Monday, April 19, 2010

Lost in Hammanchia

If you see the newly released-to-DVD "Defendor" and do not recognize that you are watching a pure adaptation of Don Quixote, then it is not your fault, nor the film makers.

Let me exonerate the film maker, first. Peter Stebbings wrote and directed the movie, and that's a pretty good sign that he had something on his mind. When one encounters a film with a writer/director, it usually means that there is something literary or otherwise hermeneutic going on. Some surfeit of signification is going to be either on or behind the frame. In this case, the adaptation is lovingly crafted and detailed. The film shows the sort of obsession to Cervantes and brief, synecdoctal allusion that only a man in love and meditation could come up with.

"Defendor" is note for note, beat for beat, refrain for refrain, Don Quixote. Perhaps other directors went mad chasing the mad don, but Stebbings managed to capture him complete in his audience interaction, if not his social significance.

You see, the problem with Don Quixote is that he refuses to be actually heroic. He loses his fights. He refuses to be a voice of virtue, too. His notions of virtue are based on hyperbole Romance conventions. He is nuts. His side kick is the hero, but he refuses to be heroic, even in his anti-heroism. The villains are villainous, but not special. The audience is required to laugh at the ... this is hard ... are you prepared? ... disjunction between the real and the language. What's funny about Don Quixote is the perception of reality held by the player(s) and the author and the audience. The three different voices (and they are at odds with each other) change places in levels of seriousness and virtue, but they always present a gap, and that gap is ridiculous and satirical. In Don Quixote, we are sometimes satirized, as readers, for reading junk, sometimes satirized for letting the world be messy, sometimes satirized for being a mob, sometimes satirized for overlooking peasant wisdom, sometimes satirized for trusting in titles, sometimes satirized for our use of wealth, sometimes satirized for not trusting more. There isn't one message involved, but a dozen.

"Defendor," believe it or not, manages most of that. Arthur, our "Defen-don," is retarded, and that is the greatest difference, and the most troubling problem, with the adaptation. (More about that later.) Other than that, he is a man who has taken his comic books and comic book movies seriously. This is a film that gets to parody film's own excess, and in film's own language, but with a character that gets to be Cervantes's narrator. He loses his fights. His "hooker with a heart of gold" doesn't have a heart of gold at all, but she doesn't have a bad heart, either. She smokes crack, but, in the film, it's called "Bling." Bling is not simply a random substitution, either, but a clever comment on what fills the wound. She's normal, and that means unrepentant. Defendor's villains are villains, but they're not super villains. His arch-enemy, like the wizard that Don Quixote chases, is an amalgam of lost hopes and disappointments that points at a real arch-villain.

We, the audience, are put through the same knots of emotional response with "Defendor" that we are with Don Quixote. More to the point, we have to laugh mainly at ourselves. We have to recognize that we ignore the construction workers holding the sign saying, "Slow" (as if a label or badge pointing at themselves). We have to recognize that Captain Industry is, indeed, an arch villain who is destroying mothers, even if there are more immediate villains, like the bad dry cleaning store owner who knows he is bad. We have to admit that we built castles in the air out of wishes and castles in Spain out of denial.

The film's Sancho Panza is a man who, like the book's Sancho, knows what he is: he is decent. He reaches out and takes in Arthur Poppington ("Defendor"), and he receives no island for his efforts (except the island universe of a small house with a family in it). His normal world and normal life is a deviation from Don Quixote, as is Defendor's retardation. This film's theme is more concerned with the subject of virtue and vice (in the law enforcement meaning, as well as the theological meaning) than Cervantes's was. Our Sancho tells his updated idol that there is no need for illusion, no need for delusion, that ordinary heroism is sufficient. This Sancho does not follow: he rescues, and he counterposes a separate world, a genuine separate peace.

This message gets rejected, at a critically important moment. Rejecting ordinary heroism means rejecting ordinary methods of heroism as well (including ordinary preparation), and Defendor must have his illusion to define him, as the Don must have his madness. However, because Defendor is compromised by retardation rather than delusion, some of the power of the message is lost, and a good bit of the moral sting is lessened. There is too much of an opportunity for an audience to say, "He couldn't help it: he was retarded."

I applaud the film. It is amazing. Except for the fact that some audiences could excuse themselves from being better by saying that Defendor was compelled, "Defendor" is a vital movie.

Here is where it goes all pear shaped, though: why didn't you see this movie at the theater? It stars Woody Harrelson and has other well known character actors.

Well, it would have come out near the time that "Kick Ass" was coming out, I suppose. "Defendor" is Sony, and "Kick Ass" is Lionsgate, and I will allow the people who think about Hollywood things to think about those things. "Hollywood" is not a place: it is a business model, and I, personally, do not care for it.

"Kick Ass" is a juvenile wish fulfillment movie, and, as such, it is designed to compete for the acne creme and Twinkie audience. "Defendor" is art house. This Venn diagram shows no overlap at all. I understand that the marketeers have no concept other than Pez dispenser tie-ins and clothing lines for toddlers, and "Defendor" seemed to have its own clothing line built in (just as "Don Quixote" would), but that's not, I think, the reason.

I suspect that the reason is that you, the audience, are being calculated again. You are intelligent, but your intelligence does not show up in the counterweight of their scales. They believe that 100 intelligent people per 1,000 is not good business. More to the point, they do not understand Don Quixote and are certain that you do not, either.

You can be forgiven for not understanding Don Quixote. You've probably never read it, at 800+ pages, and you've almost certainly never seen it. Filming a novel is iffy. Filming a novel and capturing its aesthetic or aesthetic action is rare indeed. Worse still, there are "movies" of Don Quixote that stand between you and the novel.

First, we have the attempts at recreation of the novel. Recapturing and recreating the novel, of filming it, are valuable. However, filming all of it would be the sort of project that Eric von Stroheim and Abel Gance would have to have teamed up on. Additionally, there would be no way at all to capture the narrator in a film. Finally, the disjunctions that created an entire genre (the mock-heroic) would be absent, as the audience would simply see an old man being whooped upon by mean people. Nevertheless, there are attempts at such recreations. People have seen them.

I have no bad words for these films. If you know the novel, the films are nice.

Secondly and more destructively, though, we have the appropriation of the novel's aesthetic by The Man of LaMancha. That musical and film has utterly obliterated the novel. We cannot even see or hear the don for its dreamer dreaming the impossible dream. From a mad fanboy, the don has gone to hippie dreamer on a quest for self-actualization. Try to imagine making fun of him, and see how far you get.

I have greater admiration for "Defendor" than you may imagine because the writer/director had to fight against preconceptions and a miasma of appropriation to retake the don. That he did so by actually adapting Don Quixote instead of filming it is even more to be admired.

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