There is a scene late in Terry Gilliam's 1981 breakout picture, Time Bandits, that nobody who saw the film shall ever forget: six hapless dwarves and a stalwart if geeky English schoolboy have been imprisoned within a place known as the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness. They are placed in a cage dangling from a distressingly frayed rope over an abyss of horrifying, midnight-black nothingness. Some distance away hangs another cage, littered with the yellowed bones of a former prisoner, and farther off still is another cage, with another beyond that. Our heroes' plight looks grim indeed, and they briefly succumb to despair, but then inspiration strikes: stealing some spare strands from the rope suspending their cage, they weave themselves a means of escape that is graceful, spectacular, scary and funny all at once. And then, without so much as a glance back, they are off to even weirder adventures.
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In this sequence, Gilliam himself was accomplishing a feat not so unlike the escape the dwarves were pulling off; when his plans for an elaborate, expensive, special effects-heavy scene fell apart, Gilliam desperately improvised the whole dangling-cage scenario as a means to get his characters from point A to B and pad out a few minutes of screen time. Using a blackened soundstage, some hastily assembled cages and some rope, Gilliam devised one of the most memorable sequences in a film crammed to bursting with monsters and battles and gods and devils and little people in funky hats. By contrast, for 1989's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Gilliam had the budget to put pretty much anything he wanted onscreen, and the result was a big, beautiful bore, a picture that played like a fever dream you were glad to finally wake from. It is no accident that Gilliam's greatest picture, Brazil, was such a struggle to make and get released that Gilliam ended up taking out a full-page ad in Variety ridiculing the chief exec of the picture's studio. Gilliam is an artist who thrives under pressure and within limits; give him every toy in the box and all the time he wants to play with them, and he'll probably just end up leaving them in a crumpled heap on the carpet. But give that boy a few strands of rope and not much time to make something of it, and he will almost invariably weave you a masterpiece.
Gilliam's '90s pictures—The Fisher King, The Twelve Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—were big-deal shows with big-deal stars; their budgets were generous, and their productions were relatively smooth, and perhaps as a result, all three films suffer to varying degrees from bloat and blah. Gilliam proved he could survive in the American studio system, but he didn't exactly thrive there.
Gilliam's latest film project, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, is (or was) something else again. As chronicled in the riveting new documentary Lost in La Mancha, which is now playing at Edwards University in Irvine, Quixote's production is an ordeal of biblical proportions: jets constantly roar overhead, interrupting the filming; massive storms sweep away essential equipment; the star falls mortally ill. Through it all, Gilliam's busy brain never stops working, clicking in ways it probably hasn't since roughly 1987. Genuinely quixotic in his determination, Gilliam never gives up on the film, and even now, many months after the production came to its untimely end, the director still insists that as soon as he can get the funds together, he's going to march back out to the desert and complete the picture. The odds are against him, to say the least, but if Gilliam can actually complete the film, there is reason to believe that it could just be the most inspired work of his career.
Here's hoping that the fates see fit to grant Gilliam's long-cherished dream of completing The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, and here's hoping they give him just enough rope to do it.