Monday, December 16, 2013

Werner and me (Burden of Dreams)

Yep, back to the salt mines, last full five-day work week for a while, blah blah blah. I know what time it really is, time to get back to DOXEMBER!

Our next installment of "documentaries about movies which may or may not be on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list" is Burden of Dreams, which concerns the making of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo. (You may recall this was the very first movie I selected for the rest of the 1001 Movies Blog Club to watch when I was given the chance to do so.) Burden of Dreams makes for an interesting companion piece to Hearts of Darkness, as it happens. Both are about shooting films on location in untamed places, and both productions were besieged by numerous problems and setbacks. Eerily similar problems and setbacks, truth be told. Apocalypse Now saw Coppola replace Harvey Keitel with Martin Sheen as THATGUY, and Martin Sheen later suffered a heart attack which interrupted filming for a time. Fitzcarraldo was originally to star Jason Robards, but he was felled by severe amoebic dysentery, interrupting filming, and was then replaced by Klaus Kinski. Weather played an enormous factor in both productions as well: too much rain destroyed many of the sets for Apocalypse Now, whereas the longest recorded dry spell made it impossible to move Fitzcarraldo's steamship off a river sandbar for months on end.

The major difference, arguably, is that Apocalypse Now is widely regarded as a classic and a masterpiece, while Fitzcarraldo is a quirky obscurity. It's a provocative reminder that single-minded, near-fanatical dedication to completing an artistic endeavor sometimes leads to something enduring and sometimes leads to something much more ephemeral.

The main reason to watch the documentary, beyond a nominal interest in how certain elements of Fitzcarraldo came together, especially the centerpiece steamship-over-the-mountain sequence, is the opportunity to see Herzog himself address the camera and hold forth on his thoughts on the movie and the artistic process in general. Of course, Herzog's viewpoint is omnipresent throughout his films, and you could argue that in an abstract but very real way he's constantly addressing the camera whenever it's rolling. But there's something valuable in the more immediate experience of the director articulating ideas in spoken words. Sometimes it's a bit unsettling, but always interesting.

I mentioned back when I reviewed Fitzcarraldo that my wife and I had seen Herzog's Grizzly Man together. That was years and years ago, but to this day we still quote that documentary at one another. Every once in a while it's the subject of the doc, Tim Treadwell, whom we quote, but far more often it's the voiceover by Herzog himself. (The go-to bit is the point at which Herzog, in refutation of Treadwell's claim to have looked into the eyes and souls of wild grizzly bears and seen some kind of empathy, meets the beasts' gaze himself and his disembodied Teutonic voice states definitively "I see no compassion.") And there's so much more of Herzog in Burden of Dreams. In Grizzly Man, he knew he wasn't the subject and he should weigh in sparingly, but in Burden of Dreams he accepts that he is the subject, and holds very little back.

Some of the full disclosure made by Herzog is illuminating. I remember being put off by what struck me as too much undifferentiated footage of the rainforest in Fitzcarraldo, far more than was necessary to evoke the time and place of the story. But Herzog makes it clear in Burden of Dreams that he is utterly fascinated by the profuse and chaotic riot of life in the river basins, which explains why he literally could not turn the camera away from it. And some of the revelations are distressing, such as a conversation between Herzog and a mechanical engineer who was brought on to achieve the practical effect of hauling the ship up the 40% grade of a muddy ridge. The engineer wanted to regrade the slope to 20%, and Herzog refused because he feared losing the central metaphor he was trying to express in the film. The engineer then quit because he didn't want to be responsible for a project with a very high chance of killing people if something went wrong. (Herzog hired different engineers, and thankfully no one died.)

It's always going to be somewhat disorienting to peer behind the curtain at how the magic is made. But next up for DOXEMBER I'll be checking out a feature about the making of a movie where the magic never managed to come together after all, so stay tuned for that!

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