Wilting at Windmills

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The casting is almost too good to be true: Terry Gilliam, that most quixotic of directors, sets out to make a new film version of Cervantes' Don Quixote de la Mancha. Gilliam is a guy with a paradoxical, occasionally self-destructive desire to make what are essentially art movies on huge budgets. Sometimes the results are entrancing (Time Bandits, The Fisher King). Sometimes they are disastrous (Brazil involved him in a famously acrimonious final-cut fight with the studio; The Adventures of Baron Munchausen went insanely over budget). You never know what you will get when he sets forth on one of his excellent adventures.

In the case of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Gilliam's investors got very little for their $32 million. The director managed to shoot about three minutes of usable film before enduring the filmmaker's worst nightmare — his picture was shut down after just a little more than a week of production in Spain in the summer of 2000. There was one substantive product of all the effort: Lost in La Mancha, a documentary that records the disaster nonjudgmentally, impressionistically and, finally, with a certain poignancy.

Gilliam, it must be said, is no wild-eyed egomaniac. He's an ironic, somewhat fatalistic chap whose chief flaw seems to be a sort of even-keeled optimism. He started this film with his eyes wide shut to the fact that he had in hand only about half the budget he required. This meant that he had no room for error, not even for a day's delay in shooting. So, of course, the errors started compounding immediately. It wasn't supposed to rain on the first day of shooting, but it did, turning the location into a quagmire. Jets from a nearby NATO base weren't supposed to come screaming overhead all the time, but they did, making it impossible to record sound. Above all, Gilliam's Don Quixote, the French actor Jean Rochefort, was not supposed to get sick, but he did. Mostly he was absent. When he was present, he could not sit on a horse without highly visible pain. Stubbornly, Gilliam would not consider replacing him.

So it went — until it couldn't go at all. And Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, who signed on to do a nice little Making of...documentary, found themselves with an Unmaking of...epic on their hands. It will fascinate and possibly even delight cinephiles. Who does not enjoy gawking at accidents, particularly those in which there are no fatalities and the sad story unfolds in almost slow-motion clarity? The film, however, is not likely to prove cautionary for other filmmakers. There was no shortage of Sancho Panzas on this shoot. But in show biz, the one-eyed visionary is always (or until it's too late) king. His fellow adventurers' realism and reasonableness could not prevent Don Quixote's gallant gallop to ruin.