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the pathetic caverns - movies by title - Lost in La Mancha

eclectic reviews and opinions

Lost in La Mancha

2002, D & S: Keith Fulton & Louis Pepe

By now we've all seen a "making of" documentary or two, but this is perhaps the first "unmaking of" documentary. When Terry Gilliam was in preproduction for The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, he invited Fulton and Pepe to reprise the role of on-shoot documentarians that they played for 12 Monkeys. After less than six full days of shooting, including a tempest of Biblical fury, the already-troubled project suffered a fatal blow when its star became seriously ill and had to leave the project. As a result, this documentary is interesting on several levels -- possibly some not even explicitly intended by the film makers.

First, and for some, probably, foremost, it contains the only available footage from what may yet become Gilliam's masterpiece. It's probable that, even if the film is eventually completed, it will remain the only place to see footage shot with Gilliam's original casting choice for the title role, Jean Rochefort. That's a terrible shame, because the scant fragments suggest that he would have made a perfect Quixote.

Second, it's a remarkably unvarnished chance to watch a singular and important creative talent at work. Gilliam is by turns charming and irascible, but never dull. His delight when something good goes down on film is palpable. He invariably expresses it in a rapid, slightly manic chuckle. It's plain what a creative inspiration, as well as a challenge, he is to the people who work with him. Most of them are fierce in their defense of him as a "responsible filmmaker" and not the enfant terrible he is sometimes proclaimed to be. And it's wrenching to see Gilliam deal with the impact of the disaster. "It can't exist," he says at one point, "because if it does, it's just too painful." His ambivalence is profound. "I've shot it in my head too many times already," he says in one clip, and then, "I will make [the film], unless I get hit by a bus on my way home."

It starts with backstory: the budget overruns on The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, despite his earlier successes, got Gilliam blacklisted by the Hollywood studios. It continues with a tragedy: in the supplemental interview material for the DVD, Gilliam discusses how he is still negotiating with an insurance company to buy back the rights to film a screenplay he co-wrote.

It concludes with a travesty: Lost in La Mancha itself exists, Fulton and Pepe confess, not primarily because they thought they had a good story to tell, but because they were under financial obligation to deliver a story. They made a feature-length documentary not because they thought they had a feature-length story -- they admit they were nervous about the comparative lack of footage. Instead, they expanded their scope because an hour-long documentary doesn't have a market without a strong tie-in to provide coat-tails for it to ride. In the feature, narrator Jeff Bridges explains such things as the role of completion guarantors and the difficulty of raising even a slim (by Hollywood standards) 31 million to make the picture. Later the filmmakers wrangle with insurance agents about exactly what constitutes an "act of God" and the precise definition of force majeure. In the supplemental interviews, Fulton and Pepe reveal that financing for their documentary project was also uncertain, and they suggest that some of the decisions they made were driven by the risk of being beholden to their own investors.

It's appalling that a talent of Gilliam's stature has to scrape and beg for funding while Hollywood churns out the likes of The Cat in the Hat. It's disgusting to think of insurance agents squatting on scripts like the proverbial dogs in the manger (although I realize that someone had to foot the bill for the equipment, the sound stage, and all the expenses incurred by the unfinished film). Orson Welles had his own trouble trying to film a version of Quixote, "La Mancha" reminds us, but I'm certain that it was less torturous to finance films in the days of Welles and Cecil DeMille.

The DVD is rounded out with outtakes, preproduction materials from The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, and interviews with Gilliam, star Johnny Depp, Fulton, Pepe, and producer Lucy Darwin. Particularly worthy of note is nearly an hour of conversation between Gilliam and author Salman Rushdie. I suspect Rushdie will strike some viewers as a touch pompous and self-centered, but it's much less lopsided than typical interview fare -- it's more of a discussion between creative peers. Still, Rushdie asks some penetrating questions and gets some sharp answers. When Gilliam is asked why he left the United States for London, his initial response is "to avoid becoming a full-fledged bomb-throwing terrorist," a response that's even more ironic when you consider to whom he's responding. Fulton, Pepe, and Darwin interviewed separately, corroborate their stories and are somewhat redundant. Depp takes nearly half an hour to fiddle with several cheroots, scratch his chin, and answer questions with ponderous deliberation and comparatively little information. The bit of his I liked best was his response to being asked if he'd been looking forward to working with his paramour Vanessa Paradis. He said that they'd been a bit "nervous about lying to each other on camera all day."

One very nice feature is that the outtakes are preceded by fairly detailed text screens explaining why the scenes weren't included in the final cut. In most cases, it's evident that the correct decision was made, as when the directors explain the problem with an early version of the opening: it used up almost all the footage from The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in the first few minutes, leaving nothing for later. Given that making "La Mancha" was in large extent an exercise in culling and sequencing the most representative pieces of a limited pool of footage -- about 100 hours total -- it's perhaps not surprising that "La Mancha" ultimately feels a bit workmanlike, more an effort of craft than of art. But it's nonetheless fascinating, funny, informative -- and often very sad.

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