The Exhilaration of Being Shot At Unsuccessfully
by Zack Anderson, December 2, 2009
The famous and also infamous director Werner Herzog is giving seminars for aspiring filmmakers (which the Rand Corp. pegs at 75% of the U.S. popu lation). Included in the curriculum is: “…the art of lockpicking. Traveling on foot. The exhilaration of being shot at unsuccessfully. The athletic side of filmmaking. The creation of your own shooting per mits. The neutralization of bureaucracy. Guerrilla tac tics. Self reliance.” Known for a monomaniacal pursuit of his goals that would make Napoleon blush, Herzog warns: “Censorship will be enforced. There will be no talk of shamans, of yoga classes, nutritional values, herbal teas, discovering your Boundaries, and Inner Growth.” I guess he doesn’t want to be a public school administrator.
Herzog’s aesthetic was forged by a childhood in post-WW II Germany. He stole a 35mm camera from the Munich Film School when he was a teenager and began making movies. He considers the appropriation of the equipment a non-crime for one simple reason: he needed it. Later, he worked as a steel worker in order to purchase film stock, beginning a career obsessed with brutal, beautiful tragedy in an age where many “directors” believe high art is a Disney trilogy about dancing sphincters in love with radiant spleens, set in the plantation South. While in the Amazon jungle shooting “Fitzcarraldo,” a native chief tain offered to cut the throat of the volatile actor Klaus Kinski, who was threatening the director with words and fists. Herzog, who chronicled his wolfish relationship with Kinski in “My Best Fiend,” explained to his native friend that he had not yet fin ished shooting Kinski's scenes. For his part, Kinski’s nickname for his friend and fellow German was “Adolf Hitler.”
First becoming famous for his fiction films, in the last decade Herzog has created brilliant documenta ries such as “Little Dieter Needs To Fly” and “Grizzly Man.” He believes that “objective truth is baloney,” and that all films/hearts/Sunday afternoons in the high desert should be aimed with “the quest for truth.” He fled San Francisco for Los Angeles because he found the City by the Bay too petite bourgeois, too sani tized, too precious, preferring instead LA’s arid asphalt tentacles, its police helicopters and superficial glow of the fake tans and neon-lit strip malls featuring Cambodian doughnuts, all-night video rentals, cos metic dentistry, surf Nazis, pilates by appointment, pet grooming, and chow mein by the pound. The director enjoys the klieg-light grittiness of the super-metropolis that breach-birthed the noir ballets of James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, the Black Dahlia, and O.J.’s white Bronco curtsying down the 405. City of Angels, city of backlot blowjobs and also endless despair, it is the perfect milieu for Herzog’s semi-marketable lunacy. He doesn’t make films so much impose his will on the celluloid — actors, script, loca tion, budget be damned. Sometimes he succeeds (see: “Aguirre: The Wrath of God,” “Nosferatu,” and “Fitzcarraldo”). Sometimes he falls short (e.g., “Rescue Dawn”). Yet all of his films reveal an obsession with Mankind’s struggle against a Nature that is at turns beautiful and bleak, but always savage and unyielding. In Herzog’s world, humans are kind animal lovers eaten by grizzly bears, weary travelers get their veins sliced open by aristocratic vampires, and colonialist explorers are murdered by hostile natives and malaria in tropical jungles far from home. Mankind’s attempts at happiness and divinity are revealed as dire poems written in sand, Grecian Urns fashioned from bones and mysterious teeth.
At his best, Herzog is as powerful and absurd as watching the heavyweight champ deliver a right cross to the unsuspecting chin of a midget autograph seeker; so surprising and cruel that you just have to laugh. And with “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,” Herzog is in top mercenary shape.
Abel Ferrara wrote and directed the first “Bad Lieu tenant” starring Harvey Keitel. Released in 1992, it was the second American film ever to receive an NC-17 rating, and created a mild stir among heroin-snorting cinephiles who nodded and cheered, and out raged religious prudes whose bubble-wrapped puden das were violated by Ferrara’s blasphemies, which included the inevitable rape of a nun. Even though I liked the film, Ferrara’s assault seemed not so much shocking as an obligatory truism, as trite a cliché as the White House arranging a photo op of President Obama playing basketball with the Goldman Sachs jayvees. In Ferrara’s story, Keitel is a corrupt New York detective who plants evidence, rips off suspects, snorts coke, slow dances with hookers, snorts more coke, assaults Sisters of Mercy (whereby he betrays his covenant with God by depositing more than Faith in the holy vessel), and in general acts like a man hired by Satan to wreak havoc on a New York City (which, truth be told, probably deserves it).
Flash forward 17 years. The producers of the first “Bad Lieutenant” still own the rights and have decided to remake it with Herzog, Nicholas Cage, and the City of New Orleans. Cut to that former purveyor of supreme blasphemies, Mr. Ferrara, who is so dis turbed by the remake plans that he proclaims his fer vent hope that anyone associated with the new pro ject dies a painful death. Perhaps God does have a sense of irony. In response, Herzog says he’s never heard of the original film or even Ferrara. The rumor is that Herzog, reacting to Ferrara’s public bitterness, insisted on keeping “Bad Lieutenant” in the title, instead of simply calling the film “Port of Call New Orleans.”
But I am thankful for Ferrara’s initial atonal rhythms, if only because it has spawned Herzog’s bril liant and melodious riff. The second “Bad Lieutenant” is a Keats-like thing of beauty, if your thing is the comic exploration of America in all of its corrupt, banal, abusive, violent, sorrowful, ironic glory. This isn’t a melting pot so much as dirty bomb with a fuse of shabby nobility that refuses to go out (like the rash you picked up in a coffee bar three blocks from Lenin’s Tomb). It is dynamite soup for the cinemati cally starving, and Herzog flavors this rich broth with juicy, bloody chunks of Hurricane Katrina, reptilian hallucinations straight out of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” race relations, good hearted working girls, big time college football, riverboat gambling ennui, serving and protecting, the hypocritical futility of the war on drugs, gangster homicides, exasperated book ies, paranoia, alcoholic parents, spoiled rich kids, CCTV, illegal immigration, the sanctioned animal torture that is bull fighting, harmonica blues, feminist undertones, absurd violence, a golden lab with no name, and heaps of comic honesty that make no sense except are profoundly and obviously true.
This is Faulkner mixed with the Three Stooges and blended on high with a couple kilos of pure Bolivian Marching Powder, a handful of smack, beer nuts, reefer, silk underwear, and a case of ice cold Dixie beer. If this sounds like something your doctor didn’t order, then change insurance plans, pal, and take a good look around. Crocodiles are invading our swimming pools. One out of every eight families is on food stamps. We bailed out Wall Street but Wall Street says they can’t afford to bail out Main Street. What’s an honest cop battling a back injury to do but snort blow and smoke pot in order to stay healthy enough to catch the crooks? The empire shatters into a million pieces and its jagged shards stab and cut at all of our most secret places. In order to stop the bleeding we all pop, snort, drink, smoke, inject, watch, join, wank, pray, diet, or enlist any guru or ointment or prick-quack Freudian in hopes of forestalling the monsters lurking on the edge of the darkness.
And it’s this honest appraisal of the situation on the ground that makes this film a small miracle. Her zog says, Look, the monsters are here, we all know the monsters are here, so let’s cut the shit and hand-wringing and get on with the show.
Luckily for us, the brilliant star lighting our path forward with a shadowy, enervating glow is Cage’s stunning portrayal of Lieutenant McDonagh. This is an anti-hero for the ages, Don Quixote with a .357 Magnum and a loaded crack pipe. Cage’s McDonagh is on a drug binge the entire film, which also fuels his odd quest for justice. He’s looking for a killer thug named Big Fate, another small but profound joke. And towards Big Fate Cage (and Herzog) hurls the audience at dizzying, stomach-churning speeds, over bridges and into swamps and on white love seats sur rounded by ghosts and cheap plaster likenesses of the weeping Virgin Mary. Another sniff, another puff, another gun shoved into the mouth of a scumbag in a row house filled with hungry babies. If Herzog is right, there are no virgins anymore, just people wait ing to get violated.
But if history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce, riffing on Marx hasn’t been this much fun since dry-humping on your parents’ sofa while “Dr. Strangelove” flickers on the television. Happy trails to all of us.