Perhaps disheartened, always undaunted: Mark Hay returns with this week’s movie picks.
So it would appear that the Manhattanville development project has hit a little snag this past week. And, coincidentally, that your reviewer has hit a few snags in his life as well. So this week, Bwog celebrates the unexpected hitches in life – flying by the seat of your pants, not really knowing if you are or aren’t in control, and just praying to make it unscathed from day to day – with three movies of struggles and hitches.
What was for director Werner Herzog a tragedy and a flirtation with insanity has become one of the most enduring representations of mankind’s maddening challenges to nature and his losses along the way. Because of Herzog’s obsession with faithful recreations and displays, his dedication to on-location shooting, the filming of this project became the story it portrayed, and suffered along the way all the snags and snafus of its title character and more. A strange collision of location, director, character, and story turn what should be a passable and convoluted action story into a documentarian exploration of man versus wild – and the crushing reality of it is captivating.Herzog stumbled upon the story of Brian Fitzgerald (known as Fitzcarraldo by locals who could not pronounce his Irish name) and fell in love not so much with the content and truth, but with the image of it. In the story, Fitzcarraldo (Klaus Kinski) lives in a small Peruvian city at the dawn of the twentieth century and yearns for the opera. A man of many failures, he still dreams of making it big on rubber sales and building an opera house in the jungle town of Iquitos to attract his favorite tenor, Enrico Caruso. He learns of one last untapped patch of rubber, though to be unreachable as the river in the area is full of rapids. Fitzcarraldo, though, notices that one could simply cross land between two rivers and exploit the area, so he decides to do just that – haul a three-story steamer uphill through the Amazon rainforest using conscripted indigenous laborers. Tragedy and insanity ensure.
And so they ensued for Herzog as well – the subject of the concurrent documentary Burden of Dreams (1982). The lust for reality led Herzog to shirk special effects, to hire Amazonian Indians and buy a three-story steamer, to film five hundred miles away from any city, and to hire madman Klaus Kinski. The slow devolution of Herzog and his crew into madness, the quiet observation of their struggles, failures and building crises, passed of somehow as a fiction, cannot be rivaled. This is the greatest reality show ever made.
Miller’s Crossing (1990)
I have in the past spouted off on my particular and almost irrational love for the Coen brothers – and now I shall do so once more, although Miller’s Crossing is not a typical Coen brothers film. As the story goes, the filming of the movie was so steeped in doubt and turmoil, in unexpected failures and miseries, that it led the duo to write Barton Fink – the particularly apocalyptic tale of a raving mad playwright gone to Hollywood – about their experiences. Additionally, the stories in both Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink stray somewhat from the standard of the Coen playbook – there is something less bumbling, something less acute, about the cock-ups of the major players, some continual doubt over what is controlled and what is spiraling out of control, and only a few scenes offer any hint of the hero’s true grasp of his situation.
On its face, this is just another gangster, prohibition-era New York film. Irish mob boss Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) controls the police, the politics, and the crime of the city, and the young Tommy Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) stands at his right hand, advisor and enforcer. But Tommy has a gambling problem, a drinking problem, and a secret relationship with Leo’s girl, Vera Bernbaum (Marcia Gay Harden), and it is hard to tell just what control he has over these conditions. When rival mob boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) wants to kill Vera’s bookie brother, Bernie (John Turturro), though Leo’s love gets the better of him and Tommy, pragmatic and calculating, begins to schism from his mentor. Thus commences the gang war, the wavering fortunes of Tommy, and his desperate, seat-of-the-pants machinations to restore order and keep his life. And the few moments, like that at Miller’s Crossing, where Tommy seems to just momentarily lose control, at his wits end, out of tricks, only to rise from the dead once more.
Perhaps it is some rule of making a film about a tenuous and faltering, but confident, protagonist – perhaps some of the ego and the doubt and the loss creeps across the fourth wall. And then it seeps right back into the film, the reality of the situation. It’s a beautiful and desperate dance and it colors this gangster story with an urgency so often lost in the genre.
Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
When F.W. Murnaumade Nosferatu in 1922, he used a man named Max Schreck to play the vampiric Count Orlock. Schreck notoriously went into such a deep form of method acting that he spent nearly all the filming as a vampire. For all lack of special effects, for all age, for all the quaint nature of “Nosferatu,” Schreck is still creepy as hell. He is a vampire. Or at least, that was the explanation that made the most sense to director E. Elias Merhige.
Merhige fancifully draws up a sketch of the filming of Nosferatu under the assumption that Schreck was a real vampire and examines, in a stylized and terrifying way, the challenges, sacrifices (literal here), and compromises directors must make to escape the pitfalls of their films. In the film world, Murnau (John Malkovich), completely uninterested in any life but his own and the film he is making, strikes a deal with the vampire Count Orlock, going under the name of Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe): if Schreck will star in his movie, he will allow him to feast on the leading actress Greta (Catherine McCormack). Murnau lies to his cast and crew, pretending that Schreck is merely a dedicated actor, and convincing them to accept the death of his cinematographer as a fluke, all the while fighting with the raging desires of the monster he has brought onstage.
The metaphor of the film is not exactly subtle: stars are monsters, directors are sociopaths, and everyone else is caught in the self-destruction of their paths. Those in film are doomed to a life of hardship and snags, ego and hard-falling failure. But the film’s imagery, not fully but partially calling up the eternal creepiness of Murnau, is a fascinating watch, and a terrifying realization of the struggles inherent in the profession.
Posters from IMDB.com