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Saturday, Nov 18, 2006


Doris Day is an actress of rhythms. She has differing modes of performance operation, and depending on the starring (or occasionally, supporting role) vehicle, she can crank it up or tone it way, way down. She uses her inherent wholesomeness as a shield, a way of hiding her substantial sensuality and beaming inner light. She’s often mislabeled as the world’s oldest virgin, mainly because her movie roles had her equal, not underneath, the leading men. In many ways, she is the role model for future actresses, trading femininity for friendliness while never losing the intelligence and spark that made her a star. She herself gave up her celebrity at the start of the 1970s, concentrating her efforts instead on charity work—especially animal rights and advocacy. As a result, she remains a part of a certain time, a relic reminding us of a period when paternalism still dictated the way in which married people performed their roles.


So when one thinks about it, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies is the perfect Doris Day picture. It’s light and airy, like a sitcom made spectacular by the setting and the circumstances (it’s no surprise the film—derived from a best-selling book by Jean Kern—eventually became a short lived TV series). It employs formula elements like uncontrollable bratling children; decrepit, money pit style country homes; and eccentric cab drivers/playwrights who want to derive entertainment out of the most bizarre subject matter (a musical version of The Bible, for one) to pad its pleasantries. It lets Day take the lead, but only in service to her spouse David Niven, and never allows the possible unpleasantness of the real world (adultery, antagonism, sex) to step into the picture. From the beginning, this is a movie about rediscovering your center, about remembering what is important in life. And like all good old-fashioned Hollywood films from the time period, home and hearth are where your true loyalties should lie.


Our story starts in Manhattan, 1960. Larry Mackay (Niven) is about to become the talk of the town. The failed playwright and drama teacher has just been hired as a critic for the biggest paper in the city. And wouldn’t you know it, his first assignment is a doozy. He must review old friend Alfred North’s new show, starring the high-strung diva Deborah Vaughn. The show is a bomb. Of course, things at home aren’t much better. Wife Kate wants the family to move to the country, a situation better suited for the four young boys that make up the rest of the Mackay brood. This means a major commute for Larry, and when he spends more time in the city (especially in the occasional company of Ms. Vaughn), Kate gets suspicious. Can she save her marriage, or will she be too busy screaming “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” to the children?


While it may be hard to see it, you can actually witness the birth of the high concept motion picture comedy here. It may not be as obvious as the far-reaching films of the ‘80s, but you still can see how name performers are being placed in outrageous positions to twist contrivance into conviction. Of course, Niven has to become an egomaniac—how else will he learn humility? Of course the children must be city spoiled urchins—how else will they learn the magic of the country? Deborah Vaughn must be an extreme. The same with Alfred. Otherwise, the eventual leveling of their characters wouldn’t mean as much to the narrative. Similar to Day’s predetermined pitch (read: manic and perky), Please Don’t Eat the Daisies is tuned to a plane of preposterousness that can only exist in the movies. Larry would never allow himself to be humiliated with his own poor play in real life (a true plot contrivance if ever there was one), nor would any right-thinking adult buy a Gothic dump like the one the Mackays purchase in the country. Indeed, what Daisies wants to do is set up outrageous situations, hoping the humanity will seep through. Thanks to the terrific acting all around, it does—but not without some bumps along the way.


Perhaps the best storyline in the film doesn’t involve Day, the children, or the move to the country. Instead, David Niven gets the award-winning arc as he moves from theater professor to high-powered media critic for a major New York paper. Slowly, over the course of Daises, Niven’s Larry goes from meek moralist with integrity to maintain, to sanctimonious fourth estate dictator with a sense of self-importance larger than any actor he’s critiquing. Naturally, this leads to a fine dramatic double whammy as old friends try to get back at him while starlet Janet Paige (as Vaughn) tries to seduce him. Basically, while Doris is home playing with the wee ones, David is being wined and dined for his praise and positive reviews.


The rest, sadly, is pure Hollywood artifice. It’s bad enough trying to envision Day married to Niven (a similar situation occurs in her pairing with Rex Harrison in Midnight Lace). Day is just too American, too crafted out of Kansas corn, California sun, and Bible Belt basics to warrant such a steak-and-kidney stiff upper lip. Also, the kids are a central casting nightmare (though it is fun to see future My Three Sons sibling Stanley Livingston as one of the manic Mackays), biology playing no part in their look or their personalities (how Niven and Day raised such delinquents is a question for cinematic psychiatrists to ponder). Yet, somehow, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies manages to make its points with humor and heart. This is neither a laugh-out-loud farce, nor is it really a pointed study in character. It is the melodrama version of comedy—not quite farce, but close enough in tone to warrant a mild comparison. Instead, this is urbanity taken to tired extremes, with only the expert cast and journeyman direction of Charles Walters saving the silliness.


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Friday, Nov 17, 2006


In places like California and Florida they dot the landscape like thousands of artificial lakes. They sparkle with chlorinated cleanness and dapple a billion beams of rainbow light across the trimmed lawns and aluminum sided cells of suburbia. When they thrive, they are bastions of relaxation and exultation, a sign of wealth, privilege, and the endless summer. But when they expire, they become stagnant and brackish. They crack and decay, crumbling into themselves under the burden of a thousand vacations and a million screams of joy. Occasionally, they become garbage reservoirs, refuse piles conveniently located in your own backyard. And just as quickly as they were craved they are forgotten, resigned to a death as a smelly sinkhole in the midst of an overall gentrification of a nation. But every once in a while, they are resurrected. They are given a new charter on being, cleaned and appreciated by a fresh assemblage who still find kinship in their kidney shapes and delirium in their deep ends. For these are the bowl riders, the shredders who grind the coping and defy the deathbox as they maneuver through their own individualized skatepark sunk into the ground. They are men who live on the buzz of the bank. They are people who make it their goal to keep a skateboarding tradition vital and vibrant in these modern times of wooden ramps and video games. They exist for risk and thrive on the fleeting, fading smell of Chlorine.


Chlorine is a companion piece to 2002’s stellar skateboarding documentary Dogtown And Z-Boys. Actually, it’s more like a footnote to a single facet of that film, i.e. pool skating or as those in the know call it, “bowl carving.” Utilizing interview footage, archival material, and a Cops-style follow-along technique, we witness firsthand how a ragtag group of fanatics find ways (and abandoned pools) to get their much-needed gnarlies out. It’s joyful expression of athletic artistry. It’s a beautiful and brutal look at how time and age have ravaged and reinvigorated the first generation of skate legends. There are five featured “stars” in this film, old school riders who still find the sublime in the shred: the physical and mature Steve Alba, the cocky and confident Dave Reul, the rocker in search of a band swagger of Steve Olson, the manic screech preacher Dave Hackett, and the teen trapped in an adult’s body known as Lance Mountain. They, along with various other famous faces from the world of boarding, leave an indelible mark on this movie. They recall the foundation of one of skating’s traditions while reflecting on how, in some ways, the sport has moved on, laughing under its breath at the last remaining riders of the concrete curves.


There is something wistful about a movie like this. Perhaps it’s the lazy, lonely California setting, the abandoned pools and rundown homes baking in the warm sun, in stark contrast to the over-glamorized LaLa Land we’ve come to expect in the media. Maybe it’s the men themselves, seasoned skaters who’ve avoided the Tony Hawk spotlight and corporate sellout ideal for the true rush of riding the cement surf. Or it could be the outright blood brother companionship these people feel for each other, a tribal mentality of being inside an elite cult of crazy, crafty clowns that only want to push their bodies and their experiences to the limit. For this group, every new aquatic discovery is an inverted mountain to climb, a chance to take one more endorphin-pumping pass inside the prototypical symbol of class and luxury. For the riders in Chlorine, there is a quest for the perfect pool and the perfect pool ride. And it’s never ending.


The important part to note here is that most of the men featured in this film (some of whom made appearances in Dogtown) are all now in their late 30s and early 40s, a time when a label of “middle age” is stamped on a human’s head and their daredevil days of shredding and cutting are supposed to be far behind them. Yet what we see is the exact opposite. These are men chasing age away through the timeless nature of their sport, their hobby…their obsession. They are true characters, icons in a closed culture of specialty speak, shared exciting episodes, and, most importantly, depression over the bastardization of their passion by the media and the mainstream. These hardcore warriors are out to fight for the internal ethos of skateboarding, to deliver it from the malls and the parking garages and re-establish it within the empty pools and patios of a decaying suburbia, where it belongs. Chlorine instills this kind of metaphysical reality to the mostly skate-rat ideal of modern step jumping and railing riding.


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Thursday, Nov 16, 2006


Remember Comic Relief? That superstar telethon-like comedy cavalcade typically hosted by Billy Crystal, Robin Williams and Whoopie Goldberg and centering on the charitable desire to help the homeless. Well, these now no longer funny joke tellers are back, and HBO is housing their latest lamentable effort. While the cause this time around is even more important – the still suffering victims of Hurricane Katrina – the concept seems so very, well, Reagan era. And wouldn’t you know it, the event is celebrating its 20th Anniversary. Here’s hoping our aged hosts leave most of the jesting to their far funnier modern contemporaries. Sarah Silverman or Lewis Black can run riffs around these aging icons from humor’s hoary past. Oh yeah, and there’s movies this weekend as well. A couple are really good. The rest are merely defendable. If you can pull yourself away from the random rib-tickling being offered elsewhere, you may actually find something enjoyable to watch on your favorite pay cable channels. And even if you don’t support said washed up comedians, donate anyway. The cause is that important. For the record, the films offered for Saturday, 18 November are:


HBOAssault on Precinct 13

John Carpenter’s take on Night of the Living Dead proved, way back in 1976, that there was more to this potentially great filmmaker than a crazy sci-fi comedy (‘74’s Dark Star). Sadly, this remake once again confirms that Mr. Halloween is one director’s whose oeuvre should not be revisited (2005’s Fog, anyone?). While many enjoyed the standard action film facets of the storyline, helmer Jean-François Richet’s take on the substance is more videogame than viable. What could have been a brash update to the entire b-movie format from decades before ends up another over-stylized homage to the type of tedious thriller that more or less killed the genre in the first place. For those without Cinemax (where this film premiered previously), it’s now your chance to be disappointed.  (Premieres Sunday 19 November, 12:30am EST).


PopMatters Review


CinemaxCharlie and the Chocolate Factory*

Criminally underrated when it hit theaters—mostly because of baby boomers lamenting the very thought of remaking the 1971 Gene Wilder “classic” – and frequently dismissed as an example of both artists’ well known excesses, the immensely talented duo of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp deliver a fractured fairy tale for the glorified geek ages. For SE&L‘s scratch, this is what a Roald Dahl adaptation should be – exciting, mischievous and sitting just slightly over into the dark side. From the film’s incredible look to the emotionally satisfying backstory given to the creepy-cool character of Willy Wonka, this duo created an instant masterpiece. It will soon become the timeless family classic it so richly deserves to be. Take this opportunity to savor the flavor this cinematic confection offers, especially if you missed it the first time around over on HBO. (Saturday 18 November, 10:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review


StarzGlory Road

Ah, the inspirational sports movie. Hollywood just can’t seem to get enough of these one-note exercises in cinematic cheerleading. In the case of this docudrama based on the 1966 Texas Western basketball team (the first all black squad in NCAA history to make it to the championship game) and its white coach Don Haskins, the introduction of race practically triples the sentimental stakes. Many have criticized the film for being historically and sociologically inaccurate, but most audiences have overlooked the flaws to find something of value in this otherwise routine effort. First time filmmaker James Gartner does a good job with this maudlin material, but it’s hard to overcome the inherent issues in the narrative. Anytime ethnicity plays a part in the plotting, idealism tends to mar the overall entertainment elements. (Premieres Saturday 18 November, 9:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review


ShowTOOMe, You and Everyone We Know

*
It was heavily tauted as one of 2005’s best films, but like so many independent treasures tossed around at year’s end, the lack of a continual major studio push has placed this miraculous motion picture directly on the cultural back burner. Miranda July, noted performance artist and first time filmmaker has yet to follow-up this critically acclaimed take on contemporary life, and some have started to question if she’s merely a one hit wonder. Even if she never duplicates this sunny, satiric film’s fresh and inventive vibe, she will still be the creator of one of the new millennium’s most winning efforts. If you’ve never seen it, here’s your non-DVD buying chance. If you have, it’s time to take up artistic arms. A film this good doesn’t deserve to be forgotten so quickly.  (Saturday 18 November, 10:25pm EST)


PopMatters Review


 


ZOMBIES!

For those of you who still don’t know it, Turner Classic Movies has started a new Friday night/Saturday morning feature entitled “The TCM Underground”, a collection of cult and bad b-movies hosted by none other than rad rocker turned atrocity auteur Rob Zombie. From time to time, when SE&L feels Mr. Devil’s Rejects is offering up something nice and sleazy, we will make sure to put you on notice. For 17/18 November, only one horrific hit deserves a mention:


Freaks (1931)
It was the movie that destroyed director Tod Browning’s Hollywood career. It was the inspiration for the Ramones’ classic punk rock catchphrase “Gabba-Gabba-Hey”. But all ancillary issues aside, it is one of early motion picture’s most shocking, and sensational, masterpieces. (2:00am EST)


 


The Cream of the Crop

In honor of IFC’s month-long celebration of Janus Films, SE&L will skip the standard daily overview of what’s on the other movie-based cable outlets and, instead, focus solely on what it and the Sundance Channel have to offer. Beyond that premise, however, we will still only concentrate on the best of the best, the most inspiring of the inspiring, the most meaningful of the…well, you get the idea. For the week of 18, November, here are our royal recommendations:


IFC

: Every Tuesday in November is Janus Films night. For the 21st, the selections are:



Beauty and the Beast
Jean Cocteau’s adaptation of the classic fairy tale is perhaps the most visually sumptuous and optically stunning monochrome motion picture ever made. Every frame is a fine masterwork come to life. (9PM EST)


Black Orpheus
This retelling of the “Orpheus and Eurydice” legend, set in Rio de Janeiro, is given a warm and sexy façade thanks to director Marcel Camus and the movie’s crazed Carnaval backdrop. (10:35PM EST)


Alexander Nevsky
Sergei Eisenstein’s pro-Stalin era propaganda piece, shrouded in the amazing music of Prokofiev, stands as a testament to the power of visuals and iconography, especially during wartime. (12:25AM EST)


Sundance Channel



19 November - To Kill a Mockingbird
Gregory Peck shines as sly Southern lawyer Atticus Finch in what still stands as the only legitimate adaptation of Harper Lee’s literary masterpiece.
(3PM EST)


20 November - The Nomi Song
He remains one of the ‘80s most unusual and enigmatic icons. This delightful documentary by Andrew Horn does a great job of capture this musician’s magic – and mania. 
(1:15PM EST)


24 November -Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia
The late, great Warren Oates is electrifying in this fascinating fever dream of a movie director by the legendary iconoclastic auteur, Sam Peckinpah
(4PM EST)


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Wednesday, Nov 15, 2006


They say time heals all wounds. They also argue that vengeance simmers like a stone in the soul. Combining to two should result in an exercise in forced forgiveness, a chance to let the calendar calm the pain and the distance of decades to erode away the desire for payback. But sometimes, the opposite happens, especially when the reason for the ache is ambiguous, and the manner in which it was administered unnecessary. There are those occasions where an individual’s own guilt is so strong, their life path so strewn with evil and amoral choices, that no amount of time could solve their rage. Instead, the need for retribution burns like a furnace, charring everything around it in a swath of sadness and madness.


This is what happens to two interconnected souls – unimportant businessman Dae-su Oh and wealthy playboy Woo-jin Lee. One has a misguided vendetta against the other. Said victim has a clear grudge against the man who he believes imprisoned him unnecessarily for 15 years. As complicated a game of cat and mouse as the cinema has ever seen, Chan-wook Park’s OldBoy stands as a monument to the Nu-Asia genre of film, and South Korea’s domination of the category in general. As part of his brilliant Vengeance Trilogy (including Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance) Park’s middle act marries Western ideas of violence as vindicator with Eastern elements of honor, status and cruelty. It is safe to say that both protagonist and antagonist here are equally guilty of transgressions against the other. What isn’t so clear is what payback will gain them, if anything.


This was part of Park’s design all along. In a stunning new three disc tin box collector’s set from Tartan Video, the process behind this provocative motion picture is laid bare, with the director divulging as many behind the scenes processes as possible to amplify the theme of his movie. In essence, OldBoy is part thriller, part primer on the horrors of hate. Park professes to purposefully making his characters blank and unemotional, channeling all their inner emotion into their meticulous plans for reprisal. In Dae-su Oh’s case (brilliantly essayed by actor Min-sik Choi) the years of isolation, brainwashing, hypnotism and torture have left him literally empty inside, except for a festering need to find out who kidnapped him after that late night of drinking, as well as why he’s been stashed away from the rest of the world for a decade and a half.


In the case of Woo-jin Lee, the stakes are slightly more obscure. A dandy on the outside, but unmentionably dark on the inside, actor Ji-tae Yu turns the enigmatic catalyst for all of Dae-su Oh’s problems into a formidable foe, a man building his entire life’s desire onto one easily collapsible plan of payback. In the film’s narrative Woo-jin’s house of corrupt cards can fall at any moment. Dae-su can give up his quest. The mobsters he’s working with can decide to double cross him. The use of unscientific notions like hypnosis could collide with happenstance, and truth could be unveiled without the commiserate comeuppance the man is looking for. From his palatial penthouse (purposefully designed by Park to reflect an individual making existence more complicated than it has to be), to the overly intricate plan that’s supposed to satisfy his hurt, Woo-jin is the worst kind of bad guy – focused, yet formless. With him, anything can happen…and almost always does. 


That is indeed the point of OldBoy. Park’s participation in a series of commentary tracks for this new release highlight how he carefully crafted his plot to leave questions in the audience’s mind about who’s the hero and who’s the heavy. Clearly, when considered side by side, Dae-su has the most understandable need for revenge. He’s been imprisoned, and as a result, lost to the world (including his family) for more than one complete generation. Though his life is loaded with misdeeds, he can’t fathom the crime he committed to require such an unexpected and uncompromising sentence. Still, Park wants to make sure that Dae-su is not considered completely innocent. As a matter of fact, the moments of animalistic violence used as steps toward the final denouement are meant to highlight the character’s clear proclivity toward such anti-social behavior.


It is these amazing moments, like the stunning hallway/hammer fight completed in one magnificent take (with a little technical tweaking here and there) that takes up most of the second DVD’s documentary run time. Park is a proficient director, completely capable of improvising on the spot and screwing with the cinematic paradigm to foster a furtherance of his occasionally lofty goals. All throughout the box set, we see moments where experiments are attempted, diversions are crafted, and input from the cast and crew are taken, each moving the film into differing dynamic directions. Similarly, Park professes to having a homage-heavy style, and its interesting to hear about how certain sequences – like the high school foot chase through time - were inspired by other directors (Brian DePalma) and their efforts (Dressed to Kill).


Even more intriguing, Park used varying subliminal visual cues throughout OldBoy, hoping to affect the perception of what is happening while dropping hints along the way of the connections between the characters. For example, Woo-jin Lee is represented by the color purple (which in many Asian cultures symbolized death), while Dae-su is surrounded by browns and greens (with their obvious overtures toward decay and rot). In some of the supplemental material, we see how the art direction was purposefully fashioned to exploit this ideal as well as set up secret warnings that only the most observant viewer would possible pick up. Other times, Park uses particular filmmaking styles – a documentary approach for the opening, an obvious artsy method during the incarceration and isolation material. In fact, it is safe to say that OldBoy represents a masterful competition between acuity vs. actuality. What we see on the screen can sometimes be much more important than what is actually happening between the characters. 


But because of the mannerisms he employs overall, like staging a car crash with the vehicles poised at Los Angeles and New York, respectively, part of OldBoy‘s brilliance is the way in which it gets to that final confrontation. Even more amazing, Park purposefully pulls back during the all important showdown, using unusual aesthetic choices to challenge the viewer’s preconceived notions of what should occur. Fights flourish behind low, ambient music. Confrontations are lax, left unknown by choices in camera angle and framing. This is all part of the plan, a choice made by Park to prepare the audience for anything and everything. One of the more magical elements of OldBoy is that, even if you can predict everything that’s going to happen, Park is already several steps ahead, ready to thwart your most considered expectations with his mesmerizing tricks.


Oddly, the two individuals most responsible for the issues between the men - Woo-jin’s sister Lee Soo-ah and Dae-su’s gal pal, Mi-do – are more or less left on the outskirts of the story, their identity far more important than the part they play in each character’s current situation. Park argues that this was not a determined slight, one that should warrant criticism from women’s groups arguing about the downplaying of the female facets of the film. Instead, it’s all part of a bigger symbol being shuttled back and forth – the notion that anger and the need for revenge can blind people to the truth laying right before their eyes. Both actresses here are excellent, giving brave performances that require them to simulate some often scandalous situations. But neither comes across as completely compelling, either. OldBoy makes it clear that, in the realm of defending honor and seeking justice, men make all the decisions – for bad and for good.


That so much meaning can be buried inside what many might view as a Tarantino-esque excuse to overload the screen with brutality and blood argues for the artistic prowess of South Korean cinema, something that Tartan’s new box set sells very well. The third DVD in the set provides a production diary that gives us a day-by-day breakdown of OldBoy‘s filming, and it’s an eye-opener. Gone are the Hollywood mandates for superstar treatment and specialized crewmembers. Missing are the moments when personal and professional desires clash. In their place, we see plenty of hard work, long nights and intense collaborations.  Though presented without clear context or explanatory voiceover narration, this footage argues for an unseen maxim in the Asian movie business. Many fans feel that most films are fashioned out of luck, talent, and a sprinkling of magic. The truth is that experiences as exemplary as OldBoy are not the result of some wizard’s spell. They result from a coming together of creative minds all willing to work hard to forge something special.


In OldBoy‘s case, the finished product remains one of the new millennium’s best movies. And when you consider that Park produced companion pieces of equal power as both cinema and stylistic statements, his importance as a creative force cannot be undermined. One of the best things about the DVD format is that it allows for a window into a world – filmmaking – that many of us outside the business would never have an opportunity to experience. With this new three disc release (which includes an English translation of the Japanese Manga “comic” used as the foundation for the storyline), we witness the process that made this film so magnificent. While the final scene of the film may be open to interpretation, Park’s intensions are very clear. OldBoy is indeed a movie about the passage of time. But instead of healing all wounds, or lifting the stone from one’s soul, all that’s created is a path toward personal and metaphysical destruction. It’s as inevitable as the rising and setting of the sun.



Tartan Video‘s Three Disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition version of OldBoy was released on 14 November, 2006. For information on this title from Amazon.com, just click here



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Tuesday, Nov 14, 2006


Another PopMatters review by Cynthia Fuchs


Dreams are the lies we tell ourselves when we’re asleep. They are the pictures we paint when words can’t give life to our longing. Dreams deceive and dreams demand. They are the symptoms of obsession and the co-conspirators of passion. It is so easy for us to get lost in them, to cast off the real worries of the everyday world and bask in the warming, soothing glow of our ultimate goals that we often find ourselves drowning in a flood of fantasy that’s near impossible to permeate. Call them pipe or fevered, the meanderings of a mind misplaced or the silent whispers of the secure soul, but they never fail to enrage and inspire. What we see inside them makes us drunk, the hope we harbor in them making us helpless.


Some would say that nothing great can be accomplished without dreams. It’s a rationale stemming from the creation and consideration of ideas bigger and brighter than those of the normal mind. Skyscrapers aren’t the stuff of pragmatics. An oil on canvas masterpiece cannot derive from a brain based in logic. Somewhere locked inside all of us is a secret stash of aptitude, an untapped pool of skill and talent that only dreams have access to. If they can find a way to funnel this fuel into your workaday world, the epic and the mystical are just an active attitude away. Yet sometimes, the conduit can grow greedy, sucking up everything you have until you are dry and drained. Other times, the channel can crack, leaving you without any access whatsoever. It takes a rare individual to properly manage their vision vitals, applying them when appropriate, controlling the stream to keep it clear and consistent.


Such a person is filmmaker Werner Herzog. Staunchly individualistic, answering to no one but himself, and immersed in an aesthetic that combines characters with their cinematic environments to illustrate what exists in both, there is probably no other director as closely tied to his own heroic hallucinations as he. The result has been some of the finest films ever made. There has also been great folly, and more than a few fumbles along the way. Nowhere was this decisive dichotomy clearer than on the set of his film Fitzcarraldo. Herzog has a singular vision for his story, a visual that no film since has ever dared match. What that idea was became the basis for Les Blank and Maureen Gosling’s brilliant documentary Burden of Dreams. Fortunately, the man who forged that thought makes an equally compelling example of visualization inviolate as well.


In 1976, Herzog headed to the Amazon to film his simple story of a turn of the century man of means so in love with opera that he had visions of opening a music hall in the middle of the jungle, just so Enrico Caruso could christen it with a concert. A two-time Oscar winner and the notorious lead singer of a legendary rock and roll band were hired as stars, and after months of searching, the perfect location was found. All that stood in the way was Herzog’s most ambitious idea ever. Instead of using special effects or miniatures, the director intended to use native labor to move an actual ship up and over a mountain. Five years, another lead actor, and several near-disastrous circumstances later, the movie finally made it into theaters. Like all epic achievements, how Herzog finally got his vision on the screen is the stuff of myth and legend. Documentary filmmakers Les Blank and Maureen Gosling were there to catch most of it. The result is an amazing documentary about the ache of aesthetic and the Burden of Dreams.


Anyone who knows Herzog and/or his movies recognizes that he is a man driven by vision. He has staunchly believed that every facet of a movie, from its actors to its filming, creates its own unique and individual experience. It is up to him, as the overseer of this process, to guide the divergent elements into a coherent whole. He believes that civilization will die without adequate images, and that it is up to filmmakers to craft a new visual grammar. He claims to never dream at night, but does enjoy losing himself in happy hallucination during long walks, or while traveling—potential movies and ideas playing out like plays inside his head. And he is also a man of his word. He once promised a group of actors that he would throw himself into a cactus if they all survived a particularly harrowing production. He still has the broken-off spines in his knee ligaments to confirm his commitment.


Certainly, there have been other rumors—stories of actors threatened with guns, the outrageous endangerment of cast and crew, and a dogmatic focus that occasionally borders on insanity. But it’s hard to discount the results. As a filmmaker, Herzog has helmed several outstanding examples of his mania—movies with titles like Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Where the Green Ants Dream, and Cobra Verde. He has also crafted several sensational documentaries, using the same internal fire to fuel Lessons of Darkness, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, and Grizzly Man. Somewhere amidst all his narratives and investigations, experiments and interpretations lies Fitzcarraldo. Based partly on the director’s desire to return to the Amazon (a favorite locale, not just for moviemaking) and several stories he heard about an actual rubber baron who was fixated on bringing art to the region, this 1982 film has a production history as colorful and disconcerting as the movie that emerged after nearly five nightmare years.


Luckily, Les Blank and his editor/assistant Maureen Gosling were there to commingle in the madness. Originally, the documentarian was hired to film Herzog making good on a bet with fellow filmmaker Errol Morris. Telling the fledgling director that if he ever got his proposed first project off the ground, he would eat his own shoe, Herzog arrived at a screening of Morris’s magnificent Gates of Heaven to consume more than just a little crow. It was during this shoot that Blank learned of the trip to the Amazon and the plans for Fitzcarraldo. Listening to the stories being circulated about what Herzog hoped to accomplish, he knew he had to sign on. The result was a true trip into the heart of darkness, a real life story worthy of Melville or Conrad. Focusing primarily on the movie’s showpiece sequence - the pulling of an actual 320-ton steamship over the top of a mountain—the soon-to-be-known-as Burden of Dreams became the motherlode of all making-of documentaries. In the short span of 95 minutes, Blank and Gosling highlighted everything that could possibly go wrong with a location shoot. They simultaneously created a fact film classic.


Burden of Dreams is more than just a cinematic study of Murphy’s Law and how it applies to moviemaking, however. It’s not just the story of an incredibly driven director and his desire to render fantasy out of the pragmatic. It definitely does deal with the clash of cultures that exists between the international creative community, the loose cannon local Central/South American governments, and the indigenous people of the Amazon basin. As a study in both its subject matter and its setting, it is exciting and evocative. But at its core, this divine documentary is an explanation and an examination. It lifts the lid off of one man’s burning aesthetic designs to see if they are, or ever were, practical in the context of motion picture production. And it proves that, even when all around you doubt and despair, one person’s pure intentions can still stay the course. Fitzcarraldo may seem a lesser legacy in the Herzog canon, but Burden of Dreams proves it was always a mythical project in its creator’s mind.


But there are also a lot of misnomers about this documentary, concepts that must be debunked and debased before really understanding what Blank and Gosling have fashioned. First of all, Burden of Dreams is not a movie about obsession. Obsession suggests an unhealthy preoccupation, a never-ending need that is near impossible to obtain and almost as difficult to quell. Though he appears determined and ambitious, Herzog is not some uncontrolled amateur, hoping to defy the odds to service his craft. Indeed, throughout Burden of Dreams we see a man struggling to keep his internal aspiration alive and kicking. Several times, as odds and elements conspire against him, as individual idiosyncrasies threaten to topple his already frail and fragile film, Herzog perseveres. His spirit may be bent, but it has not broken. Even with actors dropping out (original cast members Jason Robards and Mick Jagger left after more than a third of the filming) and rebels burning down his film camp, Fitzcarraldo is a film he must finish. It’s not a matter of obsession; it’s a matter of personal pride.


Burden of Dreams is also not a movie about passion. There is a suggestion of joy and sorrow in such a word, a notion that somehow, this amazing ardor is actually hiding a far more tempered feeling. If anything, Blank’s film focuses on that razor-thin line between obsession, passion and madness, a volatile vortex where all three exist in perfect, peculiar harmony. Herzog is very much a man of fervor when working on his films. We see him stomping through sets, leaping through obstacles, and grabbing extras, making sure they are in the proper place when the cameras roll. But he is not a fiery individual filled with untapped instability. Perhaps it’s because of his Teutonic nature, or his steadfast focus, but Herzog’s proposed passion is all internalized and indirect. Instead of arguing his point, he merely gets up and performs it. When situations seem the most grave or alarming, he simply steps up and argues for a “little less precaution”(such a zombified zeal causes the local structural engineer helping with the ship move to quit). Because he must balance all facets of the film—as any director typically does—Herzog has faith in his ability to control. It is not manic, but measured.


One thing’s for sure: Burden of Dreams is definitely not a movie about courage and fearlessness. People have often gotten the wrong impression about Herzog’s productions. They hear the boasting and the bragging, the lack of personal consideration and dismissal of tenable threats and think there is some kind of death-defying wish to how this director makes movies. In modern terms, some might call it the cult of X-cinema. But once again, this documentary dispenses with such nonsensical sentiments. Herzog states often that his movies are not crafted on the backs of daredevils or those with a reckless disregard for human safety. Instead, he points to nature as the prime culprit, an entity unforgiving and unwilling to compromise or consider. No one tempts fate or dares destiny in Burden of Dreams. Instead, there is a kind of tentative truce with the exotic elements around the production, a peace forged out of respect, not ridiculous risk taking. The only reason these people and their predicament seem so audacious to us is that we know we’d not have had the courage to stand up to the rudiments and fight. Ironically enough, the cast and crew of Fitzcarraldo recognize this as well. Theirs is an action born out of reverence, not carelessness.


And finally, no matter how it may seem on the outside, no matter what you may have heard or what is hinted at in the review, this is not a movie about ego. Sure, sense of self is at play all throughout Burden of Dreams, a steadfast notion of one’s importance and place within the motion picture pecking order (you can’t have the crazed Klaus Kinski on the set and not experience some manner of unrealistic arrogance). But many confuse Herzog’s desire to conquer nature with a hubris as high as a rainforest canopy. In truth, this documentary downplays the importance of the individual and reemphasizes the need for a mutual admiration society on set. Certainly, it’s easy to see why Herzog is pinpointed as a narcissist and egotist. He is the leader of his lunatic asylum, a man trying to pull a ship over a mountain without the aid of optical effects or show business trickery. If he succeeds, he is a genuine genius. If he fails, it’s just another marker in his book of failed folklore.


Blank and Gosling downplay the prima donna for the primitive, making the jungle the most conceited concept in the film. It’s the rapids that are laughing at Herzog as he tries to film his climatic shots. It’s the weather that is crafting the miserable mud that sucks everything in with a cement-like grip. Nature is scoffing at Fitzcarraldo, daring it to take on its tyrannical, titanic facets. It’s the planet that’s puffing its chest. Herzog and company just want to play within its precarious parameters.


So, then what is Burden of Dreams really about? Is it just the story of how a movie was made, or is there really more to the tale than the highly dramatic saga of movie-man vs. nature. At its core, Blank and Gosling have made a film about creativity at the crossroads, a movie that examines the nature of art and those who are driven to discover it. While the Amazon is given a powerful presence here—like Herzog, Blank loves landscapes and uses every opportunity possible to highlight them—this is not a travelogue, not some goofy glorified press kit about a group of neophytes tackling the impenetrable elements of the jungle. Instead, Burden of Dreams describes how a single individual, focused and assured, can wander into the most inhospitable of terrains and craft a vision—a combination of his own ability transformed and tamed by the elements themselves. In addition, the documentary illustrates how such a desire can undermine even the most malleable man. Herzog sighs that he may not make movies upon Fitzcarraldo‘s completion. It is not a sentiment born out of sadness however. It is the result of the joyless juncture that nature and dreams have tossed him into.


As for the accusations leveled against him, Herzog may not be obsessed, but he clearly knows what he wants. We witness take after take of the most humdrum sequences, the filmmaker unsettled by what he sees in the lens. His passive eagerness may be confused with Germanic frigidity, but it could also be the personality of a man who merely intensely intellectualizes everything. In Herzog’s mind, failure is the only fear. The rest of the potential problems can be overcome with professionalism and preparedness. Ego has a place, an ultimate slot at the right hand of dreams. It takes a special kind of madness to make art out of actuality—to literally move mountains to sanctify your sense of scope. When Fitzcarraldo finally arrived in theaters, the steamship steadily climbing up the Earth became a symbol for Herzog’s efforts to manage his muse. Thanks to Burden of Dreams, we realize that there was much more to said coping and control than rage, risk, and regret. There was a dream, in all its fanciful, fatalistic glory. Someone had to carry the yoke. This amazing documentary suggests that there was no better beast for such a burden than the man who forged it in the first place.


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