AA Curse of Mirrors

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by directors Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe

eople have often asked us whether we give any credence to "The Curse of Don Quixote"–a superstition that those who undertake adaptations of Cervantes' novel are doomed to failure. Orson Welles certainly would have acknowledged the curse, especially after trying for twenty years to produce his own Quixote adaptation and suffering through a few Paul Masson commercials to help finance it. Some would say that the musical version, Man of La Mancha, is a kind of curse in itself. Certainly, Lost in La Mancha, our documentary about Terry Gilliam’s painfully catastrophic production of Quixote, presents some convincing evidence of its own.

Superstitious or not, most people are unaware that Cervantes actually embedded a curse within the text itself. The trick is that one must get through both volumes of Don Quixote–all 1200 pages–to find it. Attached as a coda to the second volume are the following lines:

"For me alone was Don Quixote born,
and I for him; he to act, and I to record;
in a word, we were destined for each other...
let the wearied and mouldering bones
of Don Quixote rest in the grave..."

The warning was actually directed at an author who had effectively scooped Cervantes by publishing an "unauthorized" sequel before Cervantes had had the chance to pen his own. But, judging by the fates of Welles and Gilliam, the curse may have been meant to cast a wider net.

The nature of the curse appears to be this: those who attempt to adapt Quixote are doomed to become Quixote, to set out on their own impossible quests to turn fantasy into reality. Not so surprising as the evil brainchild of an author who had such a playful sense of self-reflexivity and mirroring. Cervantes’ Don Quixote is a book about books, a story about a character who becomes so caught up in fantasy novels that he attempts to enact them. The author holds up a mirror to make us see our own interaction with storytelling.

Making films whose subject is the struggle to make films turns out to be an equally self-reflexive endeavor. And with Lost in La Mancha, the process itself quickly became its own labyrinth of mirrors. It was painful enough for us to spend eight months wrestling a tidy story out of 120 hours of not so tidy footage. But it was even more painful to look up at our editing screen to see Terry Gilliam looking up at his own screen–one on which he views the shards of a film that may never be completed. It's never a far stretch of the imagination when you're making a film–especially a documentary film–to think that you’ll never be able to afford the time to finish it properly, that no one will want to buy it, and by extension, that no one will ever see it. That our film happened to take these kinds of anxieties as its subject matter was definitely its own kind of curse.

Regardless of the unpleasantries of taking on your vocation as subject matter, we've felt compelled to keep trying our hands at movies about movies–largely because there aren't a lot of good ones out there. We often compare the real machinations of the film industry to the wizard in The Wizard of Oz. He’s the man behind the curtain, and you’re not supposed to look behind the curtain. What you’re supposed to believe about filmmaking is what you see on Access Hollywood. Someone holds out a clapper board, someone says “Action!,” the actors are always incredibly perky, and the director always uncannily confident. The truth is, of course, infinitely more fragile. Lost in La Mancha's story of a floundering film production is a lot more common than the industry would like us to know.

In our previous film about Terry Gilliam, The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of 12 Monkeys, we poked our cameras into test screenings and marketing meetings, into places that producers would insist we weren't welcome, into rooms that marketing people would protectively claim no one wants to see: "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!" But these are precisely the elements that really qualify moviemaking. Because it’s such a hugely expensive medium, filmmaking is inherently as much about contracts and bean-counting as it is about art, and we think it’s the juggling of these seemingly incongruous elements that makes it such compelling subject matter. But then we’ve often wondered about another component of our own personal curse. Is it really that wise to hold mirrors to the cherished secrets of the very industry in which you want to forge a career? Some of our potential employers might say, "Maybe not."

Fortunately for us, Lost in La Mancha may hold up just enough mirrors that it turns itself back into a harmless fiction, swallows its own tail and its authors with it. It's not just a film about filmmaking but a film about a filmmaker who becomes the protagonist of his own film–the tale of a man who battles gallantly for his dreams until he’s beaten down by the harsh slap of reality. Gilliam becoming Quixote as he tries to adapt Quixote. As one of the characters in La Mancha actually points out, if you tried to write this kind of story as a fiction script, no one would believe it. It's stranger than fiction. But if it's hard to believe, how can it be true? And if it isn't true, who can blame us? We're just a couple of harmless documentarians.

But at the end of this hall of mirrors, we may very well find ourselves the next victims of the curse. When we're feeling cocky, we do like to claim that Lost in La Mancha is its own adaptation of Don Quixote. Which puts us right back, dead in the path of Cervantes' warning. It would probably be wiser to let "the mouldering bones of Don Quixote" rest in peace. And let filmmaking return to the "lights, camera, action" myth that it generates so well.



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