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4.15.2008

BURDEN OF DREAMS

Burden of Dreams (1982)
Directed by Les Blank
Written by Michael Goodwin

Narrated by Maureen Gosling











The crackpot rubber baron Carlos Fermin Fitzcarrald (a.k.a. Fitzcarraldo) took the steamship apart in real life, chasing this dream of his : Caruso among the savages, a dream sick with grandiose insanities. Werner Herzog's own sick dream only seems less sick except he was never going to shoot Fitzcarraldo (1982) in some wussy botanical garden with toy boats and Jack Nicholson. It was always Klaus Kinski and his epic tantrums in the veins of the Amazon herself. And he hauled the steamship up a mountain whole, on a 40 degree incline 20 degrees steeper than suicidal.

"I wanted the audience to trust its eyes again", he says now, hindsighting or,who knows, truly prescient about this fear he had back then of digital effects tyrannizing and falsifying the way movies looked and the way we looked at them because . . .well, they did. So much so that on rewatch, not only has that iconic sequence not lost the come-on of spectacle but gains, too, an exotic otherness to the rigor , to the whine and stress of the winches and pulleys. Scorn may have dogged the heels of Fitzcarraldo , some of it as it should, but when they pull that boat up, you can't neglect the way it trembles with this gauche purity.

The guts of the process transfix Blank. But it's in his laying bare the segregated encampments and the makeshift bordellos and the bodies in the mud and the internecine disputes and the aborted scenes like so much throbbing gristle that Burden of Dreams supernovas into more than some banal making-of, into something closer to a tactile contemplating of the schism between two cultures rubbing up against each other but never quite making a mesh. Werner stands on the precipice of another world openly lamenting this culture vanishing before his eyes, these natives in Mickey Mouse Disco shirts- - - "It's a catastrophe and a tragedy that's going on and we are losing riches and riches and riches and we lose cultures and languages and individualities and we're left stark naked in the end and will end up like all the cultures in the world and a universal kind of culture like America." But he is his own Fitzcarraldo here. And he, too, has embarked on a conqueror's folly. He,too, as he calls himself, has become a conquistador of the useless, an intruder who has made an enemy of- - -and fallen in love with- - - all this verdant and beautiful malevolence, all this vile nature, an enemy he never had a hope to quell but he could sometimes outwit - - - if it let him. "The Amazon's an unfinished country, a land God created in anger. A harmony of overwhelming and collective murder." Poison arrows for souvenirs and no getting drunk on the wine they ferment with spit.

Double-bill this with George Hickenlooper and Fax Bahr's Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalpyse for the spiritual linkages, for the severity of the on-set turmoil edging into the surreal, for the same nutso charge it emits. Apocalypse Now was a set intimate with chaos,too. But Coppolla was not batshit like Herzog and in his grappling with the unfathomable, he was eaten alive and spat out broken: "We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane." Werner plunged into that jungle battle-readied. He had made his Apocalypse Now seven years before Coppolla with Aguirre Wrath of God. He was a man intimate with chaos. And prone to magnificent obsessions and the mad compulsions to act on them, at one point cooking and eating his shoe in public after losing a bet, and letting someone make a film out of it. He came out of Fitzcarraldo scarred but with a glint in his eye when he says "I shouldn't be making any more movies. I should be taken to an asylum."

Some quarters have upheld the ascendancy of Burden of Dreams over Fitzcarraldo, for hanging better as a piece maybe, which it does. But it doesn't so much supersede as it decodes and deepens, both uncannily symbiotic and separate. Blank directed Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, too. That tiny oddment spoke wryly between its freakshow lines on the impulses and logistics of art. This trawls over the same issues, but in its quintessence of the filmmaker as crackpot and the lengths he will go to when bullied by his sick dreams, it's a vaster and more fucked-up behemoth. It is, to put it one way, tremendously Herzogian.

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