The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

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I have, like all Terry Gilliam fans, been aware of this movie for a very long time. Its cursed production history reads like Greek tragedy, with death, deceit, and disaster playing starring roles. In all, Gilliam has been trying to birth this film for thirty years, beset by an Orson Wellesian level and magnitude of obstacles. The long-unmade movie even inspired a 2002 documentary, Lost in La Mancha. A brief summation and interpretation of these delays and their relation to the Gilliam oeuvre follows:

So the question: was it worth the wait? What a silly question. Of course it was. It is always a pleasure and privilege — at least for me — to be drawn into the dark, ebullient, mad, beautiful, terrible, strange, wonderful worlds of Terry Gilliam. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is reminiscent, redolent, of The Fisher King, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen — my very favorite Gilliam pictures. I fear though, given my impression of its ending, that it may be darker than most of those. (Spoilers ahead.)

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is about a self-centered, shallow director of high-budget commercials who didn’t use to be this way. Ten years ago, Toby shot a student movie about Don Quixote not far from where he is now on location. He changed the lives of the people who starred in that movie: not necessarily for the good. The humble shoemaker he cast as his lead became convinced that he actually was Don Quixote, abandoning his shop and his sanity — and making quite the neat meta plot point by so doing. And Angelica, the young girl Toby cast, was no longer content with living in her world either, suffering humiliations and hardships in a grim compromise for a starry life. Toby learns of these second acts when he at first impetuously, and later desperately, leaves his set and enters — the past? an alternative reality? a new present? all of these? — a strange new realm of skewed time and identity beginning with his rescue by none other than his own Don Quixote, who irresistibly subsumes Toby in his world as his long-lost Sancho Panza.

What follows is a dazzling, dizzying series of adventures where truth and imagination are often at odds, appearance belies reality, and tricks and tricksters abound. But because this is a Gilliam film, somehow there is always the sense that everything — like in a fairy tale — is going to be okay.

Until it isn’t.

In 2003, a big fat joint biography of the Monty Python troupe was published, The Pythons Autobiography of the Pythons. And towards the end, Gilliam says of the Pythons’ influence:

We’ve just maintained a long-running sense of the absurd and that’s got to be a good thing in the world, especially with George W. Bush in the White House, but it’s obviously not the effect we would like. Maybe by laughing at things we’ve allowed these people to take power. If people hadn’t been laughing and had been concentrating they wouldn’t have taken power.

Gilliam’s films are full of petty, toadying bureaucrats, enabling, allowing, and kowtowing to an unspeakably evil overlord. In The Man Who Killed Don Quixote — as in other Gilliam films — challenging this smug, cruel, self-satisfied villain are a ragtag bag of weak and often wavering adversaries led by a deluded old man.

They do not prevail or vanquish, but are ultimately ignominiously dismissed after Don Quixote dies — a death unwittingly due to Toby, who has for once attempted to face his problems, enemies, and fears rather than running from them. This shockingly sad development (but really, why was I surprised? It is in the title.) is intensified by its effect on Toby: he becomes Quixote to Angelica’s Sancho as they head off into the sunset. Adventures await and a new world dawns. But at what price?

Gilliam fiercely advocates for creativity, passion, individuality. But this ending suggests that insanity is the only way to realize these in a cruel and callous world.

Like I said, it’s all okay until it isn’t.

mirror-knight-e1555380520929.jpgBut until that point, what riches, what bounties of design and technique! The Knight of the Mirrors, whose armor is fashioned, according to the film’s costume designer, of CDs, making for a blindingly gorgeous display. And the insane headdress shown below illustrates the over-the-top Gilliamesque giddiness infecting every detail. Throughout, the pristine scenery and rococo sets juxtapose manmade whimsy against natural beauty in every frame: seemingly saying that we make our marks against an unfeeling, uncaring nature which will continue being glorious regardless of our presence or efforts.

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All the actors are more than fine, and Adam Driver moves effortlessly from complacent creep to timeless noble. But I must single out the wonderful Jonathan Pryce inhabiting the title role. Den of Geek has a lovely long interview with Gilliam, asking, among other things, about the effects on the film of settling finally on Pryce after other actors considered over the decades had died or drifted off; Gilliam responds “That’s why the film waited till the right person came along.” And indeed. In the photo below, see the mix of kindness, craziness, guilelessness, and infectious glee as he chides Toby’s Sancho for presuming to think he, an illiterate peasant, could read of Don Quixote’s exploits; no, no, he will read them to Sancho, who can look at the pictures.

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His performance is pitch perfect, and it made me wonder what it was like for Driver to play against, since Quixote is not existing in the same world as Toby. Which put me in mind too, of another pair of Gilliam buddies, Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams in The Fisher King. Here too, a cynical realist is sparked to noble action by a romantic lunatic.

fisher kingAnd here too a masterful actor simultaneously conveys nobility and humanity, compassion and sadness: eyes that have seen too much but have never forgotten how to dance.

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So yes, it was worth the wait.

Sunset

I have been reading Simon Winder’s Danubia for about two months now. Like his earlier Germania, it is a deliciously meandering, eclectic, and utterly idiosyncratic rendering of geographic history — in this case, that of the Hapsburg Empire. I am on the next-to-last chapter and the ill-fated Franz Ferdinand has made his appearance, so the end is indeed near.

When I learned the other day about a new movie called Sunset, set in 1913 Budapest, in the twilight and the heart of the Hapsburg Empire, the synchronicity could not be denied. The opportunity for enrichment and enlightenment moved this film to the top of the list.

We went to the city today and saw it at the Paris Theater, which is a lovely big old-fashioned place. The movie is almost two and half hours, but it was so absorbing and so visually interesting that the time never lagged for me.

Rarely have I seen a movie where the format so perfectly suits the content, where the filmmakers’ technique so precisely captures the theme and tone. The still above encapsulates what I mean: the heroine — the young, displaced Írisz Leiter, who is seeking her truth and becoming herself — is in almost unsettling closeup, with the world around her out of focus, out of context, out of reach. In almost every scene, we are so close to Írisz we are almost tripping on her heels; our view of the world is as close to hers as possible without the camera becoming her. I was so frustrated at the beginning: the film is rich with period detail, glorious clothes and textures and patterns and objects; all so well realized you can feel the heatwave the newspaper boys hawk about; sense the throbbing thrumming vitality of the Budapest streets and city life. But you can’t crane your neck or train your eye to focus on any of it. Because we are stuck with only the details that present themselves to Írisz, and she only gradually comes to make any sense of the conflicting information, lies, confabulations, contortions, distortions, decadence, depravity, and chaos that swirl around her — slowly gaining some perspective on the morass in which she finds herself. It also imparts a hypnotic, dreamy quality to the actions of the film: she just sort of finds herself in situations without she, or we, having a clear understanding of how she got there and what it all means.

It is a breathtaking achievement when you think about it. And really, that’s where the viewer should focus his or her energies, because thinking deeply about the plot per se is problematic, as there is much that doesn’t bear much scrutiny. Briefly, Írisz comes to apply for a job at the very tony millinery shop that had been founded by her long-dead parents. She is rebuffed from all sides and at all turns in her quest to figure out her place and her people. She learns very abstrusely, obliquely, perversely, that she has a brother, an outlaw rebel who has tortured and killed a local count before his wife’s eyes. She immediately seeks out her brother — the first of many occasions in the film when she will do exactly what everyone around her warns her against, usually when she has been given another task to do instead (which she never does). She is a queer combination of passivity and willfulness, but one which I think makes more sense if we remember how young and unformed she is. Keeping in mind the Sondheim dictum on youth from Follies that I love, a time when: “Everything was possible and nothing made sense.” In Írisz’s case, it is the latter that is her defining feature — as borne out by her (and by extension, our) inability to make literal sense of her surroundings: everything not right up in her face is out of focus, unclear, unexplored. And we’re back to why the film’s brilliant.

Her youth and naivety explain much — but not all — of her reactions (and nonreactions) to the confusing situations in which she finds herself. But I think too that the filmmaker is using Írisz’s sometimes decidedly odd decisions to comment on a tendency observed in contemporary Europe and America: to look at the facts of a matter and completely misinterpret them, to act on a belief because it has been persuasively presented. Too, the movie’s writer/director, László Nemes, has noted that the lesson of history is precisely “how little we can understand of our world.”

I do not wish to spoil the film, and so will not trace its arc or delineate its plot. But I do want to tie it back to my Winder book and the fall of the Hapsburg Empire. And for that, I must mention the World War, which is of course where all this leads. And I must mention that what Sunset revealed to me about the First World War — that it would be perceived very, very differently in a Hungarian context (Nemes is Hungarian) than the American/British characterization of utter tedium and futility — was completely  unexpected and startling: as if we were thinking of two different wars. So the enlightenment and enrichment I had sought was secured: a new perspective on this fascinating war.

City of No Illusions

I begin this review with Elwood Dowd’s carefully thought-through philosophy because I don’t believe this review will be very smart, with a  lot of erudite analysis of the themes and techniques Talking Band tackles and applies, but I do fervently hope for it to express what I found to be beyond pleasant — to be touching and human and loving and warm and gracious — in City of No Illusions.

Which is, essentially, the entire play.

City of No Illusions — which, like so much of Talking Band‘s work, took over a year to develop, and then ran for three short weeks at La MaMa, and then will disappear maybe forever as the endlessly bright and questing troop pursues another important topic in their quirky, canny, cerebral, and sincere way — is about borders: between life and death, between legal and illegal status, between people’s minds and hearts, between people. Its title comes from a nickname for Buffalo, a town close to the Canadian border with a mindset well used to hard times. The play centers around two sisters who run a funeral parlor, the immigrants who work for them, the ICE agents who are tracking them, and the Shadow Band that, well, shadows them. There’s also the husband of one of the sisters, who has come up with a brilliant real estate scheme: a cemetery centered in a really desirable time-share resort, so the kids will be sure to visit; the mother of one of the immigrants; and a fearless advocate for the young émigrés, ready to defend their yearnings to breathe free with her last breath.

There is also a lot of humor.

But what there mostly is is abundant demonstration of the gray area that a border signifies. So the husband is not a charlatan, although he is something of a bigot, but also a loving husband, and a basically kind man. And Agent Ramirez is a rather poetic and empathetic and intelligent man who is firmly convinced of the rightness of his job.  And even the scarier ICE agent, Benson, has a very human side grounded in fear of mortality. No one is straightforwardly, entirely, good or evil. Everyone is a mix. And everyone, ultimately, even the ones pursuing agendas we don’t like, is trying to do his or her best.

“I’m in countdown mode. I’ve stopped counting how many years I’ve lived and started counting how many I have left. Each day I have to ask myself, ‘was that the best way I could have spent one of my remaining days?’ Usually, the answer is no. But today, I think I can answer yes.”

That quote is from the immigrant advocate, but really, I think, any of the characters could have said it — at least to themselves.

But all these cross purposes, and all these good intentions, and all these duties mean that some will win and some will lose.

Which brings us to the play’s conclusion, straight out of Stoppard’s Arcadia and Gilliam’s Fisher King.

They dance.

 

[City of No Illusions] [La Mama, NYC] (c)
Image: Suzanne Opton

2019 Animated Shorts

Animated-ShortsDeadlines intervened, but I did want to remark on these lovely shorts. As dark and dour and dank and depressing as the live action shorts were this year, that’s how tender and warm and ephemeral the animated shorts were.

Collectively, the five (well, four of the five: Animal Behavior is just kind of silly) attest to the power and endurance of food and family. They were mostly nostalgic in tone, drawing on shared memories of when we were all safe and warm and innocent, ruefully taking us to the same point of memory as does Emily in Our Town: “But, just for a moment now we’re all together. Mama, just for a moment we’re happy.” One (One Small Step) is more forward-looking, showing how we can grow onward and upward from that foundation to better ourselves and surpass our limitations; but even that optimism is rooted in irrevocable loss.

Tweet Tweet, while not perfect (not clear why we see the action through a bird), and not even technically a nominee, as it was “just” an honorable mention, struck a similar note of life lived in the midst of loss. The entire action takes place, perhaps not so subtly but certainly very aptly, on a tightrope as the character moves, literally, from babyhood to the inevitable — which, as her life spans much of the past century, rather devastatingly is made of barbed wire for a portion. Here is the trailer, which I don’t think half does the short justice; it is apparently available (for a small fee) for streaming in full online.

I also loved the melancholic, yet pragmatic, yet deep, yet whimsical, and very real Weekends, which I’m sure every child of divorce — and every parental survivor — can find much truth in. The ambiguity of the piece particularly resonated for me, as did the mother-child bond — a bond that persists in spite of all and through the wrenchings and ratchetings of other cares, hopes, pressures, and fears. It’s also a beautifully and lovingly made film, hand-drawn and pitch perfect. Read and see and hear more about it from the filmmakers here; the trailer is below.

The other film that really resonated for me was Late Afternoon. This is an exploration, manifestation, of an elderly woman with dementia — that sounds so sad; but it isn’t, it’s joyful and poignant and accepting and tender. It roils and eddies and billows as we float with the old woman, Emily, into a teacup and down a droplet into her past and her memories. And they are good memories, and she had a loving and happy life. And still does.

This link has more about Late Afternoon, as well as a link for downloading.

These then were the highlights of the animated shorts, which is not to slight the winning Bao, which is also quite lovely. How can one not be soothed and assuaged by its message of familial reconciliation over dumplings?

 

2019 Live Action Shorts

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A long time ago, my brother and I went to a second-run arthouse movie theater near his college, GW, and saw the most depressing double feature ever: Lord of the Flies and The Iceman Cometh. We referred to it as the slash-your-wrist film festival and still shudder at the cumulative, unrelieved darkness of that sunny afternoon spent at the movies.

An unrivaled event, until now, some forty years later. Seeing this year’s five live action Oscar nominees makes the Golding-O’Neill outing seem like deft, light comedy.

Madre. Fauve. Marguerite. Detainment. Skin. Bleak, blunt, brusque. Cold. Hopeless.

I think it’s more elucidating to look at the five together rather than assess them individually, beyond noting that, unlike in previous years, I did not find any of these to be momentous. In large part, this may be that one or more of them are thumbnails for larger films.

All but one center around little (white) boys. If these are our future, God help us. Operating singly, as the unseen six-year-old in Madre does, they are a source of stress and heartache, a country away, abandoned, threatened, and surrounded by mysterious forces. Or, like the son in Skin, they absorb and reflect the poisonous values around them. When operating in prepubescent pairs, as in Fauve and Detainment, they wreak havoc on their surroundings, each other, and ultimately, inevitably, lead to death.

But what really struck me about these five pieces is their total absence of a larger context. These are tiny chamber pieces, which is not surprising, given the format. But more than in any other year, I was struck by the absolute lack in so many of these of any authority. The eponymous protagonist of Madre appeals to a remote and indifferent bureaucracy to help her locate her son, only to be told to come in to fill out papers. The police are called toward the end of Skin in seemingly sufficient time to avert the deadly climax, but they don’t arrive. And Marguerite, an old woman nearing death, is only touched — literally and figuratively — by a home health aid; she has no larger support system. And yes, Detainment takes place in a police station, but these authority figures are only to varying degrees successful in helping to ferret out the facts — and certainly not successful at all in preventing the crime.

It is a dark, hopeless world that these five filmmakers present. It is beyond dystopic, because there is no society here. There are only individuals making by and large terrible choices based on limited knowledge and experience with huge and irrevocable consequences. The one milder and more graceful film, Marguerite, centers on lost opportunities, loneliness, isolation, and encroaching death: not really a hopeful message either.

As a lit major, I know that children always symbolize hope and promise. What then to make of a set of five films where children are either absent (one), killed (two), sent to jail (two), or kill (one)? Nothing good, I fear. Maybe next year’s filmmakers will have more to take heart from… I hope so.

January Movies

Here are most of the movies we watched at home or on the screen, with some random observations.

  • The Lure. This Polish movie musical—about twin mermaids with vampiric tendencies who join a band—is crazy. Some of it had real David Lynch touches, and the music was pretty good.

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  • Buster Scruggs. The Coen brothers; what a treat. Glorious cinematography, perverse and memorable characters, odd juxtaposition of tone and content. Cold cold cold deeds. My favorite segment was the Tom Waits. Somehow, there was something so endearing about his patient, determined prospector. No one else could say “Mr. Pockets” in that loopy, loving way, serenely challenging the hillside that is stubbornly hiding its ore. You quite forget he is blatantly, methodically ravaging the environment.

Tom Waits prospects for gold.

  • Dogville. I found this early Lars Trier compelling. Its borrowings from Our Town and its Brechtian indictment of man’s greed and banality made for a fascinating mix.
  • Touch of Evil
  • There Was a Crooked Man…: Very much of the time and tone and tenor of Mash, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Bonnie and Clyde, and Kelly’s Heroes. Cynical, amoral, and a message ultimately that laws and systems are—by their very existence—meant to be broken and evaded. The comedy and craft of these films are, for me, so undermined by their nihilist, hedonist message that I cannot comfortably enjoy them. It was interesting to see Mankiewicz trying his hand with the new freedoms that ’70s cinema afforded—sometimes an uncomfortable match.
  • The Edge of the World. A slight picture, but so interesting! Michael Powell’s love affair with the Scottish isles and the evacuation of St. Kilda. Look it up.

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  • Indiscretion. Adequate thriller; could have been better.
  • Hereditary. Don’t get what all the fuss was about; found it incomprehensible. And sexist. Here you have this movie all about a woman and her complex and conflicted relationships with her evil mother and her weirdo daughter, and the climax is all about—the son. Please.
  • The Arrangement. Pretentious, solipsistic, and dreary. I was surprised to see Kirk Douglas in this mod movie, as he was in There Was a Crooked Man…; I have always associated him with ’50s flicks. Mostly what came through in this picture was the incredible narcissism of Elia Kazan. It was fun at first to see how this could have been an influence for Don Draper’s world, but that faded quickly, as the absolutely unsympathetic characters and illogical and repetitious plot twists were gradually revealed to be about Kazan’s ambiguity towards his immigrant roots and father.
  • The Unknown Girl. This Belgian movie about a doctor’s quest to find out the identity of a murdered woman made for a compelling, moral tale.

The Unknown Girl Trailer (2017) Screen Capture #4

  • Ocean’s 8. DELICIOUS. A girl caper movie: what took Hollywood so long? And a buddy picture, where women—never abandoning their femininity—solve a problem, complete a task, a quest. And it made me wonder again why critics and feminists extol Thelma & Louise and not Outrageous Fortune, another fun film based on genuine friendship.
  • Blue.
  • Roma. Discussed here.
  • They Shall Not Grow Old. Peter Jackson’s documentary about World War I features absolutely amazing footage and represents absolutely amazing restoration work. And brings it wrenchingly home: what in hell is worth going to war for, seeing all these babies—fifteen and sixteen years old!—going off to be killed. The film traces the “typical” war experience of the British infantryman assigned to the Western front; it is told in breathtaking images and the real words of survivors recorded by the BBC. They enlist, they are trained, and we’re seeing familiar footage, and then they get off the boat to the front and—like Dorothy in Oz—we are suddenly in full color, painstakingly created. And we really see these kids as humans, smiling and struggling in the trenches. And the vermin. And the rats. And the terrible food. And the constant noise of the battle. One random insight I found quite intriguing. A soldier recalled that when you were in the trenches, you were a family, you defended your mates, even the slow and thick ones. But then, when you were on leave, you dropped them. And it might have sounded callous, but it also sounded real. It was also interesting that so many of those interviewed seemed to have no beef with the Germans (the Prussians, though, that was another matter). And it was heartbreaking to realize that many of the boys and men you were seeing were just about to killed. After the film, there’s a thirty-minute feature in which Peter Jackson discusses how it was made: the care and detail and work that went into it is staggering.  Equalizing the speed of the hand-cranked camera frames. Coloring the khakis and grays of the uniforms. Syncing speech to moving lips, particularly one instance—which must have been so gratifying—which involved actually finding in the archives a scrap of paper containing the speech an officer was giving to his troops on the eve of sending them off into battle.

Roma

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In the opening sequence of Roma, water flows over a tile floor as an unseen servant hoses it down to clean it; a larger, distant world, symbolized by the airplane, is reflected in a puddle that forms under a skylight. This sequence pretty much captures the essence of Roma.

Roma moved me: I cried repeatedly and profusely. To me, this means a work of art has succeeded, has touched me, has connected, has allowed me to relate to a circumstance outside my own head and ken.

The things I admired most in Roma are, not surprisingly, themes and constructs I have mentioned often elsewhere. To me, Roma is about being a very small person living out a very small life against a backdrop of very large events. The latter become history: the big story of a nation; the former is humanity, the very real events of birth and death and love and loss. The two are not the same: history makes the textbooks and the newspaper headlines; people, on the other hand, die and mostly take their stories with them—possibly lingering on in an anecdote or two; less commonly becoming the object (although not necessarily the subject) of an artist’s work.

Generally, I avoid reviews of movies I am planning to write about. But I read a few just now of Roma, and found there is a certain rather powerful albeit presumably minority viewpoint that maintains Roma is a kind of cultural appropriation, a privileged male condescending yet again to the faithful household retainer. I even read one that faulted a self-admittedly faultless movie because the director wasn’t a woman.

Everyone is entitled to an opinion. But isn’t it a more fruitful and positive and uplifting experience to seek out the human and the humane—the commonalities in the details and in the grand sweeps—rather than to call an artist to task for occupying a particular vantage point?

In this regard, my observations of “small” lives do not apply only to Cleo, the indigenous nanny at Roma‘s heart. But they extend also to her employer, the mother of four who is unceremoniously and callously left by her husband of many years. And the children. And the servants. And the grandmother. And all the people they touch and interact with, while earthquakes, forest fires, revolutions, ocean tides, and other inevitable, immutable, and—above all—indifferent actions and events play out around them.

I felt Roma was about all these things bigger than us, the random cruelties and complications that assail us while, as John Lennon has it, we’re busy making other plans. Big, powerful forces are at play, and Cleo—and the other characters in the movie, and us—have very little say in the matter, very little control. Ultimately, as the existentialists have it, our only point of control is how to face that lack of control.

And here is why Sarah thinks Roma is life-affirming. Because even at the very bottom of the social food chain, Cleo chooses life and love and duty. And that touched the filmmaker, Alfonso Cuarón. And his telling of his remembrances—skewed and perhaps self-serving, as are all our remembrances—has the power to touch us, and to recognize the dignity and beauty of scruffy childhood homes, habits, and relations.