They say that when an art form starts to take itself as a topic, the art form's near death. But a movie about movies is always better than a poem about poetry. In fact, movies are probably the one art form that can go self-referential without becoming so pretentious that English majors at Radcliffe will actually enjoy them.
Thus, we have an entire genre of films known as "making of" movies, wherein a documentary crew follows around another film crew as the latter crew makes a movie about which the former crew is making a movie. It's grammatically taxing to speak about, but a good, cheap way to get a documentary out the door.
So what do you do when the movie you're making a movie about is shut down on the third day of filming? Well, that's the conundrum posed by Lost in La Mancha, a movie about the making of a movie that didn't get made.
Documentarians Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe probably thought they had a sure thing on their hands when they got permission to film Terry Gilliam while he made The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Gilliam has a reputation for being a complete freak, and his movies are full of special effects unlike those in other movies, in that they're more likely to be creative and interesting rather than loud and explosive.
Of course, making movies that are flamboyantly weird is an expensive business. Somehow, in spite of the fact that he's made 15 films by this point in his career, Gilliam seems cheerfully unaware of this fact. Thus, he plans to make a $60 million movie for about $30 million on the assumption, apparently, that he has magical leprechaun powers and can make gold appear by kicking up his heels and doing a merry jig.
Shockingly, this plan does not work out. When his lead actor (the always charming Jean Rochefort) becomes ill, Gilliam's tight budget does not permit him enough time to suspend production, and the entire film is lost.
This not only dooms The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, it also makes Lost in La Mancha the only movie about making a movie wherein the movie that it's all about never becomes a movie. The tale of the lost film is a tragic, cool and under-explored subject, and there's more than enough material here to make a great 45-minute documentary.
Sadly, Lost in La Mancha is 90 minutes long, which means there's a lot of shots of Gilliam and company standing around looking sad. I can't say that it's not worth watching, and film geeks and Gilliam nerds (not to mention other types of melvins, nebbishes, wonks and hobby shop fans) will probably get a kick out of it, though they would have gotten a bigger kick out of a little more movie.
In fact, the long buildup in the beginning of Lost in La Mancha seems to indicate that there's going to be more of a payoff. While watching Gilliam work on pre-production issues is sort of educational, it's not until filming starts, about 35 minutes into the movie, that things come alive.
To make up for the slow beginning, there are some Gilliam-inspired animation sequences that rival the best of the Monty Python-era work. Animators Stefan Avalos and Chaim Bianco don't just ape Gilliam's early animation work, though; they expand on it and use it to comment on Gilliam's mad ambitions. These segments are probably the best part of Lost in La Mancha.
Well, they would be the best parts if it weren't for an act of God--a giant rainstorm that hits the set on the first days of filming, creating rivers that wash away equipment, horses and the tinier actors. When the rain dries, the set is completely transformed, the hills changed in color and shape, and there's no way to match shots, so shooting has to start all over again.
Gilliam should have taken this as a sign, but in classic mad dreamer mode, he carries on. His biggest problem, though, is not the delay, but rather that he's trying to make a movie he can't afford. His budget allows him to finish the film only if absolutely everything goes exactly as planned. Failing to plan for things like weather, humanity and the existence of space and time, Gilliam's budget is pre-destined to implode upon itself.
When it works, Lost in La Mancha is a fabulous tale about a guy who's a little too fabulous for his own good. When it doesn't work, it's about people standing around with nothing to do. This may be a more accurate representation of what goes in filmmaking than has ever been seen in any other movie, but it's also indicative of why realism is something that filmmakers will only claim to aim for.