Director: George Lucas; Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman; Cast: Harrison Ford, Benecio Del Toro, Helen Mirren, and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Jürgen Von Himmelmacher
Quixote Jones, an adaptation of the formerly un-filmable Don Quixote, arrives in theaters today as one of the most-anticipated films of all time, for all the wrong reasons. It’s the movie equivalent of a freeway pile-up: we can’t help but gawk, especially after the controversy that preceded its release. From the inception, it had all the makings of a financial and artistic bomb. We were all so sure it would fail.
And we were all so wrong.
In case you’ve been living in a bomb shelter (which, coincidentally, is where we first meet our hero), I’ll recap the film’s checkered origins.
In the last century or so of filmmaking, the feat of making a Don Quixote film worthy of its source seemed as unlikely as Cervantes’s quixotic knight slaying an actual dragon. Many tried, many failed. Orson Welles was one. He toiled over his version sporadically over several decades, as, according to Welles, “a writer works on a novel, no obligations, no time constraints. I’ll finish it whenever I damn well please.” Apparently he never damn well felt like it, though its specter may have haunted him to his death in 1985. Rumor has it that with his final breath, he whispered the word “Quixote,” before slumping over in his chair, a glass of Chianti slipping from his lifeless fingertips.
Terry Gilliam had a better go, making it halfway through production until a dispute with Johnny Depp ground everything to a halt. Depp, perhaps still reeling from his recent channeling of Hunter S. Thompson, had decided to model his Sancho Panza after Jim Morrison. He’d show up to set in a heroin daze, swaggering in tight leather pants he refused to remove. When Gilliam threatened to fire him, Depp stormed off the set for good, saying, “You’re just afraid of my freedom, man.”
Besides the mediocre 1988 TV movie starring Bea Arthur as a Quixote-like housewife hopped up on pills and attacking parking meters with a mop, the masterpiece film adaptation of Cervantes’s Don Quixote had still eluded world cinema.
When news that surrealist screenwriter Charlie Kaufman had penned an ingenious new adaptation, which not only placed Quixote in a post-apocalyptic world, but also included a Kaufman-like character entering a homemade time machine to confer with Cervantes about the script, everyone pondered what brave soul would step to the helm. Several names were tossed around: firstly, there was Spike Jonze, who had recently flopped with his remake of The Magnificent Seven, set in contemporary LA, and starring the surviving members of Jackass riding around on big wheels. Next up in the rumor mill was Peter Jackson, but when The Scrolls of Destiny, his six-part adaptation of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign he’d led in high school, left both critics and audiences stupefied, he retreated into the New Zealand mist. Even Spielberg had shown interest, but opted instead for Auschwitz! Auschwitz!, the upcoming third part of his World War II trilogy, and yes, unfortunately, it’s a musical. When at last the trade papers revealed the chosen one, a nation’s collective jaw dropped: George Lucas? Seriously???
Jaws fell further when a cast sheet was leaked to the press. Benecio del Toro as Sancho Panza seemed sensible enough, but who would play the iconic titular knight, the delusional old man that nevertheless captures the hearts and minds of young and old? Harrison Fucking Ford?!?!
Yes, Harrison FUCKING Ford, who gives the performance of a lifetime. And George Lucas, who obliterates his marred reputation following the god-awful Star Wars prequels to deliver a film that’s far from “kid-friendly.” One can only think he took to heart the gang of Star Wars geeks who made headlines last year when they broke into Lucas’s ranch dressed as Stormtroopers and held him hostage, their only demands a written admittance of the suckiness of the prequels and a promise never to direct another Star Wars. (Ed. note: The kidnappers are still at large at press time.)
“Is this another Indiana Jones sequel?” is the question everyone’s been asking. Answer: only in the most delightfully screwed-up way possible. It’s more of a deconstruction of a Joseph Campbell myth: the hero’s journey, which, not coincidentally, also served as a blueprint for the original Star Wars. In Kaufman and Lucas’s version, instead of the protagonist reluctantly thrust into the role of savior, undergoing a spiritual transformation, and ultimately triumphing against evil, in this Quixote, Ford, known only as “Jones,” ordains himself a hero, naively embracing the cliché without any seeming cause. All of his attempts to “save the world” end in tragic humiliation, and we laugh along with all the supporting players at his buffoonery, even if, like the original Quixote, it only makes him more tragically human.
Similarly, Lucas and Ford did very little right with their careers this century, and had not only been written-off, but at times verbally abused by even their most ardent fans (who can forget the man who flew over Lucas Ranch, skywriting the words: “Suck it, George”). These were two men with something to prove, if they cared to. Many rumors circulated about their preparation: There were those blurry cellphone videos of the two of them drunk and naked in a fountain at the Bellagio, reports of motorcycle trips into Mexico, a shamanic sweat-lodge initiation on Harrison’s Wyoming ranch, and an apparent trek into the Mojave desert, where they subsided for several days on only mescaline tea and Vitamin Water.
Whether true or not, it’s clear from the film that they at least found their muses. Perhaps the hallucinogens wiped their minds clean of past atrocities, and allowed them to connect with the unhinged imagination of Kaufman. In his script, Cervantes’s novel serves as a jumping off point, to explore not only an America after a total ruin, but the very soul of a man who was once its biggest star.
The film opens on the enigmatic Jones, locked in his aforementioned bomb shelter. He bides time, eating beans from a can, and making origami animals, including a paper-maché unicorn, a nod to Blade Runner, the first of many references to the participant’s previous films. He confers with an imaginary friend, a clump of his own hair, which he’s nicknamed “Chewy.” After dinner, he combs through a small library of DVDs. He considers a few titles: Citizen Kane, Brazil, (an acknowledgment of the directors who failed to film Quixote perhaps?) until he finally settles on one. Yes, it’s Raiders of the Lost Ark.
This could have been gimmicky (or worse, self-promotional), but it works on two levels. This Jones could actually be Ford, reliving his glory days. Or it could be just an ordinary old man suffering dementia, and placing himself in all the movies he watches. Ford’s craggy, deeply lined face observes his young self as he performs heroic feats, and something stirs in him. He transforms before our eyes, adopting the steely reserve of a hero again. Delusional though he may be, we can’t help but half root for him to return to his former, glorious self.
Instead, he makes a fool of himself. After dressing himself in armor made of tinfoil, he makes a vow to himself in a mirror, “To rid the planet of all evil.” Outside, the unnamed town is in shambles, with survivors living in essentially seventeenth-century conditions, and violence ruling the day. The world gone mad, Jones’s madness is barely noticed at first. No one takes him seriously until he meets Sancho Panza (Benecio del Toro), a former drug addict turned half-mad, half-savage conspiracy gun-nut (if he’s modeled after any rock star, it might be Ted Nugent). They squabble at first, but gradually Sancho softens to Jones’s fervent hope and naive belief in the triumph of good, and joins him in search of evil to rid the world of.
A good chunk of the film follows terrain similar to the book, updated to modern times. Instead of commandeering a tired old horse as his steed, Jones rides a rusty mountain bike, while Sancho rides, naturally, a temperamental Segway. Instead of windmills, Jones fights oil pumps, an obvious environmental metaphor, perhaps, but hilarious to watch.
And that’s really the genius of this film; for all its dark undertones, it remains light-hearted, deft, and perceptive of humanity’s foils. Lucas’s previous powers are at last fully revived: the vivid imagination from the first three Star Wars, the hopeful humanism of American Graffiti, and the dystopic vision of THX1138, all are present in this film, with a dose of the existential to boot.
Part of the joy of this film is the nuanced performances he gets out of the many cameos. There’s something inspired about casting Helen Mirren as the love interest that inspires all of Jones’s exploits, not only because it harkens back to the Ford/Mirren matchup of Mosquito Coast, but also that it’s nice to see old-man Ford actually going for someone from his own generation, for once.
The film gains extra weight (pun intended) with the arrival of George (a chubby Arnold Schwarzenegger, who appears to have finally given up his workout routine, or at least his steroid diet). The fact that this is his finest film since The Terminator perhaps goes without saying, but the real revelation here is that, for the first time, he’s acting, not as some juiced-up version of himself, but as an actual character. At the risk of becoming too meta (which Kaufman never seems to shy away from), Arnold plays a pretentious, Fassbinder-like Austrian filmmaker who harnesses his last chance at success by filming Jones’s and Sancho’s exploits. He’s constantly staging conflicts and re-enacting events they’ve only just enacted, calling into question the very idea of “filmmaking” in a world gone mad (and not so far away from our own).
This had to be a Lucas/Ford film, and the reasons become more and more apparent as the film dissects the creative process, and the hazards of success. Ford is constantly hounded for autographs by starving cannibals who, a minute later, want to rip his limbs off. Perhaps the only sequence that comes off gratuitous is a Deliverance-like fever dream sequence, in which Ford hallucinates getting gang-raped by several Jar Jar Binks-like creatures, one even taunting, “Me’sa wanna hear old man squeal like pig.” It’s the one case of Lucas pushing the Meta one step too far, but, luckily, a short one.
When Quixote Jones was chosen to close Cannes earlier this year, critics (this one included) scoffed. This was the final nail in the coffin of a once-great festival now succumbing to the almighty dollar. When a frail, rail-thin Lucas took the stage, the audience let out a collective gasp. He informed us they had just delivered the final print that very morning. “I hope you enjoy my little film. It’s very near and dear to my heart.”
Something in his earnest delivery told me we might be in for something unexpected. When the credits rolled and the entire audience rose to its feet in applause, there was only one person left sitting: Lucas himself. A photographer caught the moment: he looked… dissatisfied. When the Palm d’Or was later announced, going, naturally, to Lucas, he took to the stage calmly amidst the thunderous applause.
“This…” he began, and we all expected him to follow with “… is the greatest honor of my life.” Instead, defying expectations yet again, Lucas went on, “… is bullshit. Total fucking BULLSHIT!” Smashing his award on the stage floor and hurrying offstage amid a flurry of gasps and flashbulbs, critics claim it was his attempt to manufacture a “Von Trier moment,” cementing a new reputation as a “troubled auteur.” Whether planned or not, no one could doubt his conviction. He hasn’t spoken to the press since, and no one knows exactly where he is. Could he be hiding away in a bomb shelter himself, tinkering, editing and re-editing his magnum opus, in a futile attempt to finally get it right?
Time will tell. For now, we have Quixote Jones, a thrilling, thought-provoking, and wild mess of a masterpiece, and a fine way to spend two hours while awaiting the inevitable end of all things.
Eric Layer was recently awarded the Mark Fellowship at PEN Center USA. Previously, he had been a 2011 Emerging Voices Fellow, which included a mentorship with writer Jerry Stahl. He has also received residency fellowships from the Ragdale Foundation, Fundacion Valparaiso in Spain, and Foundation Obras in Portugal. His stories have been featured in The Rattling Wall, Palehouse, Penny-Ante, and The Medulla Review. He is currently working on his first novel, entitled All Roads Lead to Fresno.