“The truth is, I don’t actually like making films,” Terry Gilliam confesses in Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe’s He Dreams of Giants, their second (and better) feature-length look at Gilliam’s creative process. “It’s not a film, it’s a medical condition,” the director says about The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, which he began developing in 1989, got six days into production in 2000 before he was shut down, then had six other aborted starts before finally getting it done. “I have to empty my head,” he mumbles later, a faraway look in his eyes and medical tubes coming out of him. He will either conquer Quixote or Quixote will conquer him.
Before anything else, yes, it is quite fitting that a mad, aged fabulist like Terry Gilliam will stop at nothing to revive the story of a Spanish shoemaker (Jonathan Pryce, in the final version), a mad, aged fabulist who stops at nothing to revive the legend of Don Quixote, the mad aged fabulist who will stop at nothing to revive the age of chivalric tales. Look up Quixotic in the dictionary and there’s Gilliam’s toothy grin.
But part of what separates He Dreams of Giants from other from-the-trenches documentaries about difficult films (Burden of Dreams about Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse about the madness of Apocalypse Now being the twin titans of the genre) is that once production actually starts … it isn’t all that bad. The toil and tumult is only inside the battered director’s head, encroaching on the space where his artistic confidence once lived.
While Gilliam’s style is certainly not for everyone (his movies basically flatulate at you) most would agree there’s a distinctive “before and after” on his résumé. The early work includes the Monty Python era, then Time Bandits, Brazil, The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The recent work includes Tideland, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and The Zero Theorem; movies that did not make much of a mark on film culture. In between is the gap, the absence of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, the one that got away due to a domino effect of bad luck chronicled in Fulton and Pepe’s 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha.
There isn’t anything as cinematic as a flash flood in this newer film, but there still is that lifetime between thought and expression, as Lou Reed put it. Artistic constipation, is perhaps the more Gilliamesque phrase. Either way, with a lack of fireworks to work with, Fulton and Pepe try a different approach. I’ve never seen so many long shots of a man rubbing his temples with a look of horror on his face set to eerie music. Their film is a moody plunge into the anguish of the artistic process.
One might read that and think, hey, come on, there are people out there in the world with real problems, why should I care that a septuagenarian film director is losing his mojo? By the end of this movie you’ll realize that Gilliam’s struggles are humanity’s struggles. One doesn’t need to have familiarity with motion picture production to understand the fears and frustration of trying to accomplish something. His momentary giggles of glee are bursts of oxygen. His (many) hurled F-bombs, growls and facepalms are the terror we all want to deny.
For someone who works in fantasy, Gilliam has his feet surprisingly on the ground. He is extremely self-aware of how he is perceived, and is marinated in self-doubt. He must make this movie if he is to keep his sanity, but he knows that he will never make it as good as it is in his mind. No matter what he does, he says, it will be a disappointment.
It’s rather tragic because, let’s face it, he’s right. This is one of those curious examples of the movie about the movie is more dramatic and more gripping than the movie itself. It hurts me to say that; I already had tremendous respect for Gilliam watching this. After watching him fight for his passions, I absolutely love him.
There are, of course, a handful of critics who really love The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. If nothing else, this film has inspired me to see it a second time. Never stop dreaming.
Source: The Guardian