Early Modern Times – tilting at windmills

Early Modern Times - tilting at windmills

Dear readers,

Fans of Miguel de Cervantes and/or Terry Gilliam (Monty Python animator and director of such classics as Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Brazil) will be intrigued at the newest feature to be premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this month: The Man Who Killed Quixote. The movie will not be a faithful literary adaptation of Cervantes’ sprawling two-volume satire on chivalry (published in 1605 and 1615), but instead a modern-day homage to the novel. This recent article outlines the long, tortuous (and torturous) path taken by Gilliam, perhaps the most Quixotic of filmmakers today. The original screenplay has a modern advertising executive, Toby Grisoni, going back in time to Spain in the seventeenth century, where he meets Don Quixote, who mistakes the ad exec for his servant Sancho Panza. Cervantes’ elderly nobleman is himself inspired by tales of chivalry and sets out on a series of picaresque adventures accompanied by his far more grounded servant Sancho Panza. The most famous incident in the novel, of course, is Quixote’s attack on windmills he mistakes for a giant (pictured above in a seventeenth-century British tapestry hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art).

The movie went into production in 2000, starring Johnny Depp as Toby and the French actor Jean Rochefort as Quixote (who learned English for the role), but was plagued by a series of disasters, as recounted in the 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha. Problems included a slashed budget, an inability to gather the actors in the same place at the same time, ‘an echoey, semi-derelict warehouse’ mistakenly booked as the sound stage in Madrid, a noise-deafening NATO bombing range next to the outdoor locations in Spain, torrential rains which swept away the camera equipment, and an injured co-star (Rochefort). Eventually, the insurers pulled out, and completing the movie appeared a truly Quixotic affair. After multiple attempts to re-start production, along with several casting changes and troubled productions of other films, shooting finally began again in 2017 with Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce as Toby and ‘Quixote’ respectively. The time-travel element has been expunged, and ‘the reason why the actors are in historical costumes in today’s woodland scene is that the characters are having a fancy-dress party. In the current draft of the screenplay, the premise is that Toby revisits a Spanish village where he once made a student film of Don Quixote, and learns that the shoemaker he cast in the title role has been living as Quixote ever since.’ Tellingly, ‘Pryce is playing a dreamer who is playing a dreamer’. A Portuguese producer who bought the rights to the film in 2016 opposed the production and has tried to prohibit its screening–but a French court has rejected his lawsuit, and it seems that the film will finally see the light of day. Or will it? Perhaps it might still be ‘Canne-d’: opposed on the grounds of cultural appropriation, i.e., a charge of ‘Quixoticism’; or worse, of malicious animal cruelty due to the overfeeding of ‘donkey-oat-hay’.

Given that this film is inspired by a landmark early modern novel (which, incidentally, is taught in Dr. Laura Penny‘s EMSP 2000 course ‘Structures of the Modern Self’), Early Modern Times has consulted its Department of Cinematic Prophecy, which has informed me that we can look forward to the following early modern-inspired movie blockbusters this summer season:

Avenger: Infinity Thought: In its biggest superhero blockbuster yet, Marvel Studios expands its scope to plumb the interior depths of the modern self. Eschewing CGI effects for long soliloquies, Avenger: Infinity Thought depicts the antihero Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, as he endlessly contemplates the meaning of his existence, and whether to wreak revenge on his fratricidal uncle Claudius–now in possession not only of Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, but also of magical stones which he can use to ‘inflict his twisted will on reality’ as well as to defeat the Poles and Norwegians in battle. Hamlet eventually decides to rally the forces of the Marvel Universe and put on the play The Murder of Gonzago at Elsinore to catch the conscience of the king. Presented in Imax and ‘Smell-o-Vision’ so that viewers can fully breathe in the rotten state of Denmark.

Dunce-Kirk: Christopher Nolan’s exciting, visceral epic chronicles a major turning-point in British history: the Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume’s denunciation of idiotic religious zealots, especially followers of the Presbyterian Kirk. Nolan innovatively weaves three separate yet connected narratives: a desperate group of Presbyterians at a harbour mole under Catholic bombardment and awaiting a miracle (but ignorant of Hume’s argument against the existence of miracles); an intrepid, yet sceptical boat-skipper who sails across the Channel to rescue the stranded Presbyterians–not from religious motivations but rather sociable fellow-feeling; and a ‘spitfire’ preacher carried aloft in his fiery sermons on the wings of rhetoric, but who loses fuel and crashes to earth upon realising that there can be no valid proofs of the existence of God or knowledge beyond what we can infer from our senses.

The Shape of Werther: Guillermo del Toro smiles through his tears with this Oscar-winning romantic paean to old-fashioned ‘incel’ infatuation. Sally Hawkins is Charlotte, a gentle and mute cleaning woman working in a top-security research facility in central Germany, who encounters a monstrous creature named Werther–a gelatinous, soppy, and squishy marsh-being who falls deeply in love with Charlotte. Despite her daily offerings of hard-boiled eggs to the poor critter and their common affection for natural landscapes and the poems of Klopstock, Charlotte is married to upstanding FBI agent Albert and is unable to requite his love. Werther despairs and attempts suicide by plunging into a local river, only to transform into a blobfish.

Get Aufhebung: This edgy, sleeper hit from Jordan Peele hilariously tackles racial politics in early nineteenth-century Prussia from the standpoint of Hegelian metaphysics. Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris, a young Afro-Prussian seeking to reconcile his Self with the Other by dating a fellow Self-Consciousness, a white woman. He overcomes his opposition to the Other only to be confronted with her supposedly liberal parents, who (he comes to comprehend) are involved in an elaborate conspiracy to kidnap and zombify Afro-Prussians in a deadly Master-Slave Dialectic. Eventually, however, Chris manages to sublate his alienation through a complex historical process which culminates in his recognition of himself through the Rational State. To the jubilatory music of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, a post-racial era is ushered in through the Identity of Identity and Non-identity, while Spirit knows Itself as Subject and Substance.

Next week’s issue of Early Modern Times will appear on May 20.

‘Til then,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Summer Blockbuster Studies Program

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