Gilliam’s ‘Don Quixote’ delivers wonder and magic, despite burden of 25 years of content

Terry Gilliam’s ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.’ — video still

It is difficult to interpret Terry Gilliam’s 2019 The Man who Killed Quixote (playing at FilmScene through May 30) without filtering the experience of the movie through any number of available frames. There’s the legacy of the original novel, Cervantes’ Don Quixote (The Ingenious Gentleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha), the history of its successful reproduction on film, the history of its notable failures (including Gilliam himself (see Lost in La Mancha) and Orson Welles) and the history of its adaptations (including Graham Greene’s novel Monsignor Quixote and its film adaptation).

My choice for reviewing the film is as a fan of Gilliam’s movies, moving from seeing Monty Python and the Holy Grail in high school to being entranced by 12 Monkeys and The Fisher King, finding Brazil afterward and eventually watching Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Brothers Grimm and others. What I’ve enjoyed about Gilliam is his unflinching obsession with creating art that has a thematic focus on the thin line that separates different variations on reality. I also appreciate the enduring importance of the courtly quest for love that motivates many of his protagonists.

As a filmmaker (writer and director), Gilliam creates work that replays these themes. They are frequently accompanied by violations of the fourth wall (as much as possible in a film), such as the ending of Holy Grail. The actual mechanism(s) employed — literal dreams, drugs, visions, love, time travel — matter less than the ways that the ideas open into an expanded sense of human capability. Generally, this fascination translates admirably on the screen — especially since movies are themselves a portal that translate audiences through time into imagined universes that come to life through a temporary suspension of disbelief.

To this extent, it makes sense that Gilliam finds Cervantes’ Knight of the Mournful Countenance an ur-text par excellance. He shares with the Spanish novelist an appreciation for how stories can fuel individual dreams that translate to an enhanced reality, the importance of sharing those dreams with a broader community and the oddity of metatextuality as a nod to the “reality” of the situation. Ultimately, Gilliam’s films share a belief that the stories that the heart experiences are better than the reduced world of a shared “reality.”

Terry Gilliam’s ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.’ — video still

From this perspective, The Man Who Killed Quixote is Gilliam’s best movie. More than any of his other efforts, this movie successfully depicts an understanding on how love, technology, power, stories, dreams, fate and freedom intertwine as the basic pattern we use to understand our lives. As a standalone film, though, it is probably not even in Gilliam’s top five, much less one of the top five of the year. A character during the film comments that artists must be naïve, crazy and cruel: While Gilliam knows this, and even thought he wisely departs from the cruelty of Tidelands, this movie is obviously a “passion project” (a phrase from the film) that engages in indulgence rather than refusal. It’s a beautiful thing to behold from this perspective, although (probably) a mess seen otherwise.

The movie follows Toby (Adam Driver, taking over the role from Johnny Depp), directing a commercial in Spain loosely based on the story of Don Quixote as part of a larger advertising campaign for a power company. Toby receives a copy of his student film, The Man who Killed Don Quixote, from a Romani in a restaurant; realizes he’s close to the village (Los Suenos) where he filmed the movie; and heads off to revisit the place that launched his initial career.

At this point, the movie will probably jump the shark for those viewers unable to suspend their sense of disbelief: A series of events unfolds that divests Toby of modern technology to the extent that he begins to follow a cobbler through the deserts of Spain. They encounter Dulcinea, a young girl from the student film who happens to be in the neighborhood for reasons more important to the heartbeat of the storyline than the machinations of the actual plot.

These deserts are populated by people on horseback, in period costume, for reasons that are duly justified by the need for “realism” in the script but with a light and fanciful touch. Toby, likewise, is allowed to move into distorted realities through a combination of sleep and head trauma. I found the result to be beautiful — others may find it ridiculous. One suspects Gilliam would be pleased to see both as true.

Terry Gilliam’s ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.’ — video still

The reality of life, of course, is bleak. Gilliam allows viewers to see this — and not just the juxtaposition of windmills and air turbines that show that humans have always wrestled with technology and the power that it bestows into the hands of a few. These few are generally not so wise as a maddened former cobbler, and they are hardly as noble. Artists who want to find their passion find themselves prostituted emotionally, physically or both — they exchange beauty for money and always come off poorly. The juxtaposition of chivalry (which gently casts aside its problematic penchant for violence and patriarchal expectations) as a noble code against the present day context tells the story one would suppose. But, as the movie puns, “a saint” sounds similar to “insane.”

The film is as episodic as the original picaresque novel, although framing the story through Toby (allowing the director to become the squire Sancho Panza) is a wise choice. Moving through a series of the novel’s set pieces (windmills, the mirrored knight, etc.), the movie meanders through its musings on what “value” and “worth” mean in modern times. At 140 minutes, the movie drags a bit toward the middle, and certain underdeveloped threads (such as a comment about terrorism) would perhaps have best been left to the DVD extras. But, after 25 years, one perhaps can forgive Gilliam for wanting to put everything into the movie as a culmination of a lifetime of chasing after this particular grail.

The ending of the movie was not something that I had expected, a neat reversal on Freudian psychodynamics concerning a Bloomian anxiety of influence: It let me see the genius of one of the film’s recurrent catch phrases (and the title!) in a new light. It serves, perhaps, as an apology for Gilliam’s obsessions and provides an uncanny twinge of delight by introducing another dimension of everyday magic — ways that stories infuse our waking and sleeping with dreams that bend the rules of possibility.

The movies suggests that if you can accept that bend, even for the brief span of 140 minutes, and if you can accept it for minor coincidence — you may decide to take the whole package and, with that act of courage, find the mad joy of being fully human.

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