Writing the Essay: The Unbelievable Truth

Writing the Essay: The Unbelievable Truth
Photo by Katia De Juan / Unsplash

This essay was written in the Fall 2010 semester as part of the Writing The Essay: Art in the World course at New York University, which is now numbered EXPOS-UA 5.

As far as raw documentary material goes, it is hard not to feel that Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe hit paydirt with Lost in La Mancha. The film, documenting the “un-making” of Terry Gilliam’s failed epic The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, began life as a typical making-of documentary. Their role as documentarians was not to dig below the surface for factual or psychological truths not readily apparent, but simply to document, to get out of the way and let the material make its own case.

In such films, the filmmakers work with the understanding that the spectacle in front of the camera is more salient than anything the camera can create. This is true regardless of whether the documentary in question is a making-of or an unmaking-of documentary, because either way, an extraordinary drama will play itself out. As Philip French remarks in his review of Lost in La Mancha in the Guardian, “the business of making films is as interesting as the films themselves.” To mount a film production is an enormous undertaking involving not just huge sums of money over a long period of time, but also a considerable amount of faith.

In the case of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, the stakes were ratcheted much higher: the combination of a great director tackling great material so suited to him bred high expectations, attracting an investment of $32 million that would make it one of Europe’s biggest films, yet an investment that – as Gilliam himself says in Lost in La Mancha – was “way below what we would normally need to make a film like this.” As if that knowledge was not enough to deter him from such an undertaking, there was the specter of  Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, a similarly adventurous production that stretched both its crew and its budget to extremes, then failed spectacularly at the box office for mysterious and mythical reasons.

Moreover, there was the small matter of the number of people who had attempted to adapt Don Quixote and failed. In The Impossible Musical, Dale Wasserman lists four major failed Quixote adaptations, including Orson Welles’ cursed production which he caustically describes as “an in-joke of sorts” in which “money ran out, actors died, and film had to be re-shot” (24). Philip French considers this one of the many advantages Fulton and Pepe had in the making of Lost in La Mancha, describing the history of cinema as “marked by the bleached bones of unmade or unfinished versions of Don Quixote,” conveniently setting the stage for Gilliam’s valiant attempt at defying historical precedent.

French also adds, “it’s as if some curse were transferred from its mad, idealistic hero to those attracted to bringing him to the screen.” What is especially curious about the spate of failures to adapt Don Quixote is that right at the end of the lengthy text, embedded in the narrative of Quixote itself, is the following warning:

For me alone was Don Quixote born, and I for him… let the weary and crumbling bones of Don Quixote rest in the grave… to mock the many [journeys] undertaken by so many knights errant, the two [journeys Don Quixote] made were enough. (Cervantes)

So, simply by taking on the challenge of adapting Don Quixote, Terry Gilliam was not just testing faith, he was tempting fate.

From the moment Gilliam began his project, it could only have been an epic success or an epic failure. When tempting the gods, there is no middle ground: either one tempts the gods and wins, from which we get the quintessential Greek comedic or epic form, or one tempts the gods and loses, from which we get the quintessential Greek tragic form.

Lost in La Mancha opens with goblin-like creatures dancing with fire torches laughing hysterically. The next thing we see is Terry Gilliam, rapt with childlike wonder, putting his little camcorder to his eye. The telephoto effect of Fulton and Pepe’s long lens gives us the impression of being close to and intimate with the action. We are close up on the devilish figures, then close on Gilliam, always enraptured by the dream being realized right before his eyes. Right from the beginning of the film, Fulton and Pepe present us with an image of a man enamored of the notion of staring gods in the face.

However, this does not explain why the film proves so effective. Even though the film obeys a traditional tragic form, this form only dictates an overarching structure – it tells us which elements constitute the story, but not how the story should be told. It does not explain why we are so engaged in the drama, so compelled to keep watching. Like an oft-heard, well-told joke, we want to hear the story even though we already know the ending, because there is joy in the telling, in the delivery of the joke itself. The tragic structure of Lost in La Mancha is not a sufficient explanation for the strength of the film: we also need to look at why the story works, why it can draw us in over and over again, why we can experience the tragedy of Gilliam’s failure afresh each time.

Ancient Greek dramatic practice provides a framework we could use as a starting point for exploration, but the specificities of the ancient Greek theater are very different from those of modern dramatic practice, and much of ancient Greek dramatic theory is no longer applicable in its original incarnation. What strikes the modern scholar or practitioner when studying Greek drama is the stringency of the form: the rhythm and cadence of the text, the role of the Chorus, the use of masks, and even the physical stage space itself are all highly stylized to fit to a rigid form.

Peter Hall, in his book Exposed By The Mask, argues that all drama requires a form that serves as a channel through which the artist can express emotion at an intensity beyond what is acceptable in daily life:

Any actor will tell you that if you wish to move an audience, you must not cry. Do not cry. If you cry, the audience will not. The actor must exercise restraint… a child who comes towards you trying not to cry (but who is filled with suppressed tears) is incredibly moving. (Hall 23)

Hall refers to such restraining, channeling forms as “masks,” invoking the masks used in ancient Greek theater. A mask is a containing, strict, almost unnatural form of expression that serves as a contract between an artist and his audience. Once the audience accepts the form, be it blank verse, sung dialogue or a physical mask, the audience also agrees to suspend their disbelief and to experience all the dramatic events presented to them as if they were real while in the full knowledge that they are not, in order to experience much more intense emotions than can be experienced in day-to-day life. The tension between the confining form of the mask and the vast extremes of emotion the mask hides creates a paradox that is infinitely engaging to experience. This is how, Hall argues, an audience can be made to live an event as horrific as Titus Andronicus cutting his hand off without having to believe that the actor has just severed his hand (27). Epic drama demands a mask. Without one, we cannot suspend our disbelief to experience drama on the epic scale. With one, we are liberated from the constraints of mundane reality.

So what is the mask of Lost in La Mancha? Why are we so engaged in the drama of Gilliam’s failed Quixote, when Lost in La Mancha does almost exactly what Hall advises against – presenting an extreme reality without a restraining form?

Everything that can go wrong goes wrong. I mean everything. Everything. Everything. Everything. I mean if you write a script and you think of the worst possible situation, you can’t make it up. – Nicola Pecorini, director of photography for The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, in Lost in La Mancha (2002)

On the second day of production, a storm approaches the shooting location. The sky has transformed from a pale blue into a sheet of billowing cloud, then abandons all pretense and turns aggressively dark. Yet principal photography continues, despite all better judgement. Jean Rochefort delivers his lines: “Yet according to the duty of my profession, I have no choice.” He follows this shortly after with, curiously enough: “Yield to heaven’s command!”

Thunder rumbles. Phil Patterson, the first assistant director, instructs the crew to secure all the equipment and to get under cover.

Terry Gilliam, in a moment of sardonic frustration, yells: “Yes! Whoa!” as the sky looms dark over the production and the lack of light casts a pall over the scene Fulton and Pepe present us. We are close up on Gilliam, but even the size of Gilliam in the frame cannot make us forget or ignore the enormity of the storm, or the futility of Gilliam’s madness against the force of nature’s madness.

As if to drive the point home, Terry Gilliam turns to Pecorini, his director of photography, and asks a dry, pointed, ironically self-aware question:

“Which is it, King Lear, or Wizard of Oz?”

A better script could not have been written.

Philip French of the Guardian describes a scene in which the film’s investors “get to see a frantic Gilliam direct Johnny Depp as he struggles with a fish beside a waterfall” as “scarcely believable in a fictional movie.” Indeed, in an article for Landmark Theatres, even Fulton and Pepe themselves wrote that if Lost in La Mancha had been fictional, no one would have believed it.

That is exactly it. A better script could not have been written, because it would not have been believed. A well-known director, making a high-stakes film destined to become a classic, has his equipment washed away by a freak storm the day after his audio recordings are ruined by the sound of NATO planes flying overhead and a week after his lead actor unilaterally delays his arrival on set due to back pain: that is exactly the kind of drama too indulgent to be taken seriously, without a restraining form to channel the sheer ridiculousness of the events towards a satisfying climax. If such a script were to be written, it would not be a drama or a tragedy as Lost in La Mancha is – it would be a comedy, akin to David Mamet’s State and Main or Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain. The comedic form is a contract in which the audience agrees to abide by unrealistic rules of engagement, to suspend their disbelief,  in exchange for a big comedic payoff at the end. In a documentary there is no need for the audience to suspend their disbelief, because they are prepared to watch something as long as it is true.

If the contract of most drama requires a rigid and unnatural form, then the contract of the documentary requires veracity. The audience agrees to be engaged in the material on the condition that the events portrayed did happen, that everything that happens in front of the camera has some basis in reality – not simply an emotional or spiritual reality, but a factual reality that can be independently verified. That is a documentary’s mask, perhaps the most rigid and unbending mask of all – the material must be rooted not only in truth, but in fact.

Within the constraints of this form, any scenario is acceptable, however extreme or impossible it may seem. If the paradox of the theater and of fictional film is that audiences engage with the truth in the unbelievable, the paradox of the documentary form is that audiences engage with the unbelievable in the full knowledge that it is true. For this reason, documentary audiences feel violated when they discover they have been tricked into believing something that is not true, the same way audiences are repulsed by excessively theatrical drama. In both cases, the artist has broken the formal contract and reminded them that the story they are watching, that they are living, is untrue. This is why Pecorini says in Lost in La Mancha, “You can’t make it up.”

In the light of this understanding, one could perhaps argue that Fulton and Pepe would have been able to tell a fine story regardless of what actually happened with Gilliam’s production. Like a fully-wound wind-up toy, all the parameters for an extremely dramatic story had already been set and all that was left was to watch the drama unfold. It did not matter exactly how the drama of the production played out – it was always going to be epic, with or without their direct involvement. All they had to do was to get out of the way and let the material make its own case. Most importantly, it was always going to dare the viewer to disbelieve its account of an epic drama, and turn out to be unbelievably true.

Works Cited

Cervantes, Miguel. Don Quixote. Trans. Edith Grossman. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005. Print.

French, Philip. “Down the shoot.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited. 4 Aug. 2002. Web. 30 Nov. 2010.

Fulton, Keith and Louis Pepe. “A Curse of Mirrors.” Lost in La Mancha. Landmark Theatres. 2003. Web. 30 Nov 2010.

Hall, Peter. Exposed By The Mask. New York: Oberon, 2000. Print.

Lost in La Mancha. Dir. Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe. Perf. Terry Gilliam, Jeff Bridges and Tony Grisoni. Quixote Films, 2002. Film.

Wasserman, Dale. The Impossible Musical. New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2003. Print.