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Past Perfect: Criterion Classics - Burden of Dreams (1982)

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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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