Deep beneath layers of digital dust in the archives of my hard drive, an angry bird is waiting, wondering if he’ll ever see me again.
Somewhere around 2004, I was in my eighth year of drafting three different novels when a publisher suddenly showed interest in one of them—an epic fantasy—and the other two, both intended for young readers, ended up “on the shelf.” I’ve never completed them.
The one about Max, the first bird of his flightless variety to discover the secret to flying, has been following me ever since. I feel his beak biting my earlobe. I hear his wingbeats just behind my head. I’ve responded several times, opening files, revising chapters, trying to bring those embers back to full flame. But I have a hard time imagining that the world will allow me to complete this story. I’m much older. My writing now bears little resemblance to those early drafts. Time and trouble have altered my perspective, my zeal, my faith. And the audience I once had in mind as I wrote—it has changed as well. So much seems so urgent in this darkening world, why would I decide to invest so much in a whimsical children’s story?
Still, I feel a sense of responsibility. I’ve invested so much in this story. I still care about those characters. And I think there’s something at the story’s heart that I need in my life: a spark of storytelling inspiration that reminds me of who I was, of the feeling that compelled me to dedicate myself to writing in the first place.
At what point should an artist consider giving up on a troubled project? How hard should he fight to fulfill the promise he sensed in that first spark of inspiration?
I wish I could call up filmmaker Terry Gilliam and ask for his advice. If anybody knows anything about the challenges of sustaining a creative vision through many years of delays and daunting challenges, he does.
Terry Gilliam first found fame by serving as the mad American member of Monty Python, playing memorable characters like the Bridgekeeper in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and designing the British troupe’s bizarre animation sequences. Even in those irreverent cartoons, we could discern his passions—his devotion to freedom of speech, his belief in the redemptive influence of imagination, his disdain for fascism, his wisdom regarding the corrupting nature of power and wealth.
All of these would be central to an impressive run of feature films he directed between 1981 and 1998 — Time Bandits, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys, and the Cannes-troversial Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Each film depicted worlds in which the soulless world of Business, exploiting mere Reason and devaluing conscience, threatens the lives of lovers and dreamers. Those with active imaginations become the chosen few who escape destruction via pathways to redemption… or to madness. (Sometimes, in a Gilliam film, those two are the same thing.)
I found Gilliam’s imagination inspiring as I wrote stories of my own during the ‘90s and early 2000s. And his moral and spiritual sensibilities resonated with my own Christian convictions: His movies seemed rooted in Gospel. So it made sense when I discovered that the young Gilliam had entertained aspirations of becoming a Christian missionary — that is, until he became convinced that neither Christians nor their God would accept his sense of humor. (For details, read about Gilliam’s season of religious zeal in this 2009 Senses of Cinema interview.)
Eventually, Gilliam’s stories came to seem like prophecies about his own passion project. In 1989, he started work on an adaptation of Don Quixote. It seemed like an ideal marriage of artist and subject. But his endeavors to achieve this have seemed, to anyone keeping track, cursed. Injuries. Reluctant and unreliable financiers. At one point he even had Jean Rochefort and Johnny Depp in their saddles ready to ride as Quixote and Sancho Panza, and everything fell apart. Even the weather seems to have conspired against him at times, spoiling his production calendar and even sweeping equipment from the set. (If you’re curious, you can witness the early chapters in this comedy of errors: check out the tragicomic documentary Lost in La Mancha.)
At times I’ve admired Gilliam’s determination; at other times, his refusal to give up has seemed more like madness. His own unruly ambitions have made it easier to sympathize with studio execs who have branded him an enfant terrible. He’s lost a lot of the respect that his golden days earned him. I remember hoping that The Brothers Grimm (2005), which starred Matt Damon and Heath Ledger, was just an example of a filmmaker’s vision falling apart due to studio influences. But then came Tideland (also 2005), which was an ugly piece of work. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) showed signs of familiar genius, that old Munchausen spirit—but perhaps it was too familiar. And The Zero Theorem (2013) felt downright derivative— an updated Brazil.
And yet, here it is — at last! It’s 2019, and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is available for rent on Amazon Prime.
I admit, I felt a little guilty paying only four bucks to watch it, knowing how much the movie cost its maker. I was also nervous.
Would it be any good?
Would Gilliam, bruised and beleaguered, deliver a satisfying motion picture based on inspiration that was more than three decades old?
And the answer is… yes and no.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote doesn’t measure up to Gilliam’s masterworks.
The pacing—if you can call it that— is a mess: it’s relentless and in dire need of some pauses. The familiarity of character dynamics and the convoluted plot both suggest that this is the movie you’d get if you threw every Gilliam film in a blender.
On the other hand, Quixote isn’t the disaster that many reviewers declared it was at its first screening. Unreliably bad buzz has been a longtime curse for Gilliam’s films—particularly in the case of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a movie that eventually earned widespread acclaim. I suspect that this film, too, will find an enthusiastic following.
Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce, the latest in a long line of actors who have suited up for this project, are both outstanding, honoring their director with energized performances in the lead roles.
And the images captured by Gilliam’s longtime cinematographer Nicola Pecorini are often glorious, immersing us in a world as extravagant as Baron Munchausen‘s. I’d advise seeing it on the biggest screen you can find. I enjoyed it all: the diverse supporting cast, the elaborate costumes, the scenic panoramas, the colors, the light, and—yes—the madness.
But it’s the film’s troubled history that ends up serving as its most interesting aspect. This umpteenth draft (by Pat Rushin, who also wrote The Zero Theorem) is a narrative clearly aware of—and even about—the very troubles that its maker has endured in completing it.
Toby Grisoni (Driver) is the standard Gilliam “Worldly Man”—an egomaniacal, indulgent, insensitive fellow—whose large-scale production of an elaborate Quixote-themed advertisement is going wrong when he rediscovers his student film, which was also about Quixote.
Re-inspired by the cast he assembled for that project—particularly by the old cobbler, Javier (Pryce), who immersed himself so completely in his performance as Quixote that he got lost, and by the young waitress Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), with whom both Javier and Toby became infatuated—Toby abandons (or, rather, flees) the scene of his commercial disaster and goes in search of his old inspiration.
Much to his dismay, he discovers that Javier still, years later, believes that he is the real Don Quixote. Gilliam fans will quickly recognize that Toby and Javier quickly fall into the same Reason-Versus-Madness dynamic that characterized the tension between Jeff Bridges’ shock-jock Jack and Robin Williams’ homeless widower Parry in The Fisher King. But where Parry led Jack on a quest to find the Holy Grail, Javier leads Toby (he calls him “Sancho Panza,” of course) in a quest to rescue Angelica from the wealthy Russian vodka-company kingpin who has enslaved her.
Of course, they’ll charge at windmills and giants in their efforts to rescue their version of Quixote’s Dulcinea. Throw in retaliatory scheming by Jacqui (Olga Kurylenko), the wife of Toby’s boss, who holds a grudge for how Toby’s adventures have led him away from their interrupted love affair, and you have more than enough trouble for one movie.
(Did I mention that Toby is also learning that not all Muslims are terrorists? Never mind—it’s complicated.)
It would be irresponsible to ignore that Gilliam has already been criticized —misguidedly, I think—for the roles he’s given women here: a damsel in distress and a nasty seductress. Could these two—Angelica and Jacqui— have been revised into stronger, more nuanced characters? Of course. But I’d argue that this is a story about artists and muses, and characters are meant to represent forces that either inspire or impede an artist’s progress.
What’s more, this is an adaptation of a book that wrestles with the merits of an old-world dynamic, in which the feminine represents the inspiration for men to reform and commit themselves to virtue. In exalting women as ideals rather than as the complicated, earthbound human beings they are, he overlooks their humanity and yet captures a vision of the sublime. Angelica, here, represents beauty taken hostage and exploited. In this context of the #MeToo movement, she clearly represents victims of misogyny and trafficking, where Jacqui stands for all distorted substitutes for True Love that might distract Toby from what he really needs.
In spite of the movie’s complicated anachronisms, it’s easy to get caught up in Gilliam’s passion: that familiar story about how imagination can rescue us from the soul-killing effects of worldly pursuits. Gilliam has always dared to believe in a kind of love that seems like foolishness to the world. But here, it’s both distracting and fascinating to see how his own trials have informed and even intensified his depiction of a man striving to transcend trouble. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote plays like a great artist’s last rage against the dying of the light: a holy fool’s last epic about holy fools. If this turns out the be the grand finale of Gilliam’s distinctive filmmaking career, the mess of it seems strangely appropriate.
It moves me. It gives me the sense that Gilliam still believes, somewhere deep inside, that dreamers destroyed by the tyranny of evil men will rise again, justified as saints. And so I think it will stand the test of time as more than just Gilliam’s Folly: The Movie He Finally Finished.
This movie makes me want to try, try again.
It makes me reluctant to keep swatting away that pesky bird who thinks I made a promise to him. (Maybe I did.)
Twenty years ago, I could hardly let a day pass without attending to that story. I didn’t anticipate how my world would challenge my faith. I hadn’t anticipated that my own church—my own country—would break my heart in as many ways as they have. I find it increasingly difficult to dream. As the world seems to keep getting darker, it’s harder and harder to believe that the beauty of a great story can make a difference. Why bother, when so many great stories exist, and still we are where we are?
But there’s a sense I get watching The Man Who Killed Don Quixote that I’m seeing an artist striving to keep the flame of his own faith alive in a storm. Perhaps the holy fools become the sane ones when humankind enthusiastically votes to tear the world apart.
I’m grateful to Gilliam for reminding me, in his tireless devotion to his vision, that I still believe in mine as well. Perhaps those stories have been calling to me all these years, refusing to go away, so that now, when I need their hopefulness most, I can immerse myself in them as an act of protest, faith, and holy foolishness. And go a little crazy.