Tag Archives: artistic process

Uphill Battle

We love stories about ambition. About men (always men) who dream and build the impossible. The messianic wonder of Lawrence of Arabia; the phallic hugeness of the Empire State Building or the Washington Monument; the anything-for-spectacle expedition of King Kong; even the improbable triumph of the Founding Fathers who stitched a new nation together out of some squabbling British colonies. In that same tradition, Werner Herzog forged the delirious man vs. nature fable Fitzcarraldo (1982).

Here, the man with the plan is industrialist Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, called Fitzcarraldo by the Peruvians. He’s played by Herzog’s “best fiend” Klaus Kinski, whose intense blue eyes and shock of blond hair contrast jarringly with the Amazon rainforest. Obsessed with the opera—especially turn-of-the-century tenor Enrico Caruso—he pledges to build an opera house in the city of Iquitos. This unfeasible dream and its financial burden lead him to an untapped grove of rubber trees, accessible only after crossing a steep strip of land with a steamship. It’s a brazenly stupid act, but he does it, and he carries the audience with him.

Like the earlier Herzog/Kinski collaboration Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo is defined by its eccentricity. Herzog maps incongruous aural textures onto one another, layering the dazed Popol Vuh score, the dubbed-in German, the buzz of the rainforest, some Caruso arias, and Kinski’s plaintive yowls. Broadly speaking, too, it’s about incongruity. Through sheer force of will, Fitzcarraldo brings his European clothes, machinery, and music into hostile territory where they do not belong. His faith in opera blinkers him, leading him into a morass of hubris and monomania. For Herzog, manifest destiny is a symptom of mental illness.

In the national myths I mentioned earlier (Lawrence, skyscrapers, Kong, George Washington), we’re absolved of moral responsibility for the sake of adventure. In stark opposition, Fitzcarraldo’s sociopathic self-obsession contaminates all of the film’s thrills and spills. His naked contempt renders the story’s underlying mechanics visible: how racism and genocide are yoked to imperialism; how a lone, self-aggrandizing white man rides on the backs (and land) of non-white laborers. How the whole film, like the actions of missionaries and conquistadors everywhere, is premised on a self-destructive delusion.

And that delusion is suffocating. Even with Amazonian aerial shots galore, Fitzcarraldo feels claustrophobic, since we’re always rooted in its title character’s headspace. During the film’s centerpiece sequence, Herzog shoots the aggregation of pulleys dragging the ship, the army of native “bare-asses” recruited to work them, and the ship’s incremental motion with a mix of fetish and fascination. It’s painful to watch, because it twists traditional audience response: do you recoil or marvel? Does the grandeur justify the futility?

Based loosely on a true story, Fitzcarraldo is infamous for its troubled production. Even if original stars Jason Robards and Mick Jagger hadn’t left mid-production, Herzog still had the self-assigned, Herculean chore of pulling a steamship over a hill, sans models or visual effects. But as he said during an investors’ meeting when the project was in danger of collapse, “If I abandon this project, I would be a man without dreams, and I don’t want to live like that.” In this respect, then, it’s also an autobiographical meta-narrative about the audacity of filmmaking—of squandering millions to physically reproduce nonexistent worlds.

Unlike so many artists, Herzog doesn’t romanticize the act of creation, but rather recognizes its selfishness. Throughout his work, it feels like a fundamental, akin to breathing. He films violently, even destructively. (Just look at Les Blank’s making-of documentary Burden of Dreams, or his hellish relationship with Kinski.) The ethos of Fitzcarraldo reminds me of a quote from William Faulkner: “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.” For both men, writing or building or filmmaking are anything but benign; they flow from dark, atavistic drives. Werner Herzog would not hesitate to rob his mother.

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Creative droughts and the world of Jack Chick

It’s one of those days. Little ideas flit in and out, but on the whole, my mind is empty. The human mind is a strange, strange place; whole worlds can exist, then be demolished an instant later. Works of extraordinary genius can be dreamed up, then fall apart as if they never were. And it can be swarming with one thought after another yesterday, feel bone-dry today, and tomorrow be just as fertile as it ever was. But I wanted to write a short blog post, and here I am doing it. There must be something to say, after all. I think that’s a vital part of life: having something to say. Otherwise, if I didn’t believe I had that, I might as well sew up my mouth, pack up, and drift into oblivion.

I read a quote in the Sandman Companion that I really liked. It was from Steve Martin: “I think I did pretty well, considering I started out with nothing but a bunch of blank paper.” I think this applies to the act of creation in general. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to start with nothing but empty line after line and gradually fill in the blanks. It’s like solving an impossibly difficult puzzle with a lot of possible answers, only a few of which really work. It’s like giving birth, except you can scrap your baby, usually without much remorse, and you have free rein with genetic engineering. So that’s being creative. And I like to do that myself, and I also like to take a peek into the evidence that other people have been creative, as well. Like, say, reading poetry. Someone began with nothing and, using the resources of language in and outside their head, produced, for example, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55.

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments ,

Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme…

Or start with nothing but empty celluloid and produce Roy Andersson’s You, the Living, a dark Swedish comedy about coping with emptiness and solitude, told in a strictly stylized manner. I had the good fortune to see it last year at an illicit Film Society screening; one of our members had downloaded it because, naturally, it was unavailable to view anywhere in the country. Only three of us attended the screening on a Sunday afternoon (I had just returned, I think, from Dallas), and now I give thanks to illegal torrenting that I was able to see it. It’s poignant, it’s weird, and I very much recommend that you violate international law by downloading and watching it, unless you can go either to Sweden or to the one theater where it’s being shown in New York City. Creativity is beautiful, but works of art being unavailable for financial reasons is like taking that genetically-engineered baby and chaining them to a post.

Then, on the other side of artistic creation, I want to touch on the subject of Jack T. Chick, someone whose work I find myself returning to again and again. Chick can’t draw well, his dialogue is nonsensical, and his storylines are, well, also nonsensical. Yet he’s one of the most visible comics artists in pretty much the whole world. Why? Because his (sincere) fans are very devoted and willing to go to extreme lengths to make his work seen, like passing them out during Halloween, putting them in public places, etc. Some stand on street corners handing out his comic pamphlets. And all this contributes to Chick being easily seen by those who wouldn’t seek his work out normally (i.e., most sane/intelligent people).

Chick, you see, is a fundamentalist Christian – one who not only alienates, but actively insults most of his prospective audience. The words “raving,” “lunatic,” and “frothing at the mouth” seem like understatements. Chick is, as some would say, a Grade-A, certified loony. Although I’ve heard that in person, he’s actually a pretty nice guy. If you’ve read any of his comics before, you know what I speak of; if not, a good sample of his unique brand of extremist incoherence is Fairy Tales?, the story of a young boy who turns into a serial killer because he’s told Santa doesn’t exist, or something.

The start of Harry's descent into sin, from "Fairy Tales?"

I’m afraid I have very little time today, so I’ll have to cut this particular post short. However, in the future, I’d like to delve a little more into why, exactly, I keep reading Chick’s bizarre, inept comics. Their value, after all, is almost entirely ironic; even if you agree with Chick’s self-contradictory dogmas and conspiracy theories, the comics are still poorly drawn and written. But they just have so much ironic value, and they’re so poorly thought out, that they gain a quality similar to the films of Ed Wood and enable you to read them over and over again. They take place in a Chick-created world incredibly far removed from this one where satanists roam free across the landscape, poisoning children’s bodies and minds, and where the most committed practicer of witchcraft will turn his/her life around with the slightest prodding from a Jack Chick enthusiast. (If the status and influence of Chick’s comics within the world of the comics is any indication of Chick’s ego… wow.) In some confusing, twisted way, I feel we have a lot to learn from Jack Chick. Just so long as we never, ever try to take him seriously.

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