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Link Dump: #65

This week’s kitty is not only adorably nommin’ some food; it’s also right next to Ryan Gosling’s legs in the movie Half Nelson, which makes it doubly cute. In short, cute kitty! Now here’s a very full, very fun set of links:

Here’s an especially timely search term: “cannes film festival fucking pussy films.” Also, “flsh lifht pussy.” Whatever that means.

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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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RIP Bruno S. and Patricia Neal

Courtesy of The Auteurs, I learned that Bruno S. (aka Bruno Schleinstein) died Wednesday at age 78. Totally unique in the annals of film history, Bruno S. was closer to being an outsider artist than a conventional actor. (He was also a street musician who had spent a time in mental institutions.) Given all this, it’s no surprise that S.’s best-remembered performances were in films by notably batshit insane director Werner Herzog, namely The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) and Stroszek (1977).

Bruno S. distinguished both films with the addition of his bizarrely alien acting style; in Kaspar Hauser, for example, he convincingly portrayed the feral child found in the streets of 19th century Nuremberg, and in Stroszek, he was the ultimate fish out of water – an alcoholic ex-convict from Germany trying to cope with life in rural Wisconsin. Like Klaus Kinski in numerous other films of the ’70s and ’80s, he was Herzog’s co-conspirator, tuned in to the same frequency of madness and together turning it into raw, throbbing, rule-breaking art.

However, Bruno S. channeled a different side of Herzog’s madness: he was less blatantly aggressive than Kinski, bottling up his confusion and frustration with the outside world (especially in Stroszek) until it manifested itself in distorted, incomprehensible mental patterns. (This is made explicit in this scene, where the semi-autobiographical character of Bruno Stroszek explains how the pressures of American life have mangled his interior consciousness.) In Kaspar Hauser, he had similar complaints, attempting to reconcile himself with the absurdities of “civilized” life. Bruno S. made more of an impact in two films than many actors and actresses have made in dozens.

And finally, I should mention the loss of veteran actress Patricia Neal (1926-2010), a great actress who lit up films from the late 1940s until shortly before her death. I’ve enjoyed quite a few of Neal’s performances, but I’d like to highlight one in particular: her turn as a “self-important, neurotic, temperamental female” named Marcia Jeffries in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957). In the film, Neal discovers and then promotes the folksy, charismatic country singer Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith). When he grows into a psychotic, fascist monster bent on controlling the citizens (and politics) of the United States, however, she takes responsibility and then takes action.

Neal really does an incredible job of matching Griffith’s sheer ferocity with her own all-too-believable terror at the one-man media machine she’s created. Thanks to her, the film has a conscience and isn’t entirely dominated by Griffith’s demoniacal grin and the twinkle in his blazing eyes. So alas, two very one-of-a-kind screen legends have passed. Let’s remember them by watching their movies. (Also, if you enjoy A Face in the Crowd, I also recommend the novel What Makes Sammy Run? by Crowd (and On the Waterfront) screenwriter Budd Schulberg. It’s yet another look at all-consuming ambition run amok.)

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