Film Review – He Dreams of Giants (2019)

He Dreams of Giants from Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe documents the creative, imaginative and sensitive Terry Gilliam’s journey of completing the film that began to consume him, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2018). It is a secondary documentary to La Mancha (2002), which followed Gilliam’s then-failed attempt at completing Quixote.

The opening shot makes quiet reference to the dreamy and surreal quality of Terry Gilliam’s journey not only as a director, but as a human: an open desert with mountains in the background, the atmosphere is quiet with a tinge of anticipation, capped off by a blue sky dotted with puffs of white clouds. Within moments, a pair of riders on horseback enter the frame. We cannot see who they are as they move steadily across the screen and out of frame, dust kicking around the horse’s rhythmic footsteps. The near-silent sequence is somehow both comforting and mildly disconcerting. Everything in the image has an impression of being just the slightest bit blurred and inaccessible, giving it a sense of the dream world; indeed, when the shot switches to showing Gilliam watching the riders continue across the desert, we feel as though we have stepped into the director’s dreamworld.

In fact, that is precisely what we do as viewers of Dreams: we are given a front-row seat to Gilliam’s nearly three-decade dream of completing Quixote. Originally conceived in 1989, setback after setback meant the film did not move from dream and imagination into physicality and completion until 2018, screening as the closing film at Cannes 2020. Dreams allows us a look into Gilliam’s mind, observing how he is unfailingly drawn to images, illustrations, films and situations that are whimsical, artistic, poetic, imaginative and yes, at times, unusual, including ventriloquism and interacting realistically with a mask. Clips of Fellini’s masterpiece 8½ are spliced throughout the film, initially without discourse, but later being referenced by Gilliam in interview clips, where he praises the director’s vision in creating a film based on the fact that he, Fellini, had hit a creative wall and was unable to think of a proper ending for a different film. What resulted was the timeless and iconic black and white 8½, still revered today amongst cinema aficionados. And, of course, the theme of dreams is a constant throughout the 1963 film, much as it is throughout both Giants and Gilliam’s lifetime.

The delays on Quixote ranged from freak weather, finances, illnesses and recasts, but through it all, Gilliam stubbornly and passionately retained his vision, even if it began to wear him down mentally and emotionally. As the camera follows him on sets through the years, we are also treated to flashbacks of interviews of a younger, more energetic Gilliam, though two personality threads remain constant: introspection as well as rumination on life and the universe. On the artistic process, he laments, “Why does anybody create? It’s hard. Life is hard. Art is hard.” Initially a depressing (if not painfully accurate) sentiment, Gilliam rescues it by declaring that “Doing anything worthwhile is hard”, thus explaining why he pursued Quixote for almost 30 years. Indeed, towards the end of filming Quixote, Gilliam is ill, stressed, second-guessing himself and exhausted, telling the Dreams filmmakers “I’m trapped.” But isn’t this what you wanted? he is asked. “Never get what you want,” is his blunt, glum reply; but, of course, the luminosity that pours out of him at the Cannes premiere demonstrates that sometimes, we need to get exactly what we want, despite (or because of) all the blood, sweat and tears.

At one point, Gilliam acknowledges that his need to complete Quixote is an obsession, and accepts it as such, stating: “Some people think it’s heroic. More truthful it’s foolish, it’s stupid…but that’s what obsessions are about. Let them lead you down the garden path to the abyss.” While an abyss sounds like a frightening place, Gilliam’s sentiment empowers dreamers and creators to indulge their visions and obsessions. Indeed, the quote’s poetic quality resonates with the childlike imagination and courage that we all have within, an whether we nurture or numb these qualities, they are there, waiting to take our hand and lead us down our own garden path to an abyss. It is up to us whether we will be brave enough to walk that path as we take a deep breath and aim for and hope for the best. Luckily for cinema-goers, despite the delays, setbacks, crises of the soul, personal obsession and illness, Gilliam charges forward to that dreamy, blue-skied abyss, delivering The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Thankfully, the dedicated filmmakers behind He Dreams of Giants recognized the poetry inside Gilliam’s soul and walked their own garden path, cameras in hand, allowing us to step into the director’s personal dreamworld for 80 minutes.

May we all find the courage to walk that garden path to fulfilling our own giant dreams.

★★★★


Documentary | USA, 2019 | 15 | Digital HD | 29th March 2021 (UK) | Blue Finch Film Releasing | Dir. Keith Fulton, Louis Pepe | Adam Driver, Terry Gilliam, Jonathan Pryce