Goodbye forever. Have a good life.

It began when I arrived back in New York for the fall semester of my senior year. The MTA service change poster at Canal Street said “R — 14 months,” and I realised with a pang that when the Montague Tunnel reopened in October 2014, I would no longer be a New Yorker.


I came to New York City because I realised that if I were anywhere else, I would spend all my time thinking about how to come to New York.

Now that I am about to leave, I spend all my time thinking about how to come back.


At the start of the spring semester, I fill out my calendar with my classes and other obligations. My last class ever at NYU will be Learning to Speak: The First and Second Language Acquisition of Sound, taught by Lisa Davidson and Frans Adriaans.

As a film major, there is something dissatisfying about this. I want my final class to be a film class — how could it not be?


At a League of Linguistics Students (LOLS) meeting, Helena tells me that Lourdes Dávila, my advisor in the Spanish department, thinks I’ve already graduated. This news hits me harder than I expect.


The Film and TV registration office is in the habit of making witty posters to remind people to sign up for advising, posters that show up in the most intrusive places, such as on the inside doors of toilet cubicles. For Fall 2014 advising, they have gone for famous artworks and smart-ass captions, things like a Van Gogh self-portrait: “Lend your advisor an ear!"

The one on the inside door of the first floor bathroom cubicle is Dalí’s Persistence of Memory: “How time melts away!”


Speaking Freely classes last ten weeks.

“Is this next week our last lesson?” I ask Pablo at his Catalan class.

“I don’t know. I should know this. I’ll email you,” says Pablo.

Next week is the last week. I know. I counted. It’s in my calendar. I can’t come next week.

This is the last time I will see Pablo.


In Documentary Production Workshop, Marco has come to the conclusion that there won’t be enough time left in the semester to get through everyone’s work, and suggests adding an additional class on Reading Day, Tuesday, May 13.

My last class at NYU will be Documentary Production Workshop, 9:00am to 4:45pm, with Marco, with whom I have taken four classes in my time at NYU. I am pleased at this plot twist.


After my final LOLS meeting, I walk out of the Linguistics building with Katie and Amanda, along Washington Place, towards Broadway. On the corner, I say, “I turn right here,” knowing they will be turning left.

“Goodbye forever,” says Katie.

“Have a good life,” says Amanda.


I am supposed to meet Larry in Chat Gunter’s office one hour before Production Sound starts. Instead, I find Chat himself there.

“What are you going to do, kiddo?” Chat asks.

“I’m heading home to Singapore,” I say.

In the doorway, Chat says a few words, hugs me, taps me on the arm, and disappears into his office.

In the elevator, I try to remember the last words Chat said to me, but in just the space of a few minutes they are lost forever. All I remember is his hug and the tap on my arm.


My Facebook status, May 9:

I have decided that the best thing I can do to round up four years of film school is to compile a list of Marcoisms. All current and former students of Marco are welcome to contribute to this list.

To start us off:
1. Parallel lines converge at the horizon.


I am in 10 Washington Place, the Linguistics building, to see Lisa Davidson for what I feel certain will be the last time. I have some legitimate questions to ask for my paper — is there an existing theoretical framework for understanding bilingual acquisition of sound? — but really, I am there because I feel compelled to tell her that I’m graduating and that I appreciate her being a part of my four years at NYU.

And yet once my questions are done and the moment comes, the entirety of my range of verbal expression fails me, and I am left with a limp wave as I leave her office.


I am in 19 University Place, the Languages and Literature Building, to make an appointment with Jordana Mendelson through Noelia.

“I’m graduating,” I say, “and I emailed Jordana to ask if I could come to her office hours for a chat.”

Noelia pulls out her calendar to schedule a meeting. I give her my N number and my email address.

“What’s your reason for the meeting?” she grins.

“I have no idea,” I admit. Suddenly “to catch up,” “to keep in touch” and the like seem trivial and time-wasting. Do people make formal appointments through administrators “to catch up”?

“How about ‘I’m graduating and I’ll miss you all’? she grins extra wide.

The elevator doors open.

“Or you could just talk to her now,” says Noelia.


Talking to Jordana feels different from talking to Lisa or Katie or Amanda. The prospect that I will never see her again does not hang over my head the same way. Maybe it’s because I didn’t expect to see her when I did, creating the illusion that finality is not predestined.

She tells me, over and over, that I must keep up with my Spanish, that I must tell her about my films, that we must keep in touch. I promise her I will.


I have just finished my Learning to Speak paper, the last undergrad paper I will ever write. I compose an email to Lisa and Frans - it’s automatic now, ld43, fa46, Hello Lisa and Frans, Here’s my final project paper for Learning to Speak. Cheers, Grace. For a flickering instant I contemplate sending the email as is - businesslike, no nonsense, to the point.

But I know I will kick myself forever if I don’t say something, especially after my lame hand-wave at Lisa earlier today. So I tell them - thank you. Thank you for a great semester, thank you for being part of a great four years, congrats on getting married, Frans.

I send it. A strange thing happens.

I find myself glued to my seat on the 8th floor of Bobst, unable to leave. I hate Bobst. I only come here to finish work that refuses to be done, and then I get out as soon as I can. But today, I can’t. I feel that such a momentous moment deserves a meditation.

So I sit here and think, knowing that when I leave, it will be forever.

I hated Bobst. The moment I get up to leave, I know I will become indifferent to it. I know that one day I will look back on Bobst with fondness, and maybe even allow myself to believe that I loved Bobst, secretly. And all that will happen the moment I stand up to go.


There are 32 comments on my Facebook status asking for Marcoisms, ranging from “people can only give what they can give” to “don’t ask to ---- on the first date”.

During a break, Rob suggests we put it up on the screen so Marco can see it, which is what we promptly do. Marco walks in and the class begins to laugh. He is first bemused, then amused.

“Why didn’t you tag me in this?” he asks.

“You said you don’t add students as friends,” I reply.


Class ends late and I’m in a hurry, but I force myself to stop outside 721 Broadway for the moment to sink in. I will never be a student in this building again.


I add Marco on Facebook. He accepts.


It’s the night before Commencement. Tonight, the Empire State Building is purple, for me.

I’m on 28th and Fifth, trying to take a good picture of the Empire State Building. The angles are bad. A sign here, a banner there, things get in the way. My lens is too short, I can’t get a good frame. I tell myself that however the next photo turns out, it will be the last one. It turns out badly.

Frustrated, I set off along 28th Street towards Broadway, where the NR subway is.

Suddenly, on my right, a gap between buildings opens up and I have a perfect, unobstructed, dead-on view of the Empire State Building.


Yankee Stadium. I sit through a bunch of platitudes, turn my tassel from the right to the left, and wonder why this ending feels unsatisfactory. Maybe it’s the largeness and impersonalness of it. Maybe it’s my complete and utter antipathy to highly symbolic and extravagant displays of pomp and circumstance involving medieval dresses and silly hats. Maybe it’s the limbo of knowing the Tisch Salute is yet to come.


Radio City Music Hall. The wait to walk is interminable. Nobody seems to know what’s going on, and it’s hot and stuffy. “I need all of you to make two rows, like in Top Gun,” says the man who works in the Film and TV registration office. Sam tells Lucas and me the story of how he once let a contact lens dry up. It’s funnier when he tells it. I spot Alex in the crowd and tap him on the shoulder. “We both have no middle names in the program,” he says. The fact that he noticed is oddly comforting.

Finally, the line starts to move, and the walk from the holding area to the stage is also interminable, full of twisting hallways and hastily-drawn arrows on paper.

The walk across the stage is over far too quickly. I settle into my seat for the ceremony, which turns out to be much more entertaining than the All-University Commencement. I wouldn’t have expected anything less, really. I spot Marco in the faculty delegation. Martin Scorsese gives an excellent speech. The chairs of each department tell their graduates how much they love them. I nod off a little. Sam and I comment on how long this is taking, how hungry we are.

After a beautiful Ragtime medley, the names of all the graduates scroll up the screens at Radio City Music Hall, in alphabetical order. Lucas’s goes by, then Sam’s; it will be a long wait for T. The crowd slowly seeps out of the house, but I keep my eyes glued to the screen even as I get up to leave; I don’t want to miss the moment. So many names I recognise, some of people I met once, some of people I know too well. The names of the people I crossed paths with once and never met again are the ones that delight me, lives that ran in parallel throughout our time at NYU, meeting here and diverging again, to know that they, too, made it out the other side.

The Ss pass, and the Ts start. I spot Alex’s name go by without a middle name, then Kirsten’s, finding myself relieved that she’s finally graduating, and then mine. It scrolls up the screen. I exhale.

And with a Zúñiga, the list is complete.

It is the perfect ending to film school, watching the cast of characters that formed my experience scroll through the screens like the ending credits of a movie. Yankee Stadium was a false ending. This is the real one.

I remove my tassel and leave my academic gown and cap at the door of Radio City Music Hall, and emerge into the Midtown afternoon.

Thoughts On Singlish

On 8 Dec 2013, I was featured in an article in The New Paper about Singlish. As a documentary filmmaker I understand perfectly how difficult it is to distill the entirety of what someone tells you into just a small snippet that (you hope) is representative of the whole, and that not only will nuances be lost, but excessive detail is often undesirable. I think Hui Theng did an admirable job retaining the essence of what I said without getting bogged down in the particulars. (Just one detail needs correcting: I've taken not one, but three linguistics classes at NYU.) That said, I think it would be a shame for my responses to Hui Theng to go to waste, so I'm republishing them here with her permission.

You mentioned you were annoyed when you saw the query "Why don't Singaporeans try to speak proper English?" Why? Was it because you felt the tone was patronising? Did the person who posted the query get back to you after your reply?

I think questions like that annoy me because implicit in the question is the assumption that one regional form of English is more "proper" than another. When phrased like this, the question assumes a prescriptive approach to language: there is a way English should be spoken, and anything that does not conform to the model is not "proper". But languages are much more complex than that - they're not static, they're constantly undergoing change, and that's a beautiful thing. So to begin with, it annoyed me that the question didn't recognise that. 

That's before I even get to the issue of Singlish: it's very easy to conflate Singlish and Singaporean English. I've already said enough about this, I think (but I will be happy to elaborate if you need me to). As a language, I think Singlish should not be regarded as lesser than English, and when Singlish gets conflated with English it's only a small step to take to call it "not proper" English, and declare that it shouldn't be spoken. The prospect of that upsets me because I think Singlish, as a language and a linguistic phenomenon, is absolutely fascinating and we should be trying to learn more about it, not pretending it doesn't exist. 

To be clear, I'm not saying prescriptivism has no place anywhere. A language learner needs to know what's acceptable in a language and what's not. But we aren't talking about people learning a language - we're talking about real-world usage of languages by native speakers, when a descriptive approach to language is needed instead, especially when a language is undergoing rapid change. 

Another reason I found it annoying is that the question shows both a lack of understanding of the linguistic reality in Singapore and a lack of openness to possible responses. I mean, does anybody deliberately use grammatically incorrect language to communicate with other people who also deliberately use exactly the same grammatically incorrect language? Of course not - someone who thinks that that is the case is refusing or unable to acknowledge that it's not that the language that is "wrong", it is that he/she has no conception of what this language is actually supposed to sound like. You might as well be asking why the Italians don't speak proper Latin to each other. 

As far as I'm aware, the anonymous original poster never got in touch with me after my response. 

Would it make any difference if you knew the nationality of the person who posed the query? For instance, how would you have replied if the person had been Singaporean, compared to a non-Singaporean?

I answered the question without reading the asker's comments. I assumed it was a Singaporean asking that question, actually - maybe because I thought only a Singaporean would undervalue his/her own language to that degree, since we are constantly admonished for using Singlish, whereas a non-Singaporean might not carry that strong bias. So - no, I would not have answered it differently. 

How did you know the anonymous person who posted the question was non-Singaporean?

The comment he/she made along with the question was "I understand they speak it as a second language, but you'd think that after years of British rule and with one of the best education systems in the world, the average Singaporean would try to correct their accent."

That's not something a Singaporean would say. That's a statement made by somebody looking in on Singapore from the outside.

People are sharing your reply online and largely giving you the virtual thumbs-up. While many are supportive of your reply, some like Liang Kaicheng felt Singaporeans have to realise we have a problem. "At best, we are very, very  good second language speakers. And given that we are in fact first-language speakers from one of the most prominent global cities today, that simply doesn't cut it." Are you surprised by the reactions? Why?

I'm more surprised by the reach that my response has had than by the reactions to it. I mean, it's not really a new debate - there's a reason for the Speak Good English campaign and a reason why it simply hasn't worked. I think most people already know where they stand on Singlish, and the question was just an opportunity for a large number of people to express how they felt about it. 

For the record, I don't disagree with Kaicheng, only his terminology. One cannot be a first- and second-language speaker of one language at the same time. If Singaporeans are not acquiring English to a level expected of a first-language speaker, that's because not everyone acquires it as a first language, and it is unreasonable to expect first-language proficiency from people who simply aren't in an environment to pick it up as a first language. 

I entirely agree that a low level of English proficiency is a problem. I think, though, that the way to solve the problem is first to draw a line between Singlish and English. The Speak Good English campaign, for instance, is entirely based on the premise that Singlish is bad English. Singlish is not bad English, because it is not English in the first place. (A comparable language situation might be Haitian Creole and French.) It is problematic when people are told that Singlish is bad English and should not be used in this or that situation, and yet everyone they know uses this "bad English" in an entirely consistent and comprehensible manner! How is anyone supposed to know what's "bad English" and what's "proper" in that situation?

If we could instead say, "You are using Singlish - could you please use English for the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with Singlish?" I think we can begin to work towards a higher level of English proficiency because then we are clearly defining what we need to do in order to be understood by English speakers, and at the same time not suppressing a perfectly valid mode of communication that feels comfortable and is comprehensible to us. 

Are you concerned about nasty comments from haters/trolls? Or fanning the flames of an Internet war of words?

I feel like I've said my piece, and readers can take it or leave it. I can't do anything about trolls or negative comments from people who have no interest in being constructive, so I just don't read the comments if I don't feel like engaging in a discussion that might turn into an argument. I'm not out there marshalling an army of people to support Singlish - if others want to turn it into a flame war, it's their prerogative and none of my business. 

How do you feel about being called a defender of Singlish online?

Haha gosh. To be honest, I don't feel strongly one way or another about being called a "defender of Singlish" at all - I wrote the answer because it was something that I felt needed to be said. It would have made no difference to me if nobody but the asker had read it. I'm definitely glad it found an audience, but if there's any long-term benefit from it having gone viral, I'd like for it to open up a more critical discussion of Singlish as a language and as a cultural reference point. I'd rather have that be the focus, rather than some silly notion of me being the "defender of Singlish". Singlish doesn't need a "defender" - it's a vibrant language with a large community of speakers who clearly love it, use it and take pride in it. 

If I asked you for three reasons why Singlish rocks, what would you tell me?

I'll give you just one reason, but it's a big one: Language reveals culture and history, even when we aren't aware of it. We know that "Singapura" means "Lion City" in Malay, but what most people don't realise is that neither "singa" nor "pura" are native Malay words - they are both words borrowed into Malay from Sanskrit. (Given that we know that lions aren't native to the Malay Peninsula it's not surprising that that is the case!) Sanskrit "pur" (city) is cognate with Greek "polis" (city or city-state), from which we get the words "politics" (things to do with citizens of a state), "metropolis" and so on.

What this points to is a history of humanity both general and specific: we are connected to the rest of the world by our language, in ways we cannot even begin to appreciate - and at the same time our language encodes our history. There is a tendency to see Singlish as a bastard child of other languages, cut off from their history and their tradition, but that is not at all the case. When we say "Singapore", we affirm our connection to a world that contains cities named Jaipur, Tripoli, Minneapolis, Naples (Neapolis)... and yet the word "Singapore" itself reflects a specific history. The Anglicised form reveals our colonial past; the fact that "singa" and "pura" came into Malay by way of Sanskrit reveals the interaction between the people of the Malay Archipelago and the Indian subcontinent well before Temasek was renamed Singapura, and everybody knows the story of Sang Nila Utama seeing the "lion". 

Let's take another example of how language encodes culture and history: kopitiam. The kopitiam is such a part of the Singaporean landscape it's hard to imagine what Singapore would look like without them. But if you look closely at the words, "kopi" is taken from Malay and "tiam" from Hokkien. So this word, which describes an integral part of Singaporean culture, is a reflection of of two cultures and languages coming together to form one. This article in the New York Times by Cheryl Tan highlights this beautifully: In Singapore, Drinking in the Kopitiam Experience. How is that not amazing?

What are your five favourite Singlish words/ phrases of all time?

Shiok: it's so hard to define, and yet every Singlish speaker knows exactly what it means. You can really see the difficulty of conveying the meaning of this word in this New York Times article: A Tiny Nation With A Big Appetite - in which Ignatius Chan defines "shiok" as "like hitting the g-spot for food" (not a bad metaphorical explanation), and the NYT proceeds to use "shiok" incorrectly.

Arrow: such a useful verb. Instead of saying "I was volunteered for an unpleasant task against my will", you can simply say "I kena arrowed" and get all the sympathy you were looking for in just five syllables.

Obiang: like "arrow", this word encapsulates a concept that would otherwise require many words to express.

Buay tahan: I like this one for the same reason I like "kopitiam" - two different languages coming together. Besides the fact that "tahan" has shades of meaning not quite captured by words like "to bear", "to endure", there's also the fact that as a phrase, we apply Hokkien tones to "tahan" when we say "buay tahan". We don't do that when we say "cannot tahan" or "tak boleh tahan".

Kope: this one is interesting for two linguistic reasons - firstly, it contrasts with "cope". It is the only case I'm aware of where Singlish shows a contrast between aspirated and unaspirated voiceless stops (this is only interesting to linguists, but it is very interesting to linguists). Secondly, nobody seems to know where this word came from. It appears that wasn't borrowed from another language, it originated here in Singapore (possibly as a modification of "to cop", but nobody knows) - that seems oddly appropriate.

Writing the Essay, Progression Three: The Unbelievable Truth

This was the third essay of my college career, written in Fall 2010 for what is now EXPOS-UA 5 Writing the Essay: Art in the World, under Professor Victoria Olsen. At the end of my college career, I can now see that what we had in Writing the Essay was a luxury: five to seven weeks of actively working on and refining one essay. I note elsewhere that the opportunity to spend this much time developing an idea is a rarity in most college classes, and precision of thought gets sacrificed in favour of expediency. I have Victoria's feedback from this essay but have, in the main, not modified the essay save for issues of punctuation and formatting, and in a couple of places, word choice.


As far as raw documentary material goes, it is hard not to feel that Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe hit paydirt with Lost in La Mancha. The film, documenting the “un-making” of Terry Gilliam’s failed epic The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, began life as a typical making-of documentary. Their role as documentarians was not to dig below the surface for factual or psychological truths not readily apparent, but simply to document, to get out of the way and let the material make its own case.

In such films, the filmmakers work with the understanding that the spectacle in front of the camera is more salient than anything the camera can create. This is true regardless of whether the documentary in question is a making-of or an unmaking-of documentary, because either way, an extraordinary drama will play itself out. As Philip French remarks in his review of Lost in La Mancha in the Guardian, “the business of making films is as interesting as the films themselves.” To mount a film production is an enormous undertaking involving not just huge sums of money over a long period of time, but also a considerable amount of faith.

In the case of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, the stakes were ratcheted much higher: the combination of a great director tackling great material so suited to him bred high expectations, attracting an investment of $32 million that would make it one of Europe’s biggest films, yet an investment that – as Gilliam himself says in Lost in La Mancha – was “way below what we would normally need to make a film like this.” As if that knowledge was not enough to deter him from such an undertaking, there was the specter of Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, a similarly adventurous production that stretched both its crew and its budget to extremes, then failed spectacularly at the box office for mysterious and mythical reasons.

Moreover, there was the small matter of the number of people who had attempted to adapt Don Quixote and failed. In The Impossible Musical, Dale Wasserman lists four major failed Quixote adaptations, including Orson Welles’ cursed production which he caustically describes as “an in-joke of sorts” in which “money ran out, actors died, and film had to be re-shot” (24). Philip French considers this one of the many advantages Fulton and Pepe had in the making of Lost in La Mancha, describing the history of cinema as “marked by the bleached bones of unmade or unfinished versions of Don Quixote,” conveniently setting the stage for Gilliam’s valiant attempt at defying historical precedent.

French also adds, “it’s as if some curse were transferred from its mad, idealistic hero to those attracted to bringing him to the screen.” What is especially curious about the spate of failures to adapt Don Quixote is that right at the end of the lengthy text, embedded in the narrative of Quixote itself, is the following warning:

For me alone was Don Quixote born, and I for him… let the weary and crumbling bones of Don Quixote rest in the grave… to mock the many [journeys] undertaken by so many knights errant, the two [journeys Don Quixote] made were enough. (Cervantes)

So, simply by taking on the challenge of adapting Don Quixote, Terry Gilliam was not just testing faith, he was tempting fate.

From the moment Gilliam began his project, it could only have been an epic success or an epic failure. When tempting the gods, there is no middle ground: either one tempts the gods and wins, from which we get the quintessential Greek comedic or epic form, or one tempts the gods and loses, from which we get the quintessential Greek tragic form.

Lost in La Mancha opens with goblin-like creatures dancing with fire torches laughing hysterically. The next thing we see is Terry Gilliam, rapt with childlike wonder, putting his little camcorder to his eye. The telephoto effect of Fulton and Pepe’s long lens gives us the impression of being close to and intimate with the action. We are close up on the devilish figures, then close on Gilliam, always enraptured by the dream being realized right before his eyes. Right from the beginning of the film, Fulton and Pepe present us with an image of a man enamored of the notion of staring gods in the face.

However, this does not explain why the film proves so effective. Even though the film obeys a traditional tragic form, this form only dictates an overarching structure – it tells us which elements constitute the story, but not how the story should be told. It does not explain why we are so engaged in the drama, so compelled to keep watching. Like an oft-heard, well-told joke, we want to hear the story even though we already know the ending, because there is joy in the telling, in the delivery of the joke itself. The tragic structure of Lost in La Mancha is not a sufficient explanation for the strength of the film: we also need to look at why the story works, why it can draw us in over and over again, why we can experience the tragedy of Gilliam’s failure afresh each time.

Ancient Greek dramatic practice provides a framework we could use as a starting point for exploration, but the specificities of the ancient Greek theater are very different from those of modern dramatic practice, and much of ancient Greek dramatic theory is no longer applicable in its original incarnation. What strikes the modern scholar or practitioner when studying Greek drama is the stringency of the form: the rhythm and cadence of the text, the role of the Chorus, the use of masks, and even the physical stage space itself are all highly stylized to fit to a rigid form.

Peter Hall, in his book Exposed By The Mask, argues that all drama requires a form that serves as a channel through which the artist can express emotion at an intensity beyond what is acceptable in daily life:

Any actor will tell you that if you wish to move an audience, you must not cry. Do not cry. If you cry, the audience will not. The actor must exercise restraint… a child who comes towards you trying not to cry (but who is filled with suppressed tears) is incredibly moving. (Hall 23)

Hall refers to such restraining, channeling forms as “masks,” invoking the masks used in ancient Greek theater. A mask is a containing, strict, almost unnatural form of expression that serves as a contract between an artist and his audience. Once the audience accepts the form, be it blank verse, sung dialogue or a physical mask, the audience also agrees to suspend their disbelief and to experience all the dramatic events presented to them as if they were real while in the full knowledge that they are not, in order to experience much more intense emotions than can be experienced in day-to-day life. The tension between the confining form of the mask and the vast extremes of emotion the mask hides creates a paradox that is infinitely engaging to experience. This is how, Hall argues, an audience can be made to live an event as horrific as Titus Andronicus cutting his hand off without having to believe that the actor has just severed his hand (27). Epic drama demands a mask. Without one, we cannot suspend our disbelief to experience drama on the epic scale. With one, we are liberated from the constraints of mundane reality.

So what is the mask of Lost in La Mancha? Why are we so engaged in the drama of Gilliam’s failed Quixote, when Lost in La Mancha does almost exactly what Hall advises against – presenting an extreme reality without a restraining form?

Everything that can go wrong goes wrong. I mean everything. Everything. Everything. Everything. I mean if you write a script and you think of the worst possible situation, you can’t make it up. – Nicola Pecorini, director of photography for The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, in Lost in La Mancha (2002)

On the second day of production, a storm approaches the shooting location. The sky has transformed from a pale blue into a sheet of billowing cloud, then abandons all pretense and turns aggressively dark. Yet principal photography continues, despite all better judgement. Jean Rochefort delivers his lines: “Yet according to the duty of my profession, I have no choice.” He follows this shortly after with, curiously enough: “Yield to heaven’s command!”

Thunder rumbles. Phil Patterson, the first assistant director, instructs the crew to secure all the equipment and to get under cover.

Terry Gilliam, in a moment of sardonic frustration, yells: “Yes! Whoa!” as the sky looms dark over the production and the lack of light casts a pall over the scene Fulton and Pepe present us. We are close up on Gilliam, but even the size of Gilliam in the frame cannot make us forget or ignore the enormity of the storm, or the futility of Gilliam’s madness against the force of nature’s madness.

As if to drive the point home, Terry Gilliam turns to Pecorini, his director of photography, and asks a dry, pointed, ironically self-aware question:

“Which is it, King Lear, or Wizard of Oz?”

A better script could not have been written.

Philip French of the Guardian describes a scene in which the film’s investors “get to see a frantic Gilliam direct Johnny Depp as he struggles with a fish beside a waterfall” as “scarcely believable in a fictional movie.” Indeed, in an article for Landmark Theatres, even Fulton and Pepe themselves wrote that if Lost in La Mancha had been fictional, no one would have believed it.

That is exactly it. A better script could not have been written, because it would not have been believed. A well-known director, making a high-stakes film destined to become a classic, has his equipment washed away by a freak storm the day after his audio recordings are ruined by the sound of NATO planes flying overhead and a week after his lead actor unilaterally delays his arrival on set due to back pain: that is exactly the kind of drama too indulgent to be taken seriously, without a restraining form to channel the sheer ridiculousness of the events towards a satisfying climax. If such a script were to be written, it would not be a drama or a tragedy as Lost in La Mancha is – it would be a comedy, akin to David Mamet’s State and Main or Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain. The comedic form is a contract in which the audience agrees to abide by unrealistic rules of engagement, to suspend their disbelief, in exchange for a big comedic payoff at the end. In a documentary there is no need for the audience to suspend their disbelief, because they are prepared to watch something as long as it is true.

If the contract of most drama requires a rigid and unnatural form, then the contract of the documentary requires veracity. The audience agrees to be engaged in the material on the condition that the events portrayed did happen, that everything that happens in front of the camera has some basis in reality – not simply an emotional or spiritual reality, but a factual reality that can be independently verified. That is a documentary’s mask, perhaps the most rigid and unbending mask of all – the material must be rooted not only in truth, but in fact.

Within the constraints of this form, any scenario is acceptable, however extreme or impossible it may seem. If the paradox of the theater and of fictional film is that audiences engage with the truth in the unbelievable, the paradox of the documentary form is that audiences engage with the unbelievable in the full knowledge that it is true. For this reason, documentary audiences feel violated when they discover they have been tricked into believing something that is not true, the same way audiences are repulsed by excessively theatrical drama. In both cases, the artist has broken the formal contract and reminded them that the story they are watching, that they are living, is untrue. This is why Pecorini says in Lost in La Mancha, “You can’t make it up.”

In the light of this understanding, one could perhaps argue that Fulton and Pepe would have been able to tell a fine story regardless of what actually happened with Gilliam’s production. Like a fully-wound wind-up toy, all the parameters for an extremely dramatic story had already been set and all that was left was to watch the drama unfold. It did not matter exactly how the drama of the production played out – it was always going to be epic, with or without their direct involvement. All they had to do was to get out of the way and let the material make its own case. Most importantly, it was always going to dare the viewer to disbelieve its account of an epic drama, and turn out to be unbelievably true.


Works Cited

  • Cervantes, Miguel. Don Quixote. Trans. Edith Grossman. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005. Print.
  • French, Philip. “Down the shoot.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited. 4 Aug. 2002. Web. 30 Nov. 2010.
  • Fulton, Keith and Louis Pepe. “A Curse of Mirrors.” Lost in La Mancha. Landmark Theatres. 2003. Web. 30 Nov 2010.
  • Hall, Peter. Exposed By The Mask. New York: Oberon, 2000. Print. Lost in La Mancha. Dir. Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe. Perf. Terry Gilliam, Jeff Bridges and Tony Grisoni. Quixote Films, 2002. Film.
  • Wasserman, Dale. The Impossible Musical. New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2003. Print.