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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Magnificent Obsessions
by Donald Levit

Directors’ Cuts and DVD Special Features suggest that moviegoers may find Behind the Scenes and Making Of’s at least equally interesting as the original features. In advance of the current crop were two documentaries arguably superior to the fine films they cover: Les Blank’s 1982 Burden of Dreams, chronicling Werner Herzog’s obsessed catastrophe-ridden Peruvian Amazon-location making of Fitzcarraldo, itself about an obsessed dreamer; and the Bahr-and-Hickenlooper Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, released a dozen years after 1979 Apocalypse Now and, mixing Francis Ford Coppola’s wife Eleanor’s footage with interviews, depicting the obsessive director/writer’s disaster-prone project in Philippine jungles.

Just shown at the Museum of Modern Art, Blank’s ninety-five minutes is of a piece with his usual detailed, minimum-narration (Candace Laughlin), direct camera approach to ethnic or regional peoples, cooking and music, and it followed by two years his Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, exactly what that title states -- the German having lost a bet to the American -- and included as Bonus Feature in the DVD of BD.

Not question-answer interviews, headshots are nearly entirely of a tall, slim Herzog pointing to a map, explaining his purposes and the reasons behind such-and-such a technique, philosophizing Romantically about indigenes vs. Europeans, and extolling while at the same time lashing out at the unformed prehistoric land of excess and death that had also been the location ten years earlier for his film about a delusional megalomaniacal Aguirre, Wrath of God.

The controversial New German Cinema director-writer-producer invested three years in preparation, took another quarter of that time in actual shooting, ran out of money and into logistical difficulties while collaborators ran out of patience, only to find the project nearly stillborn when amoebic dysentery felled Jason Robards, Jr., and recording commitments drew Mick Jagger back to Civilization. The Rolling Stones’s part was written out, and all started again from scratch with a hurried-in Klaus Kinski.

Commenting obscenely about his fourth teaming with the director (including Aguirre), the actor looks as crazed as the character he portrays, a poor Irishman whose name gets corrupted and who dreams of bringing Caruso and Verdi to the wild interior of South America, for which the three-storey, three-hundred-ton steamship Molly Aida must be moved up a thirty-degree hill into a parallel tributary. Claudia Cardinale is Molly, madam of a high-end brothel and his lover and backer, but BD devotes scant frames to the glamorous Italian and not all that many to the Polish-German actor, either.

Faces of indigenes are caressed by Blank’s own camera, which lingers over arrow-making, masato fermenting and weaving. But there is trouble in Noble Savage Paradise. Warring tribes and nations (Ecuador and Peru) raid one another, lumber and oil interests interfere, annual rains come too late or early or heavy or not at all, accidents and disease take a toll among white and red skins; and, quartered separately so as not to have area cultures compromised by Western ways -- the loss of “the soccer ball is a serious problem” -- the natives quarrel over sex, property and wages. In a world of untamable vegetation and mad men, it is not incongruous that a Franciscan missionary approves as a steadying influence the bringing in of prostitutes.

Nor does Herzog’s outward shell appear cracked as he confesses that “I shouldn’t make films any more. I should go to a lunatic asylum.” Gramophone music soothes the savage breast, and operatic human excess defines director and obsession as well as his lead character. I Am My Films is the title of an earlier documentary about Herzog, and whether he or Fitzcarraldo would have been wiser to throw in the towel is irrelevant. Each achieves a triumph of sorts.

The last take of Fitzcarraldo came in November 1981, “not only my dream. They’re your dreams, as well. The only difference is that I can articulate them, it is my duty to chronicle what we are.” Half a failure is also half a victory.

(Released by Flower Films and not rated by MPAA.)

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