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Make España Great Again
“Misfortunes always pursue the talented.” —Ginés de Pasamonte
In 2002 what should have been a fun “Making Of…” documentary turned into a postmortem. Lost in La Mancha told the story of how writer-director Terry Gilliam had spent more than a decade trying, and failing, to bring his cinematic realization of Miguel Cervantes’s classic novel The Life and Exploits of the Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote, de La Mancha to the Big Screen. A stricken star (the now-late Jean Rochefort), horrible weather in meticulously handpicked location settings, insurance woes, and a loss of confidence by backers resulted in a premature shuttering of the production, and the Knight of the Mournful Countenance retired once again to the dreamscape of the director of such outre cinematic feasts as Time Bandits, Brazil, Twelve Monkeys, and The Fisher King.
Is Quixote cursed? Consider Orson Welles’s unfinished coulda-been masterpiece. Originally to have starred Charlton Heston, with whom Welles had just wrapped up Touch of Evil (in which Heston played an Anglo-Mexican cop), it wound up with Francisco Reiguera (Google him) as the titular character. Reiguera would literally drop dead as principal photography dragged on for twelve freaking years as the visionary director scrambled for investors. Welles continued to edit the film until his own demise in 1985. In 1992 a poorly received assembly of some of the footage (which had been scattered in vaults all over Europe) was released on DVD and is worth watching only as a curio.
But that was Welles and this is now. Gilliam never gave up on his project, and almost three decades after he first began shopping the idea, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote premiered at Cannes in 2018, with a tweaked premise and a different cast. I won’t leave you in suspense. While I admire Gilliam’s—let’s get the word out of the way—quixotic career, crafting original, provocative, and visually stunning works often under all kinds of studio and financial pressures, his Quixote is a glorious mess, emphasis on mess, that should have remained a never-realized ideal, like Kubrick’s epic Napoleon.
The film begins with our aged nobleman knight as he most readily comes to mind: bedecked in armor, a barber’s basin for a helmet, tilting at windmills in his native Spain, convinced he’s charging a giant. Only this Quixote is being filmed for a commercial by a director named Toby (Adam Driver), who is being driven mad by agents, investors, producers, and other film-set riff-raff. Ten years earlier, he made a student film called, yes, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, in a small village not far from the commercial set. His dream of one day completing a large-scale version of his pet project was never realized, and so he is stuck appeasing commercial interests and prostituting his talent.
While supping with cast and crew after the shoot, Toby comes across a bootleg copy of that very same student film. He is drawn into reveries of that younger, idealistic self and goes searching for the locals who had acted in the amateur effort. To his dismay he learns that the beguiling young woman who had played a Dulcinea figure (Joana Ribeiro) actually believed Toby’s blather about her becoming a star and left family and village to go to the big city, Madrid, to pursue fame and fortune, only to wind up a professional “escort.” As for Javier (Jonathan Pryce), the shoemaker shanghaied into playing Quixote, he went completely off his nut, so driven by the young Toby to incarnate the good knight that he now believes he is Don Quixote de la Mancha, and spends his days in full armor, watching and rewatching the student film, repeating his lines, and dreaming of chivalric glory. In short, that one little movie succeeded only in making its poor participants miserable by filling their heads with delusions of grandeur.
So far, so interesting, with fictions inhabiting fictions, and all very meta, with latter-day Toby even walking into his own mental flashback and swishing away subtitles so everyone can now speak English without further explanation of the anomaly.
Convinced that Toby is, in fact, Sancho Panza, Javier/Quixote drags the director along on one strange and dangerous adventure after another, including a run-in with the local civil guardia and a decrepit redoubt of illegal Muslim immigrants who may or may not be terrorists.
But Toby is, in fact, no Sancho Panza at all, that tubby voice of practical reason with relatively mild ambitions. This long-limbed cynical postmodern spends two hours screaming “WTF?” at the top of his lungs and floating in and out of a dream state, a device meant to challenge our notion of reality and enable us to see through Toby’s enchanted eyes, but which merely comes off as a gimmick to allow Gilliam to conflate historical eras (Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!) and give his extraordinarily talented production and costume designers opportunities to display their considerable gifts for crafting cinematic simulacra.
Gilliam’s own gifts as a baroque fabulist, deftly composing shape-shifting scenes with canted angles and distorted perceptions, are all on display here and would seem the perfect skill-set for bringing this classic to digital life. For example, a party thrown by a Russian magnate, indulged by Toby’s boss (Stellan Skarsgard) in the hopes of getting more investment cash, is something out of Fellini, carnevale di Venezia, and, yes, Gilliam’s oeuvre. And that’s the problem. In Cervantes’s original, Don Quixote’s delusions draw us into the worlds of its characters so that we begin to see for the first time their plight as they themselves experience it, making it difficult for readers to dismiss them as little more than the author’s (if not God’s) comic detritus deserving of their glum fates. By forcing us to question what is real and what is not, and who is telling the truth even in the guise of fiction (could Quixote be faking his own madness?), we begin to see with better eyes: nobility in commoners, injustice in the absolute enforcement of a law meant to serve the noble class, dignity in defiance. This inversion of perspectives brings into question the credibility of the official story tellers: the rigid hierarchs of Church and nation-state. Quixote’s fantasies liberate the wills of these supposedly ancillary characters and transforms them from one-dimensional types into free moral agents—for good and for ill. (Not all these characters are grateful for the gift of freedom, however, any more than we are.)
A superficial viewing would have us believe that this is what Gilliam is doing in his adaptation, too. But what we’re really being treated to is merely Gilliam’s world. His totalitarian vision trumps all. He wants you to know exactly how to read his characters, thus reducing them to mere types again. We’re told exactly who the villains are: Islamophobes, Russian oligarchs, Trump, Big Hollywood, the Church, the police. Here the official story—the one fed us by mass media and the Academy, by Buddy Jesus churches and even the very Hollywood the director ostensibly despises—is the truth.
If there is one thing Cervantes did not want to impress upon his readers was how exactly to read his work. As William Egginton explains in his fascinating and passionately argued The Man Who Invented Fiction:
The space [Cervantes] opened, while ostensibly offering moral truths, in fact taught its readers to suspend judgments of truth or falsity, since they simply could not apply to the complex structure Cervantes had developed. And in the suspension of that judgment, readers would learn not to subject expressions of their imagination to the controls of the state, but rather to subject the reality they had come to believe to the questioning of their own judgment.
The original Don Quixote certainly challenged the orthodox rendering of seventeenth-century Spain as a racially pure, morally sound, and thoroughly united Christian kingdom. But what must be kept in mind is that Cervantes had been permanently maimed fighting the Turks in the Battle of Lepanto, spent years trying to pay off the ransom that bought his freedom from Muslim pirates who had kept him and his brother slaves for years in North Africa, and died wrapped in the coarse brown habit of a Third Order Franciscan.
Eyes Wide Shut
To see Don Quixote as merely a “conservative” lament about a lost “golden age” or, conversely, a parody of medieval chivalry and physical courage is to miss much. It is in the clash of these visions that truth is to be caught. As biographer William Byron puts it: “The problem Cervantes set himself to solve was colossal: to reconcile ‘historical’ and poetic truth.” And so Don Quixote must become “a game of mirrors, an impression of receding depths, of truths just beyond our grasp.” Cervantes respected martial ideals but also knew firsthand the insanity of “modern” warfare. (“Happy were those blessed times that lacked the horrifying fury of the diabolical instruments of artillery,” Quixote notes in the book.) Cervantes fought bravely in the Spanish navy and expected to be treated better than he was upon his return to Spain. He learned the hard way, through both suffering and witnessing much injustice, including periodic imprisonments for debt and two excommunications (not for heresy but for stealing from the Church to aid the poor), that the first truly global empire could not long survive her mercantile and tax-the-poor economy, worship of titles, contempt for the peasantry, and, most important, endless wars. (Cervantes’s brother Rodrigo would die in the failed campaign to keep the Low Countries a Spanish fiefdom.)
As Egginton writes:
Cervantes puts words both praising individual deeds of bravery and condemning the modern practice of warfare into the mouth of an errantly foolish knight capable of moments of great wisdom and lucidity. Clearly Cervantes was justly proud of the valor that led him to face death to survive; but just as clearly these words spring forth from a figure who is comical in his devotion to ideals that the world around him fails to value or even to recognize. … What fiction permitted Cervantes to do in a way that no author before him managed was to juxtapose ideals and their inevitable disappointment in such a way as to force the reader simultaneously to acknowledge their value and to recognize the comic tragedy of their defeat.
Gilliam gets in his shots at many of Cervantes’s targets, to be sure—bigots, bullies, and hypocrites. In one scene, a policeman is reading a newspaper account of a jihadist beheading a Christian, and bemoans that these people are something out of the Middle Ages. Just then, as he is held up in traffic and begins to curse wildly, he remembers it is Holy Week and crosses himself at the sight of a traditional Church procession, replete with penitents in purple capirote (Google it). It gets its easily won laugh.
But this exercise in Cervantian irony misses the beauty of Cervantes’s larger project, to gift his audience multiple points of view. There is only one point of view on display in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, however: Gilliam’s. He is the true Quixote, fighting the good fight of free artistic expression in a world of opening-weekend box office receipts. Yet his film offers little in the way of original insight, providing mere visual echoes of previous Gilliam films. (Wait, didn’t I see that in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas?) His cinematographic fantasia calls repeated attention to itself and its gob-smacking effects. And rather than, as Cervantes did, transgress the literary conventions that constrained most writers of his age, Gilliam ends up giving us something of an old-fashioned Hollywood ending, with our heroes riding off into the sunset.
It gets worse. Cervantes’s Don Quixote, while alternatively absurd, tragic, heroic, mystical, comical, is never silly for silliness’s sake. Here, despite Pryce’s admittedly charming performance, he is little more than a sad and often ridiculous comic book character who could have come off the set of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s not just that no one reads adventures of knights-errant anymore. (Although does playing Assassin’s Creed count?) The problem is that it is virtually impossible to recognize the ideals Quixote is supposed to be championing. Forget that they already appeared foolish in the brutal world of seventeenth-century Spain. It’s that in 2019 they are deemed by the Holy Woke as patronizing, patriarchal, and sadistically violent, if not plain evil.
One way into this matter would have been if Gilliam and cowriter Tony Grisoni had explored what chivalry could possibly mean in light of the #MeToo movement (of which the director has been critical). But the treatment of women in the film only reinforces the crudest of stereotypes. Of the two main female characters, one is aggressive, amoral, and duplicitous, the Boss’s wife (Olga Kurylenko), whose amorous advances Toby has constantly to fight off; the other is the once-innocent ingénue (Ribeiro) who has bent her will to fate, literally licking the boots of a well-heeled patron until she can finally be rescued.
Now consider Cervantes’s depiction of Marcella, the independent and beautiful shepherdess, blamed for the death of a nobleman who dressed as a shepherd to woo her, only to die of a broken heart. She refuses to play the role assigned to her: “I cannot see how, because of being loved, that which is loved for its beauty is bound to love that which loves it. … But let no man call me cruel or murderous to whom I make no promise, upon whom I practice no deception, whom I neither entice nor welcome. It has not been so far the will of Heaven that I should love by fate. … My taste is for freedom, and I have no liking for constraint.” Whoa.
And yet Marcella still upholds chastity as an ideal. But it is hers to uphold and no one else’s, and to uphold in a manner of her own choosing. This, too, is what wrecks Gilliam’s project. Cervantes’s “mournful countenance” is the result of such ideals failing to be upheld by all classes of person, not just the one that will pay the greatest price when purity is undone by a fallen nature. But what higher principle is Gilliam fighting for? The freedom to yell “Fuck!” in a crowded movie theater? Or to make his next film unmolested and with a blank check?
A Modest Film Proposal
You want a modern-day version of Don Quixote? Try this: an anonymous movie extra is deluded into thinking he’s an A-list star who can’t leave his apartment for fear of being mobbed by sycophants and rabid fans who are really just people he happens to find himself in the same room with. He takes nonnegotiable and voluble political stands for the whales and migrants and against climate change, guns, and cold cuts. He shows up uninvited to the weddings of “commoners,” thinking they’ll be delighted to commemorate their special day with such a great star, only to be kicked out by busboys. He goes on public tirades chastising a town that deceives itself into believing it cares about all manner of progressive issues, yet employs limos and private jets to get from one self-congratulatory, seafood-suffused party to another and wouldn’t let a homeless shelter or migrant-relocation facility within ten miles of the Hollywood Hills. Our hero is mocked, barred from studio lots, beaten by armed bodyguards, and finally exiled to Utah. The final shot sees him taking off for a new career as a Mormon missionary.
Come on, Netflix—you can do it!
So who is the Man Who Killed Don Quixote? I won’t spoil it for you should you decide, despite my better judgment, to catch the film in its limited U.S. release (or ultimately on Flixflex or Zulu or the Whole Foods Channel). If we’re talking the book, however, it’s easy to think it wasn’t so much a who as a what: Spain as it was and not as the Knight of the Mournful Countenance imagined it.
But if you ask me, it was “Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda.” You remember him: the pseudonymous author of the 1614 “sequel” to what is now Part I of the original. Not only did Cervantes have to suffer the indignity of someone else profiting from his instant classic, but the rip-off included an introduction that derided Cervantes as someone who “can’t find a prominent name in Spain that wouldn’t be ashamed to have him pronounce his name.” Who the writer was lurking behind the nom de plume remains a mystery to this day. One candidate is the prince of Spain’s literary golden age, Lope de Vega, who wrote so many plays I dare you to name one of them. Lope thought Cervantes a lightweight, and Cervantes considered the playwright a mere panderer to popular tastes. But whoever the literary interloper was, Cervantes showed his superiority, both as an artist and as a human being. Instead of publishing a rebuttal of equal or greater vitriol, he took his revenge in the authentic sequel, published in 1615. There he has the knight and Sancho encounter a reading of Avellaneda’s tale, which begins with the pair supposedly traveling to Zaragoza. In Cervantes’s response, he has Quixote refuse to follow this preordained script and choose instead to go to Barcelona, bypassing Zaragoza, thereby demonstrating what a liar the fraudulent author is.
A fictional character encounters a fictional tale of an adventure he never took at the hands of his original author but which he nevertheless plans on subverting by defying an illegitimate literary providence and exercising his own freedom. Laurence Sterne and John Barth (and Erasmus), call your office.
Cervantes did ensure that no one like “Avellaneda” would ever commandeer his knight again. He brought a sorrowful end to Quixote’s adventures by having him abjure tales of knight-errantry and embrace his “real” identity as Alonso Quixano, whom God in his mercy had brought back to his senses, to the dismay of his friends, who “concluded that he was dying” because of “this sudden and complete return to his senses after having been mad.”
Who killed Don Quixote, this glorious avatar of freedom for Good? Certainly not admirers like Gilliam, who was both enchanted and defeated by the knight himself. Rather, it was someone who both envied and reviled a talent so far his superior that he had to mask his identity with the seventeenth century’s equivalent of a Twitter egg. In short, a troll. ♦
Anthony Sacramone is managing editor of ISI Books and Modern Age.