young and fleety-footed can sometimes squeeze more out of economic realities than the established players, but nobody gets very far by economising on a bloated vision.

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