Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Fitzcarraldo Redux

The open-air cinema at Parc de la Villette wound up for another year the other night. It went out on a fittingly high note, with Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, the B-movie par excellence, a film whose garish wash of second-hand accents and cutprice larger-than-life figures ought to have made it the quintessential Europudding. But it's a surprisingly sophisticated parable on the folly of industrial filmmaking and the maddening need for compromise and tolerance in order to mount the damn thing. Herzog, like his contemporary and countryman Fassbinder had - and still has - an instinctive feel for welding themes to robust, physical drama. Lars Von Trier (along with, perhaps, Tsai Ming-Liang) is one of the few filmmakers like that left though Von Trier is a great deal more calculating than the humanist cynics Herzog or Fassbinder.

The film also reminded me of a passage in a recent lengthy review of Peter Ackroyd's Thames: Sacred River by Iain Sinclair (that pairing strikes me as akin to the Beatles reviewing the Stones).

The corpse-fishers of Our Mutual Friend were recast as heritage television, while planning regulations for the Isle of Dogs, that unlucky swamp, were shredded for the construction of a shelf of towers. Michael Heseltine, a wild-haired, mad-eyed visionary (Klaus Kinski to Margaret Thatcher’s Werner Herzog), pushed Docklands across the Thames to the East Greenwich Peninsula, Bugsby’s Marshes. The obsessive, neurotic and delusional Millennium Dome concept was a remake of Fitzcarraldo, a film in which suborned natives (expendable extras) drag a paddle-steamer over a steep hill in order to get around an inconvenient bend in the river, the point being to bring Caruso, one of the gods of opera, to an upstream trading post. An insane achievement mirrored in the rebranding of the Dome, after its long and expensive limbo, as the O2 Arena: a popular showcase for cryogenic rock acts, artists presumed dead or missing in action, for Norma Desmond divas and the real Michael Jackson, a trembling skin-graft mask cursed with eternal youth. Parrot-scream arias and the cough of angry engines, as punters try to exit the gridlocked car park, carry across a broad expanse of oily water. Thames, Amazon, Congo: crumbling regimes like nothing better than a rumble in the jungle. A world-class photo-opportunity summit in some hangar on the edge of a dock, between old railway lines and a new airport. A major exclusion zone around a place nobody has any good reason to visit. A geography that only makes sense when viewed from a helicopter.

And there was a challenge to Herzog's own established modus operandi with his f(r)iend and regular collaborator Klaus Kinski. The Indians who played extras in the film offered to rid him of the troublesome leading man. But, no, that would be for another film. At least Herzog managed to channel the animosity towards Kinski to good effect.


Gaw said...

Excellent passage - and fancy finding such a brilliant analogy lying around like that. I will never see Hezza in the same light.

Funnily enough I've just been reading about how Herzog was shot in the course of an interview but carried on as if nothing had happened: 'it is not significant'. It's on YouTube.