Sunday, September 06, 2009

Conquest of the Useless

Can we agree that 'Fitzcarraldo' is Herzog's magnum opus, the most perfectly Herzogian thing in his filmography, and all the proof that one needs regarding the lengths the man is prepared to go in order to realise his vision?

We can? Thank you.

'Conquest of the Useless' (subtitled Reflections from the making of 'Fitzcarraldo') comprises Herzog's diaries, spanning June 1979 to December 1981, and documents the trials, tribulations and tendencies of its director to go native. Early entries see Herzog as Francis Ford Coppola's guest ("Coppola ... is displaying a strange combination of self-pity, neediness, professional work ethic, and sentimentality") while he labours on the script and deals with the moneymen:

"The unquestioned assumption is that a plastic model ship will be pulled over a ridge in a studio, or possibly in a botanical garden ... I told them the unquestioned assumption had to be a real steamship being hauled over a real mountain, though not for the sake of realism but for the stylization characteristic of grand opera. The pleasantries we exchanged from then on wore a thin coating of frost."

This is on page five. By page six (24 June 1979) we're in the jungle. It's not until page 117 (6 January 1981) that Herzog gets the first shot of 'Fitzcarraldo' in the can. 'Conquest of the Useless' is a very different beast to the usual "making of" text. Herzog's extended pre-production and location scouting in the jungle occupies nearly the first half of the book. He dwells less on the film project, writing instead of what he sees around him, of the indigenious population he meets, of lives the way they are lived in the most primitive of surroundings. When he writes of these things he is equal parts documentarist, participant and poet. In his prose as in the images of his films, Herzog brings to life landscapes and people most of us will never encounter, never see with our own eyes; but his account never feels as if it is being written on our behalf (Paul Theroux, great writer though he is, typifies this tendency), nor that he is playing up local colour for its own sake. Herzog is a poet of the extreme because, for him, the extreme is ordinary. Put him in a normal, ostensibly civilised scenario and he codifies it as something alien - evidenced by his slightly surreal depiction of San Francisco in the early entries.

Oh, did I say somewhere in that last paragraph that Herzog shot the first frame of 'Fitzcarraldo' in January 1981? Let me rephrase that. He shot the first frame of 'Fitzcarraldo' Version 1.0. Several weeks' worth of footage were shot with the original cast - Jason Robards as the eponymous would-be rubber baron, and Mick Jagger as his demented henchman - some of which remains, such as Fitzcarraldo's belltower declaration that he will build his opera house, and is featured in the documentary 'My Best Fiend'. It is interesting to speculate how 'Fitzcarraldo' starring Robards and Jagger would have turned out (the belltower scene suggests it could have been inspired and cringeingly embarrassing in roughly equal parts), but it wasn't to be.

Robards emerges as almost terrified by the jungle and appalled at the lack of creature comforts (though we have to remember that these are the perceptions of a man for whom the extreme is second nature; I'd probably have shared some of Robards' opinions). It's clear Herzog had no liking for him, even before Robards absconds, citing medical concerns, and damn near scuppers the production. Herzog's take on Jagger is undecided, admiring him for mucking in and driving fellow cast and crew members to their accommodation, then despairing of him for gloating over how much money he can get for some photos of a bikini'd Jerry Hall taken on set. Herzog sees this as the commercialisation of his vision and isn't happy about it.

After Robards departs, Herzog and co. resolutely remain in the jungle, clinging to what is left of the production. Two months later, Klaus Kinski takes on the role and filming resumes. Anyone who has seen 'My Best Fiend' will know that Kinski was Herzog's muse, nemesis and alter ego all rolled into one. They were bound together by a creative imperative, the fruitfulness of which was only equalled by its antagony. Their previous tropical collaboration, 'Aguirre, Wrath of God', culminated in Herzog forestalling Kinski's announced departure mid-shoot by threatening to empty a rifle into him. Both men must have known 'Fitzcarraldo' would be round two.

Put it this way: the fucking steamship enjoyed plainer sailing!

And yet Herzog is remarkably fair when he writes about Kinski. Sure, there are the expected tantrums, arguments and bouts of egomania, but equally Herzog writes of Kinski like a brother. This aspect of the latter half of 'Conquest of the Useless' proves as affecting as it is compelling. But what really makes the book such a wonderful and unmissable read is that the film, the ship, the crazed actor, the lunatic logistics or the director himself never force their way to the front of the narrative; the real star of Herzog's memoir is the jungle.


Meeg said...

In an interview promoting the book, Herzog said that he thought that Mick Jagger had the potential to be an amazing actor.

He also seemed to embrace the fact that the film's production history was bound to be remember more than the actual film which I found interesting.

I really do like the actual film though.

Neil Fulwood said...

Reading the book, marvelling at Herzog's casual descriptions of how he got the occasional decent shot, weeks going by and all manner of disasters - logistical, medical, psychological - befalling the production, I had to keep reminding myself that there actually WAS a finished product, let alone a damn good movie, at the end of it.