|by Peter Sobczynski
When Werner Herzog set off in 1977 to make “Fitzcarraldo,” his epic fever dream about a mad dreamer striving against all odds to build an opera house in the middle of the Amazon jungle, he must have had a sense that it was going to be a memorable experience. As a result, he hired documentary filmmaker Les Blank to tag along and make his own film chronicling the production. At the time, Herzog probably didn’t think that he would spend the next four years struggling against seemingly insurmountable odds to complete his film and that Blank would be there to capture all of the difficulties that he encountered in trying to bring his unique vision to the screen. The resulting documentary, 1982's “Burden of Dreams” remains one of the landmark documents on the art of filmmaking and is a stunning portrait of an obsessed artist willing to put everything, including the lives of himself and others, on the line in the service of his muse.
Blank’s cameras capture a series of disasters that would have driven most people to the brink of insanity and beyond. Shooting deep in the jungles of Peru, the production was hit with difficult weather and tribal difficulties that forced them to abandon a key location and start again 1200 miles away. A plane crash took the lives of a few crew members. Steamships got stuck in the mud and remained inactive until they were freed during the rainy season. Original stars Jason Robards and Mick Jagger had to leave the production–the former came down with dysentery and the latter had to go on a previously scheduled concert tour–with only 40% of the film in the can and all of their scenes had to be reshot with Klaus Kinski taking over Robards’s role, a move which caused its own set of problems. Most infamously, Herzog realized that there was only one way to properly capture the climax of the picture, in which hundreds of native Indian tribesmen risk their lives to drag a full-sized steamship over a mountain in order to reach an otherwise inaccessible river–by actually staging the scene with real tribesmen hauling a real boat.
As great as “Fitzcarraldo” is (and it is a genuine crackpot masterpiece that needs to be seen), “Burden of Dreams” is an even more compelling film for the way that it captures Herzog, one of the great filmmakers working in the world today, confronting both the agonies and the ecstasies of his chosen profession. By watching him, we can actually understand what would drive a man to such insane lengths all for the sake of his art and, more importantly, we can also understand what would make that person continue on in that pursuit even at the risk of his physical and mental health.
Even though the film itself is kind of a bonus feature to “Fitzcarraldo” (currently available through Anchor Bay and well worth seeking out), the folks at Criterion have put together a package of extras as fascinating as the film itself. There is an 80-page booklet of journal entries composed by Blank and editor Maureen Gosling during the shoot and the two are joined by Herzog himself for an intriguing audio commentary. Herzog also appears in contemporary interviews to talk about his memories of the production of “Fitzcarraldo” and contributes a pair of deleted scenes first scene in his documentary about Kinski, the tellingly-titled “My Best Fiend.” The best extra by far is Blank’s semi-legendary 1980 short film “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe,” in which the director pays off a bet that he made with Errol Morris by cooking and eating his shoe before an audience waiting to see the premiere of Morris’s debut feature, the equally oddball pet cemetery documentary “Gates of Heaven.”
Directed by Les Blank. Starring Werner Herzog, Klaus Kinski, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards and Mick Jagger. 1982. 95 minutes. Unrated. A Criterion Collection release. $39.95.
NEW AND NOTABLE
ALONE IN THE DARK (Lion’s Gate Home Video. $27.98):Dr, Uwe Boll’s latest bit of cinematic malpractice is a video-game adaptation whose sole artistic virtue is that it is slightly better than “House of the Dead. However, for those with a taste for unintentionally hilarious craptaculars, the now-legendary moment in which Tara Reid, decked out in glasses to make her seem smarter, pronounces “Newfoundland” is worth the purchase price all by itself.
THE CONTROVERSIAL CLASSICS (Warner Home Video. $79.98): In yet another wonderful box set from the folks at Warners, who seem hell-bent on challenging Criterion for the title of top DVD producers, this set collects six studio properties whose subject matter caused much controversy when they were originally released. The titles include the 1962 political drama “Advise and Consent,” the dark 1964 anti-war satire “The Americanization of Emily,” the immortal 1955 John Sturges film “Bad Day at Black Rock,” the 1955 juvenile-delinquent epic “The Blackboard Jungle,” 1957's still-pungent media satire “A Face in the Crowd,” the terrifying 1936 lynching drama “Fury” and 1932's muckracking “I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang.” For all film lovers, this set is essential.
HOOP DREAMS (The Criterion Collection. $29.95): One of the most inspiring documentaries ever made finally makes its long-awaited DVD debut in an extensively detailed set that contains two audio commentaries–one from filmmakers Peter Gilbert, Steve James and Frederick Marx and the other with Arthur Agee and William Gates, the two aspiring basketball players who are its focus–a series of old “Siskel & Ebert” segments chronicling the history of the film and a booklet featuring articles on the film and its aftermath.
IN GOOD COMPANY (Universal Home Video. $29.95): Although it didn’t make that much on an impact in theaters, this Paul Weitz film, in which Dennis Quaid and Scarlett Johansson play a father and daughter whose relationship changes when Topher Grace becomes his new boss and, later, her new boyfriend, was a real charmer and deserves a second chance for viewers to experience the witty screenplay and the career-best performances from Quaid and Grace.
THE LAST SHOT (Touchstone Home Video. $29.95): Hardly anyone saw this inspired-by-true-events comedy, in which a struggling filmmaker (Matthew Broderick) finally convinces someone to finance his first film, not realizing that his “producer” (Alec Baldwin) is actually an FBI agent who is pretending to make it as part of an organized-crime sting operation, when it was released last fall. While it isn’t perfect by any means, it is a goofy, cheerfully vulgar comedy with nice performances by Baldwin and Toni Collette (hilarious as an over-the-hill actress who will do anything to make a comeback) and home video should prove to be a more hospitable home for its modest charms.
THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): As a devoted fan of Wes Anderson’s previous efforts, especially the masterpiece “Rushmore,” I was a bit let down at first with his latest effort, in which Bill Murray plays a burned-out undersea explorer/filmmaker who confronts his past and future while on a vengeful hunt for the “jaguar shark” that killed his partner. While it is probably Anderson’s least significant film to date–the whimsy does get a little thick at times–it does have a lot of things to recommend it–inspired musical cues (including several David Bowie songs performed in Portugeuse), a striking visual style and a hilarious and touching central performance from Murray, once again proving that he truly has become one of the best American actors at work today.
THE LONGEST YARD: LOCKDOWN EDITION (Paramount Home Video. $14.95): Back in the days when video and cable were largely unheard of, I would watch this 1974 Robert Aldrich comedy, in which Burt Reynolds plays an incarcerated football player forced by evil warden Eddie Albert to form a team consisting of violent criminals to plays the equally brutal guards in a game, and thought that it was one of the funniest things I had ever seen–mostly because I was at the age where the sight of a football to the groin was comedy gold. Thirty years later, it is still an enormously entertaining and unapologetically brutal bit of pop entertainment that remains one of the best sports movies ever made.
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (Columbia/Tri-Star Home Video.) While this, the first major screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s most controversial play, is not a flawless film by any means–the subplot about the cross-dressing antics of Portia (Lynn Collins) and her romance with Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) have never creaked as badly as they do here–it is still a must-see because of the powerhouse work by Al Pacino in the central role of Shylock, one of the best and most controlled performances that he has given in years.
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originally posted: 05/13/05 14:34:08
last updated: 05/13/05 14:56:52