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    Lost in La Mancha

    The fool, Monty

    Monty Python alum Terry Gilliam foolhardily pursues the holy grail of film — a version of "Don Quixote" that doesn't end in disaster — resulting in the documentary "Lost in La Mancha" about everything that can go wrong in a movie.


    So what was it that ultimately scuttled Terry Gilliam's quixotic attempts to bring Miguel de Cervantes's classic fable to the silvery screen? Was it the F-16s constantly buzzing over his hand-picked Spanish landscape, or the flash floods that reduced the set to a sea of mud, or the ill health of his leading actor Jean Rochefort, diagnosed with a double herniated disk shortly after the cameras started to roll?

    Written and directed by: Keith Fulton, Louis Pepe.
    Featuring: Bernard Bouix, René Cleitman, Johnny Depp, Benjamín Fernández, Terry Gilliam, Tony Grisoni, Vanessa Paradis, Philip A. Patterson, Nicola Pecorini, Gabriella Pescucci, Jean Rochefort.
    Narrated by: Jeff Bridges.

    Related links: Official site | All of David N. Butterworth's reviews at Rotten Tomatoes
    Maybe it was a combination of these. Or maybe the damage was already done, not necessarily in pre-production — although it too had its fair share of disasters — but simply the idea of adapting Don Quixote to begin with. Orson Welles, a no slouch filmmaker by anyone's standards, had made it his (failed) obsession for almost two decades in the 1950s, so what made Gilliam — Monty Python alum, animator extraordinaire, and maverick director of such non-mainstream projects as "Brazil," "The Fisher King," and "Twelve Monkeys" — think he could do it in one?

    Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's riveting documentary "Lost in La Mancha" chronicles Gilliam's disastrous attempts to make "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote," a 2000 shoot on which everything that could go wrong went wrong. Gilliam, not known for doing anything easy, tried for two years to get Hollywood backing for a vision that had been percolating for ten and wound up getting $32.1 million of the $40 million budget needed from European backers. So from the very beginning he was stretched.

    Anyone the slightest bit interested in the filmmaking process should see this film. You wonder how movies are ever made at all.  

    Then the problems started.

    Gilliam had invited longtime fans — and Temple University grads — Fulton and Pepe onto the "Twelve Monkeys" set (they documented their observances with "The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys") and did likewise with his Quixote. Who would have guessed that their film, like Les Blank's "Burden of Dreams" to Werner Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo" before it, would have proved the more fascinating work?

    Anyone the slightest bit interested in the filmmaking process should see this film. You wonder how movies are ever made at all when you witness what goes on here — the mind-numbing logistics of bringing cast and crew from multiple continents together on the same day, at the same time, only for the light to go, or a horse to not cooperate, while the financiers get edgy and the completion guarantors start circling like vultures, for example. And you feel sympathetic for almost everyone involved in the project, especially first assistant director Phil Patterson, who was forced to schedule everything — including the weather it seems — right down to the millisecond.

    But no one person (certainly not the schizophrenic Gilliam — dizzyingly elated one minute, devastated the next) or thing is to blame for any of this. It's fate, perhaps, or more likely the infamous "Curse of Quixote" at work.

    Fulton and Pepe's cameras are right there recording all this, paying remarkable witness to the creative and cinematic process (and lack thereof). At times during "Lost in La Mancha" several crew members refer to Gilliam's 1988 financial disaster "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" and swear, categorically, that this is not "Munchausen 2." And in some regards they're right. That film, at least, wrapped and opened in theaters, only to go on to become one of the biggest bombs in box-office history. "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote," which starred (briefly) Johnny Depp as a modern day adman sent back through time and mistaken by Quixote for Sancho Panza, was abandoned after a mere six days of shooting. How could this happen? "Lost in La Mancha" tells all.

    There are many apt comparisons between the director and his subject in "Lost in La Mancha," valiant dreamers tilting at windmills both. And Fulton and Pepe's film captures both the sadness and the madness of what might well prove to be Terry Gilliam's impossible dream.

    FEBRUARY 25, 2003

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