In stories, by and large, things need to go in order.
This is a movie review – part consumer reportage, part artistic criticism, and implicitly part memoir if you do it right – and therefore has a looser structure.
After all, the first aspect means the reviewer is expected to deliberately mask and omit crucial parts of their subject, so a reader can go see the movie without knowing all the specifics before they sit down. How paradoxical would this be in any one of the more unified fields of work? Would a portraitist obscure the face of their subject so you have to go see the person yourself?
If that subject was Adam Driver, the star of Terry Gilliam’s The Man who Killed Don Quixote, it would be doing a disservice to him. Driver is one of the finest actors of his age, finding a captivating humanity in everything from a suffering yet unshakably faithful monk in Silence to a superpowered personification of adolescent angst in Star Wars to an introspective, unlikely creative in Paterson. His face (pictured above) is always an asset to this range: It’s a tall, very open and expressive face, more striking and memorable than handsome in the usual sense, framed but not hidden by the perennial bushy black hair.
That’s particularly appropriate for this movie, which takes place in the untamed Spanish countryside, with the camera never missing an opportunity to show beautiful shots of rolling hillsides and distant Pyrénée peaks. In this timeless environment, Driver switches on a dime between self-aware modern sensibilities and classical seventeenth century appearances, and a big part of that is how he looks like the ideal of Baroque Spanish fashion. Compare him to this self-portrait of Diego Velazquez, to see what I mean:
Of course, the real artist of that time that Quixote honors is Miguel Cervantes, the Spanish author who revolutionized fiction when he satirized the nostalgic romances of the time by writing a book in authentic dialogue, about simple people whose lives were uninteresting outside their reflection on those romances. This book was El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha, the story of a man trapped in fantasy that somehow seemed more real than anything else of its time.
Don Quixote’s title character – played in the film by Jonathan Pryce – famously comes to believe he is an adventuring knight straight out of stories, fighting evil and protecting innocence wherever he goes. This self-reflective story-about-stories nature means that the novel has always attracted formalists and metatextualists, looking to add their own layers on the venerable, ghostly tower of fiction-on-fiction. A prime example of this is “Pierre Menard, author of Don Quixote”, a short story by noted metafabulist Jorge Luis Borges, about a man trying to recreate the novel – not copy it, or act it out, but live his life such that he would want to write a book that would end up being exactly the same, word-for-word as Cervantes’ book, in so doing paralleling Quixote’s own act of recreation.
Terry Gilliam, director, co-writer, and Python who never quite shed his skin, is not just an avowed fan of Borges but a bit of a metafabulist himself. His films tend towards the theme of stories turning to delusions turning to reality, between Brazil, The Fisher King, Baron Munchausen and Time Bandits – and indeed, the Monty Python movies, which he judiciously cribs from in his conception of the elaborately staged past, brought to life in the present.
This collision of past and present is not only another returning motif for Gilliam, but also common element in most metafabulist works – which, by the way, I thank you for accepting as a word. Hence, our story follows Driver as a director named Toby G.,1 whose latest location shoot is racked with setbacks, ranging from poor conditions to trouble with the local police to stifling pressure from producers and executives. This, of course, is a microcosm the movie’s own production – I counted sixteen different production companies listed in the opening credits, followed by a card reading “And now, after 25 years in the making”, in a tenor that suggests an apology.
You could make a whole movie about the decades of near-constant production troubles, and they have, so the movie makes the smart decision to suggest much with little. That’s why I said Toby G. is a director, not a movie director – though we see him shooting footage of Quixote attacking a windmill because ”Paul and Storm”…er, because “They might be giants”… we quickly find out it’s actually going to end up as a commercial, and he’s only gone to the trouble of this location shoot because he’s always been obsessed with Quixote.
There’s a well-intentioned but shaky undercurrent of self-critique, of kicking the hell out of this obvious creator stand-in: Toby G. gets called a “child” a lot, despite the movie being about returning to an old life and finding how much you’ve changed. He keeps being called a “visionary genius” in the context of how everything he does is unbecoming of such a person. And, of course, the plot truly begins when he stumbles upon a DVD of a movie starring Jonathan Pryce, entitled The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
Now, you might have noticed how little I’ve actually discussed the things that happen in the story, or any of the other characters. This is a movie review, and so I’ve been trying to crowbar that format’s expectations and requirements into a tighter structure: See, I consider myself an amateur metafabulist. Yes, I know, I know, but I feel a responsibility to the discipline, to add yet another layer of my own, one last level on this insubstantial heap.
I have therefore structured this review so that without actually saying so, it demonstrates the most important aspects of the movie. To end the review on a satisfying note, as every story must, I’ll come out and say it. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is exquisitely crafted in terms of narrative structure, but that structure is hung on the single character of Toby. Everyone else is relatively shallow and unimportant (and more than a little culturally insensitive by some people’s standards) for the sake of the formalist comedy. This is especially true for the female characters, who all expound on their nature as men’s property in speeches that are Shakespearean in the “400 years old” way, rather than the “excellently written” way.2
The narrative and meta-narrative are meant to take the lead, and they do so with aplomb: The dialogue is snappy, the direction supports the script with a Swiss watch’s tightness and enjoyably loose camera work, and the production design does a beautiful job at keeping Toby’s increasingly fantastical world on just the right balance of plausibility, as well as using allusion in a very literary way.
In short, it’s the prototypical Terry Gilliam movie – not his best, but easily his most personal, for good and for ill. I wouldn’t recommend it for beginners to his oeuvre (and it is an oeuvre) but if you enjoy more than one of his movies, you’ll probably find something in this. I would definitely recommend you read Don Quixote, or failing that it’s rebellious younger brother Tristram Shandy, or failing that the excellent Tristram Shandy movie, A Cock and Bull Story, done by the same people who would later make The Trip.
Three layers of removal should be enough, don’t you think? Just the same as this is removed from the movie, which is in turn removed from Cervantes’ original work, which itself is removed from the stories it was satirizing.
But the line doesn’t really end there, not if you stop thinking like a consumer reporter or a memoirist and start thinking like a literary critic, chronicling centuries of narrative alteration as a vector cultural exchange. Where does the game end, where do stories truly begin? All those creators up there could tell you without a moment’s hesitation: The mind, our own feelings. Or, to be more precise, the many layers of iterations on those feelings we call thought.
That’s what I think they’d say, at least.