Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Conquest of the Useless by Werner Herzog

Anyone who has seen the wild-eyed, white suited Klaus Kinski gesticulating wildly into the South American jungle in Herzog's film "Fitzcarraldo" knows what obsession is. The motion picture tells the story of a European who decides to build an opera house in the middle of the jungle in order to lure Enrico Caruso to perform there. But after a boat trip down the Pongo, our hero decides his multi-ton steamboat must be towed over a mountain to the other side of the river to complete the trip. Only his faith in his own lunacy, and the help of scores of inscrutable Indians, are able to make the dreams of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald real.

"Conquest of the Useless" is a journal kept by the director, Werner Herzog, during the making of this ill-starred production. Though they are notes kept contemporaneous with the filming of the movie, they are by no means a diary of the production. Those hunting set gossip will find all too little within this book. Instead, one samples Herzog's daily observations on the jungle and the collision he creates between the modern and the primordial. In the process, he creates a modern-day rendering of "Heart of Darkness," with Herzog not sure whether he is Kurtz or the tale's narrator, or both at the same time.

There's no small humor that at the beginning of this book, Herzog is at the home of Francis Ford Coppola, the director of the Godfather films who is wrestling with is own obsession - "Apocalpyse Now." It too deals with a "Heart of Darkness" theme, and it's production history was perhaps even more infamous than that of "Fitzcarraldo." By the end of Herzog's production, he would have to recast key scenes in the film and refilm some of its most grueling passages.

One appreciates Herzog's language as he struggles to describe what he sees in the Amazonian jungle. There is a sense that nothing has changed in centuries out there in the water and vines. The jungle is the book's largest character - a steamy, sweaty, malevolent, amoral presence which does not value human life and corrupts it just as it rusts the equipment brought into it to record its excesses. This is a land where babies die in their mother's arms, where soldiers' bodies come bobbing down the river and are left to drift further, where the loudest sounds are the snapping and falling of trees alive since before Columbus crossed the ocean:

"The jungle is obscene. Everything about it is sinful, for which reason the sin does not stand out as sin. The voices in the jungle are silent; nothing is stirring, and a languid, immobile anger hovers over everything."

Herzog struggles to hold himself together, even as his life seems to him nothing more than an invention "with its pathos, its banalities, its dramas, it's idling." His film, which threatens to spiral everything out of his control, eventually gets made but that story seems strangely secondary by the end. He is merely trying to survive. That is what this diary is about - the survival of aspiration. "Is the desire to fly innate to all creatures?" the director asks, even as he lugs his own great ship up into the clouds.

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