“The land where God did not finish creation” – Fitzcarraldo.
Recently when I reviewed The Omen (1976) I mentioned the cursed production that film endured. The production of Fitzcarraldo (1982) whilst not cursed in the same way was probably a more tortured production, one which spawned the infamous making of doco Burden of Dreams (1982). Of course that old cliché that there is a fine line between genius and insanity probably holds more truth than many of us would care to admit. Director Werner Herzog and his leading man Klaus Kinski straddled that line through their whole careers and in reality probably spent large swathes of time on either side of it, which is certainly a recipe for on-set fireworks.
In reality though, little of Herzog and Kinski’s on-set warring permeates the film on screen which is assuredly made with none of the raggedness you would expect from such a production. The story focuses on the character of Brian Sweeney ‘Fitzcarraldo’ Fitzgerald, played by Kinski, a man who desires above all else to build an opera house deep in the Amazon. He wants it with such a manic fervour that his desire has in a way broken him and sent him over the edge. For Fitzgerald, opera “gives expression to our deepest feelings” and that is something he is desperate to be able to share with all those he comes into contact with. In a get rich quick scheme he decides to travel up the Amazon in order to claim a patch of rubber trees. It is an arduous journey which culminates in transporting his huge ship straight over a huge mountain. So much of Fitzcarraldo feels like a Western. Iquitos is referred to as a frontier town. Brian and his lover Molly, who runs a bordello are very much the new outsiders in this slightly lawless place. Not only because they are not locals, but because they also do not fit in with the other blow-ins who are mostly ultra-rich rubber barons. Then there is the long perilous journey into the unknown where the ‘natives’ pose a serious threat. Not only that, the journey is for territory that can hopefully be exploited for wealth.
Having said all of that though, there is no doubting that the psychological side of this film is like no Western that has ever been made and in a good way, it is kind of hard to work out exactly what Fitzcarraldo is truly about. Going into it, I thought it was about a dude trying to carry a boat over towering mountains. That is part of it, but it takes over an hour and a half to get to that part of the story. It is also I guess a film about opera, a form I know next to nothing about. Or perhaps it is more-so about the transformative power of art. Sometimes I feel a similar fervour for film that Fitzgerald feels for opera. The quote above is one from right near the start of the film and accompanies a wide shot of the jungle, which is immediately contrasted with a palatial house. This is also in part what the film is about, the clash of cultures and the exploitation of cultures by Western influences. There is for so long in the film a forcing of ideas on the indigenous population of the Amazon. But in a crushing sequence, probably not in the way you would expect, the locals have their stark revenge when both the viewer, and the characters in the film, perhaps least expect it. In the end though, the film is a nigh on indescribable fever dream simultaneously serious, psychological, weird, absurdist and bold whilst all these elements crash into and tear at one another.
Fitzcarraldo is essential viewing for any fan of Herzog and is one of his best fictional features. The film is complete with stunning visuals as the massive, battered vessel travels first along the river and then over a mountain. These visuals are the backdrop for a psychologically challenging journey that will make you think, ponder and puzzle.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
2014 Progress: 17/101
My March viewing pretty much covered the cinematic spectrum. Some rubbish big budget releases were offset by somewhat obscure Hitchcock classics, phenomenal documentaries and even academic film. Share your thoughts on these in the comments section below.
- The Look of Love (2013), Michael Winterbottom – Coogan and Winterbottom make a pretty good double act. Coogan has evolved into quite the performer whilst Winterbottom is a very assured shooter and the early parts of this film are nicely stylised. There is not too much plot, but the film is nicely put together and has a decent script and period design. Overall it is a bit unfocused and perhaps a bit of a missed opportunity to peer deeper into what is shown. But as a portrait of a not particularly nice rich man, it succeeds. And some moments rise above, such as Imogen Poots singing over the final credits.
- The Little Mermaid (1989), Ron Clements and John Musker – This is a combination of sublime design and terrible (even by Disney standards) morality. There is great, evocative presentation of life under the sea with an artistic, almost hand painted animation style. Disney’s sense of character is so spot-on here, establishing Sebastian and Flounder as characters to latch onto in very quick time. But the themes are terrible. I think this picture my fiancée scribbled in my notebook pretty much sums up the film:
- Miss Representation (2011), Jennifer Siebel Newsom – This doco, which focuses on the representation of women in the media, straightforwardly presents the overwhelming power of the media simply due to the quantum of consumption. This force is able to shape what is most important about women and also shape how young men consider women. From a filmmaking perspective, this is not scintillating stuff. But backed up with shocking stats (depression amongst girls doubled from 2000-2010 for e.g.) and personal insights from a varied range of talking heads including Margaret Cho and Condoleezza Rice, it effectively gets the important message across.
- Lifeboat (1944), Alfred Hitchcock – This is one of Hitch’s first high concept flicks, set entirely on a lifeboat funnily enough. It works on a bunch of levels and is also really quite shocking for the time on a similar number of levels. Not everyone lives. There are some great philosophical discussions when a Nazi soldier is picked up. For this to work, the script had too be really sharply written and it is. And even when limited by his conceit, Hitch can direct the shit out of a film. The film functions as a portrait of life at sea as well as a morally complex, bleak portrait of war. Up there with Hitch’s best, not something I say lightly.
- The White Diamond (2004), Werner Herzog – This may be my favourite Herzog doco. The German director seems to be a genius at bringing the most incredible stories out of people. The film starts off with an examination of the history of the airship before focusing on the specific story of a modern day adventurer looking to bring them back. Herzog is also highly original in the way he structures his docos, hinting at the past and even giving small spoilers of what is to come. Like a Simpsons episode, a Herzog doco is never about just what it appears on the surface. This is one of his best.
- Sin Tierra, No Somos Shuar (2010), Stacey Williams – A refreshingly watchable ethnographic film. Both very specific, but also quite relatable to numerous other places where there is a conflict between traditional land usage and mining interests. Presents the indigenous population as masters of incredible self sufficiency, which is something all should learn from. It’s pretty short and you can check it out on Vimeo here.
Not Worth Watching:
- Non-Stop (2014), Jaume Collet-Serra – This is far from a complete write-off, with a smattering of sharp, tense moments. But much of it is a combination of terribly clichéd characterisation and a vastly underdeveloped narrative world. The ending in particular hits home with all the power of a wet fish. The whole thing is just far too pedestrian in its pace. The joke has been made by many – Non-Stop is not quite non-stop enough.
- Monuments Men (2014), George Clooney – This is no near miss, it is an utter failure. The script is inept, there is no goal, no stakes and most absurdly no real enemy. As the trailer suggested would be the case, the film struggles deeply to control the tone. So you are left with a WWII film with no with weight and an ol’ fashioned farce with no laughs. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I would never have believed that a film with this cast would be so not worth your time.
- Pompeii (2014), Paul W.S. Anderson – Utterly terrible. The script is nothing short of embarrassing, with one eye rolling line after another. The beginning and end of the positives is Kiefer Sutherland hamming it up like a beast. There is a decent disaster flick to be made about Pompeii. Buy here it is saddled with an unnecessary and lame gladiator plot. The eruption is actually an afterthought, barely mentioned. The whole film is utterly stupid. Who knew a volcanic eruption could be so boring. Props to them for ending though, which took some guts (or would have if anyone cared).
If you only have time to watch one Lifeboat
Avoid at all costs Monument Men
Jack Reacher (2012), which from now on will be referred to as Werner Herzog as Villain, is the adaptation of the sixth book in Lee Child’s wildly successful series of thriller novels. I feel much the same way about Werner Herzog as Villain as Homer Simpson does about the film Man Getting hit by Football in one of my favourite ever Simpsons episodes. Other films may have more heart, action and better scripts than Werner Herzog as Villain, but Werner Herzog as Villain has Werner Herzog as villain.
Unfortunately, having Werner Herzog as villain was not quite enough to save Werner as Villain for me. Nope, not even the most inspired piece of casting I can recall saves this film from its flaws. Things start relatively promisingly too, with a brutal opening featuring an indiscriminate sniper attack. Also, Richard Jenkins shows up and I do love me some Richard Jenkins. But before too long the really shitty script begins to make itself known and takes things over. Tom Cruise shows up too, bringing very little with him to be honest. He is meant to be a total badass, but he just couldn’t pull it off. He just has this really smarmy presence, which is weird because I thought that Reacher was meant to be more of a salt of the earth, ‘everyman’ type of guy (that was definitely the impression I got from the only Reacher novel I read). The only couple of good moments were included in the trailer, leaving essentially the only reason to watch the movie the fact that Werner Herzog is the villain. The film is just so bloody long too. Seriously, a film like this really only needs to be 90 minutes or so, but this just keeps stretching out far over the 2 hour mark.
Just to be clear though, the fact that this Werner Herzog as Villain has Werner Herzog playing the bad guy is as incredible in practice as it is in theory. His Herzogian voice just makes for such an iconic character and he brings something decidedly disconcerting to the role. Herzog has a cracking villain face as well and his character works well. Because if anyone can play a character who ate his own fingers and make it seem believable, it is Werner Herzog (we’re talking about a man who once ate his own frickin shoe). Herzog genuinely brings an intensity to proceedings that is sorely lacking from the rest of the film. If only Tom Cruise in the titular role brought anywhere near that level of presence. Indeed, the only other actor who is on Herzog’s level in this film is the charismatic young Aussie Jai Courtney as his main henchman. This is the first role I have seen Courtney in, but let’s just say I was very impressed, and it gives me a lot of hope for his upcoming turn as John McClane’s son in A Good Day to Die Hard (2013).
If you are a huge Werner Herzog fan like me, Werner Herzog as Villain is probably worth your while. Even then, just wait for it on Blu-ray and in all seriousness you could just fast forward through any scenes not featuring Herzog and you would not miss much. For everyone else though, don’t even bother at all. The woeful script and general averageness of the rest of it does not really make it worth the effort.
Verdict: Schooner of Carlton Draught
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I could give you a whole bunch of reasons why Reacher is probably going to be worth checking out when it is released in January even though this trailer is somewhat middling. I could tell you about the awesome cast members or the very popular source thriller book series by Lee Child.
But let me break down for you nice and simple like why I will be rushing out to see Jack Reacher on opening day, and why you should be too. Werner Herzog plays the villain. Let me copy and paste that sentence in case you think you misread it. Werner Herzog plays the villain. Crazy as batshit Werner. One of the greatest living directors. A man who once lost a bet that saw him cook and eat his own shoe on screen. A man who’s explosive relationship with Klaus Kinski saw him create brilliant films such as Nosferatu (1979) and Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) but also saw the director threaten to murder his star. For some reason, this guy is playing the bad guy in an action flick. I gotta see that.
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