Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Ruptures in time: Point Omega

The new novel begins and ends with brief passages titled ‘Anonymity.’ Set in 2006, their anonymous protagonist keeps returning to the Museum of Modern Art to contemplate
24 Hour Psycho, Douglas Gordon’s projection of the well-known Alfred Hitchcock film, slowed down to the point where it takes a full day to reach completion. The protagonist is arguably the artist’s dream audience—certainly the dream reader for author Don DeLillo—alert to nuance, patient, subject to reverie, willing to take on the promise of ambitious, puzzling, or ostensibly difficult work. “To see what’s there, finally to look and to know you’re looking, to feel time passing, to be alive to what is happening in the smallest registers of motion.” The protagonist knows the work he’s witnessing is incomplete without an engaged audience there to grapple with it, willing to participate in a silent dialogue about the tingle of inevitability, and how our perception of time’s passage defines our place in the world. “…things barely happening, cause and effect so drastically drawn apart that it seemed real to him…” I saw 24 Hour Psycho myself some years ago in Mexico City, and found I related utterly, rapturously to DeLillo’s essay-like meditation on Gordon’s unforgettable piece. So, you know, be warned.

The bulk of
Point Omega (Scribner, $29.99) however does not involve the protagonist of these bookend passages. That protagonist would appear to be DeLillo himself in fact, his sighting of a peculiar pair of strange men at the Gordon installation, as well as the installation itself, being the apparent prompt for this novel, which is far more concerned with investigating Gordon’s implied questions about time than it is with spinning out a fully realized narrative. (Another warning.) The men are Richard Elster, a 73-year-old scholar—he’s the same age as DeLillo is now—who was summoned by the Pentagon to help plan the Iraq War, and Jim Finley, our narrator, a young filmmaker hoping to convince Elster to the be the sole subject of a sort of minimalist documentary, something akin to The Fog of War or Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary, but more formally rigorous, and probably more foolish. Elster invites Finley to his home deep in the desert, never really conceding to do the project but seducing Finley in an odd way with his often cryptic, sometimes funny, sometimes quite profound thoughts on time and the elusiveness of self. “The true life takes place when we’re alone, thinking, feeling, lost in memory, dreamingly self-aware… This is how we live and think whether we know it or not. These are the unsorted thoughts we have looking out of the train window, small dull smears of meditative panic.”

Of course these abstractions may simply be Elster’s way of avoiding culpability. “War creates a closed world,” he tells Finley. “We have a living history and I thought I would be in the middle of it. But in those rooms, with those men, it was all priorities, statistics, evaluations, rationalizations.” Maybe he was just flattered by the attention. Maybe that’s also the reason why he allowed Finley to come out to the desert to subvert his solitude. But then a third party joins them, Elster’s daughter, who Finley is clearly attracted to though it takes him a bit to realize it. And then, in the midst of the trio’s odd cohabitation, she’s gone. Out here, in this place of expansive, primordial stillness, where time and space hold the promise of slowing down and evaporating us, in this place where the men come with cell phones and GPS to secure a connection to the outside world which they can utilize at will, the daughter just disappears, and the bond between these men gets denser, and weirder. It could seem like Elster’s musings on the omega point inadvertently delivered his own progeny to that place of non-being or emergence with the infinite. Maybe this is the result of some bafflingly complicated karma. Maybe, like
Psycho’s Marion Crane, Elster’s daughter simply never realized she’d exited one private trap only to find herself in another, more dreadful trap in the lonesome desert heat.

Point Omega shouldn’t be read for the purpose of becoming gripped by a rousing mystery tale, or provoked by a work of political interrogation, something DeLillo is surprisingly only half-interested in. Rather, I would suggest reading this as a way of immersing oneself in a state of observation, careful questioning, heightened sensual awareness of the world, and unnerving uncertainty. For this reason, Point Omega is much closer in spirit to DeLillo’s 2001 novel The Body Artist than to his more famous novels, such as White Noise or Underworld. The Body Artist is, like Point Omega, a very slim book. It also deals with a sort of disappearance, also concerns the limits of language, and also functions as a sort of essay on the power of audacious art to capture essences of being. It’s about a woman named Lauren, the body artist of the title, who loses a husband and soon after discovers a strange, mentally handicapped man hiding in her home who seems to be channeling conversations she’d recently had with her husband, almost replaying them like a recording device. Her encounters with this man, as well as with strangers spied on the street, lays the groundwork for a hypnotic new performance piece in which she adopts several personas through a physical discipline so rigorous it threatens to exhaust her beyond repair while helping her discover a way of mourning.

I’d read
The Body Artist a few times already, and when I decided to revisit it as a way of thinking about Point Omega, I found myself coming at it from two different angles. I’m in Vancouver just now and, what with the weather being uncharacteristically sunny, I’ve been walking for hours every day through the city, so I decided to have as my aural accompaniment on these walks an audiobook of The Body Artist read by musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson. I read a bit of the book, then listen to a portion of the audiobook. I can’t recommend Anderson’s rendition enough—it helped me to rediscover the compelling strangeness and wit and insight of DeLillo’s highly stylized novel. And Anderson’s so good with vocal modulations that Lauren’s gradual absorption of other voices comes off as eerily plausible. Of course to enjoy this I’ve had to steer clear of Olympic mania, which is about as far from engendering states of contemplation as anything I’ve ever seen in my life.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Toxic bureaucracy: The Crazies

The horror begins in the home, with brother frightening sister, father killing mother, and the whole house going up in flames. A military aircraft transporting biological weapons has crashed somewhere near Evans City, Pennsylvania, and infection is hypothesized to be spreading through the water supply. The primary symptom seems to be dementia, which in some cases can turn homicidal. But among the conceptual masterstrokes in
The Crazies (1973) is the conceit that even in such a cozy, conventional, middle-American community—or perhaps especially in such a place—it’s actually pretty hard to tell which citizens are infected and which aren’t. Once NBC suit-wearing military troops invade the town, evacuating frightened people from their homes, the line between the panic and repressed aberrant behaviour it prompts is nearly indistinguishable from the hypothesized bacteria-induced psychosis.

In anticipation of the impending remake, Metro Cinema is screening George Romero’s original
Crazies this Friday. Though Romero made a couple of features in the interim, genre fans will regard The Crazies as the proper successor to Romero’s groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead (68). This tale of a horrific disease, born of America’s cabalistic military-industrial complex, devouring a community, rendering its citizenry a mass of babbling, violent monsters, leaving only a handful of ill-equipped renegade survivors to fend for themselves, is after all, like Romero’s debut, essentially a zombie movie. And as with any good zombie movie The Crazies is grotesque satire, a commentary on the hysteria, perversity, and murderous fury bred from middle-class complacency and on government forces that when under threat are not inclined to act in our best interests.

Our heroes include a lusty pregnant nurse, a stoic fireman, a green beret, and a bearded biochemist, hilariously played by Richard France, expressing his frustration in Wellesian tones. The real nightmare they confront is not actually that of the mysterious contagion but of incompetent and rapidly metastasizing bureaucracy embodied by the invasion of disorganized military officials. Romero, acting as his own editor, stages and cuts sequences so as to evoke equal disorientation between viewers and the people on-screen, utilizing disruptive flash cuts, a cacophony of voices and sound effects, and a dizzying collage of close-ups and inserts, which makes the rampant over-acting from his enormous acting ensemble, many of whom were residents of Evans City, recruited on the spot to play themselves, even more bombastic.

Mister Romero

Even while the movie storms ahead in an aggressive flurry of deliberate confusion, Romero has a knack for keeping us grounded in inspired banal details. The soldier who quietly steals a couple of slick-looking fishing rods in the midst of forcing a screaming family out of their home, the military official who goes to light a cigarette and forgets he’s wearing a gas mask, the father who complains about the new generation’s loose morals before attempting to have intercourse with his daughter. (Has he caught the crazies, or is he just an inveterate child molester?) The Crazies may not be quite as atmospherically charged or fully realized as Romero’s very best, and all the drama class shout-acting gets a little tiring, but it’s these little particulars, the fragments of ordinary life that Romero refuses to overlook, that remind us of his unique and lasting contributions to the movies.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Half man, half beast, half measures: The Wolfman

The family has already suffered the untimely demise of its beloved, beautiful matriarch and the institutionalization and exile of one of its boys for mental illness. As our story begins tragedy strikes once more with the gruesome slaughter of another Talbot son on the eve of his marriage. He’s cut down one night along the moonlit moors by something that seems both beast and man. When Laurence Talbot returns from years abroad to find out what happened to his fallen brother, he’s reunited with John, their father, still lurking in the gloom of the family’s decrepit rural mansion, who advises Laurence to forget the past. It is a “wilderness of horrors,” he says, and best left ignored. Of course we know Laurence will do no such thing, since gothic tales such as this feed on obsession with the echoing creaks of old traumas that never die.

The Wolfman is itself an exercise in looking back, referencing a long tradition of lycanthrope flicks, mostly notably Universal’s own 1941 classic The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney, Jr. This latest entry isn’t set in the present or even in 1941 but rather in 1891, setting it just a few years after the Jack the Ripper murders. It doesn't really set out to renovate any aspect of the werewolf legacy but rather subscribes devoutly to the established rules and tropes of the familiar myth. Yet it feels uncertain as to how fully it wants to surrender to the spell of old things. Victorian England is made to look artificially caked in soot, and while early scenes thrive on the anxiety of the unseen, such as one riveting sequence that plays out in the terrifyingly insufficient firelight of a fog soaked gypsy camp, the movie, helmed by Jumanji director Joe Jonston, gradually makes concessions to contemporary demand for souped-up gore, offering flamboyant decapitations and buckets of organ spillage. The Wolfman boasts make-up design by the legendary Rick Baker, yet its transformation scenes, heavily accentuated by smooth and slick CGI, have nothing on the ferocious tactility of Baker’s precedent-setting work on 1981’s An American Werewolf in London. (You just don’t squirm the same way watching this newfangled stuff, perhaps because the horror isn't located in the body or even some likeness of the body but rather in some hovering screen of synthetic imagery.)

So I’m going to have to go with what seems to be the critical consensus on
The Wolfman as a movie that can’t quite make up its mind about what it wants to be, a moody and mysterious homage to the subtler chillers of old, or an iconoclastic, bracingly modern monster mash. It shifts uneasily from sinister to silly, from brooding to camp, especially once we’re thrown into one of these insane asylums where the torture treatments are administered by drooling, grinning maniacs. Yet for all that I was still pretty engaged with and entertained by The Wolfman. The perfectly cast Benicio Del Toro, who also produced, is arguably a bit wasted on Laurence for lack of rigorous character development, yet the character is just inherently interesting. Laurence is an actor, known for his Hamlet. He's perhaps psychologically unstable, and bears a confused but deeply-rooted Oedipal grudge against his father, played for kicks by Anthony Hopkins; he's drawn to his dead brother's fiancée, played fairly straight by Emily Blunt, who's made to resemble the brother's dead mother; and the hairy situation he finds himself in may be as much the product of repressed rage as a disease contracted from a particularly nasty animal bite. It just goes to show that certain monsters endure for a reason. No matter how often they’re overwhelmed by kitsch, no matter how often we recycle them, they still maintain the power to fascinate us by virtue of their primacy. You might chuckle at the conceit of a werewolf running loose in London, but it’s no great leap to buy into the metaphorical potency of the beast within.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Crossing paths: Revanche on DVD

Revanche (2008) is Austrian writer/director Götz Spielmann’s first film to receive a proper release in North America. Its rhythm is strange and its images striking. It's immediately engaging. We have the story about the ex-con bouncer/thief in love with the Ukrainian dancer/hooker brushing against that of the childless marriage between the country cop and his stay-at-home wife desperate to connect. The parallels between these soon-to-be tangled threads are as fascinating as the obvious differences. There’s a stupid plan to escape that goes bad, a death that shouldn’t have happened, a reunion between a son and his ailing widowed father, and a lot of rage buried within the younger male characters, ready to burst apart and shatter lives. In keeping with its intertwining tales, Revanche boasts an impressive series of balances: street smarts with bucolic serenity, formal austerity with narrative density, noir mechanics with a strange, lingering optimism. Hints of The Postman Always Rings Twice (46) or Criss Cross (49) intermingle with a stoic humanism and somewhat romantic view of nature, making a cocktail that defies genre.

Spielmann is exacting in his compositions and the memorable arrangement of his sequences, such as the brief, single-shot scenes that take us from a character’s entrance to sex in the shower to post-coital naked pizza eating. Our reticent antihero—the bouncer/thief, played with immense presence by Johannes Krisch, looking like a bassist in a Norwegian metal band—has quite a lot of sex actually, and also chops a lot of wood for dad, yet there isn’t a moment here that feels superfluous. Indeed, if it weren’t for the quiet beauty and mystery of the film, and the emotional texture of the performances,
Revanche would probably feel almost too carefully calculated. But Spielmann is tracing a process here, allowing grand, difficult, internal decisions to be arrived at and manifested, allowing the gravity and meaning of events to slowly seep in to his characters’ conscious minds, leading up to a truly intriguing variation on the whole idea of the revenge narrative.

Among the supplements here is Spielmann’s first film, the 45-minute
Foreign Land (84), which like Revanche investigates the transformative effects of nature. It’s about a kid left at the family farm to learn how to work the land that will one day be his. Cows are milked, pigs are fed, tourists in funny outfits arrive. Not a lot happens, but this is a charming film with a special sensitivity to place and mood that should make viewers curious about what else Spielmann’s been doing in the decades between these two films.

What Ophüls wants...: Lola Montès on DVD

It is perhaps too easy to dismiss the celebrity whose ascent is fueled by dubious artistic talent and “mere” sex appeal. Is the cultivation of celebrity not a talent in itself? We never actually see the eponymous heroine of
Lola Montès (1955) exhibit her ostensible skills as dancer or singer. While her story is framed by a dazzlingly baroque circus act of which she is both star and subject, she barely addresses her public, leaving the extolling of her legacy to Peter Ustinov’s wonderfully cynical ringmaster, who introduces her as “a bloodthirsty monster with the eyes of an angel.”

The real Lola, née Eliza Rosanna Gilbert, Irish-born, Spanish by shtick, dancer and actress by trade, mistress to powerful men by vocation, never toured the world in quite such spectacularly self-objectifying fashion as is depicted in this, Max Ophüls’ final masterpiece, mangled upon its initial release, newly restored in all its unspeakable gorgeousness, and now available from the Criterion Collection. The movie, which can be called a bio-pic in only the loosest sense, plays jazz over the very foggy historical facts of Montès’ life, yet Ophüls evokes truths that more fact-based accounts could never hope to grasp. The project was originally meant to be more modest, but as the producers insisted on hoisting such intrusions as Technicolor, Cinemascope and sex goddess Martine Carol upon Ophüls—who utilized each of these items masterfully—
Lola Montès increasingly became a kind of critique of itself. As Marcel Ophüls, the director’s son, said, the more they tried to turn the project into a grandiose commercial spectacle, the more Lola Montès became a movie about grandiose commercial spectacle. See Lola being serenaded by Franz Liszt in a horse-drawn carriage the size of a Winnebago as they glide through rural Italy; see Lola bid farewell to Anton Walbrook’s King Ludwig and escape a Bavarian uprising by being ushered through a labyrinth of catacombs by a lovesick young Oskar Werner; see Lola dive from the peak of the big top way down onto a little mattress placed by an army of acrobatic multi-colored midgets…

We see Lola whisked through numerous opulent settings, always beautiful, sumptuously costumed, and a little melancholy, always captured by Ophüls’ relentlessly mobile cameras, their fluid movements emphasizing the transitory nature of being and the sweep of memory and theatre. But we never see inside Lola’s heart and mind. Two hours after being regaled of her feats of seduction we hardly know a thing about her, hardly penetrate her exquisite exterior. If this feels uncomfortably like vacuous pageantry, well, that’s kind of the idea. This is biography as high wire act, with Ophüls concocting one breathtaking, elaborately staged episode after another, and the sadness of it all accumulates only in the margins. It’s a bizarre cinematic experience, audacious, enthralling, and frustrating. There’s nothing like
Lola Montès. It cries out for the big screen, but Criterion’s package is the best possible substitute, and the extras are terrific. It’s their fourth such packaging of Ophüls’ French output. I’m now crossing my fingers that they’ll start dipping into his underrated Hollywood films.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Lasting impressions: Robert Walser's The Tanners

portraits of Robert Walser included in W.G. Sebald's essay

Here’s what seized my attention right away. A young man enters a bookstore, asks to be introduced to the proprietor. Upon meeting the old man he begins a rambling, effusive overture detailing his profound desire to enter the world of bookselling. “My love of humankind will be agreeably balanced with mercantile rationality which in fact bears equal weight and appears to me just as necessary for life as a soul filled with love…” The proprietor agrees to hire the young man on the spot, giving him a week’s trial period. A week later, after having made a highly favorable impression, the young man approaches his employer and unexpectedly demands to be let go. “I’ve come to realize that the entire book trade in nothing less than ghastly if it must entail standing at one’s desk from early morning till late at night while out of doors the gentlest winter sun is gleaming, and forces one to scrunch one’s back, since the desk is far too small given my stature…” His resignation speech is as deliciously excessive as his earlier declaration of vocational discovery. The sequence is hilarious, teetering on absurd, yet peppered with almost lyrical observations on the nature of work and youth and spiritual urges that resonate and will continue to resonate throughout this ambulatory, funny, hypnotic, strangely haunting work. It was the first novel from Swiss author Robert Walser, and the last to be translated into English—very beautifully, by Susan Bernofsky—more than a century after its 1906 publication.

Truthfully, it was the accolades alone that sold me on
The Tanners (New Directions, $20). Walser was not widely read during his lifetime (1878-1956), but among his readers were Franz Kafka, Herman Hesse and Walter Benjamin. Those who have pledged their admiration for Walser in the decades after his death include Susan Sontag, J.M. Coetzee and W.G. Sebald, who wrote the eloquent essay which functions as an introduction to The Tanners. “The traces Robert Walser left on his path through life were so faint as to have been almost effaced altogether… he was only ever connected to the world in the most fleeting of ways.” Sebald’s evocation of Walser’s ghost-like movement through life, rarely settling anywhere, always walking, owning nothing, not even his own books, being institutionalized in a psychiatric facility in 1933, where he retired from writing, and finally dying of a heart attack on a snowy pathway, is captivating in its mystery, a mystery that extends into Walser’s work. The Tanners is titled after the siblings who inhabit its pages, but its central character, Simon Tanner, seems to have been conceived somewhat autobiographically. Only 20 at the novel’s start, he’s bright, seemingly full of promise, an orator of marvelous talents. “I don’t like to spend too long considering before I speak,” Simon says, yet he speaks always with wit and precision. He’s a hard-worker when employed. He moves from job to menial job, from apartment to spartan apartment, at times from sibling to sibling—his sister is an unmarried schoolteacher, his brothers include an academic and a landscape painter. Each worries over him fruitlessly. Toward the novel’s end Simon offers a typically loquacious confession to one of many strangers drawn to him. “I’m still standing at the door of life, knocking and knocking, though admittedly none too forcefully, and breathlessly listening to see whether someone will decide to open the bolt and let me in.”

The Tanners is both melancholy and relentlessly good-natured. Simon is both fascinated by and removed from the world around him. The book is constructed to an unusually large degree of letters and monologues—open the book at random, you’ll likely find someone writing or talking. Many of the speeches are Simon’s, though in Walser’s universe just about everyone is gifted with the ability to hold forth on whatever passing notion, and Simon’s wandering journey yields countless, arresting portraits of characters, even those glimpsed only briefly. Rosa, who weeps alone for an unrequited love; Klara, who falls wholly under the spell of each member of the Tanner clan she meets; a beguiling dancer; a young, married explorer, home from his travels, who likes to fire guns into the forest in the middle of the night; an old man with a dripping nose; a teacher suffering from domestic abuse; a gay nurse; a reformed pedophile. While never overwrought or imposed upon with psychological dissections, each character drifts vividly in and out of Walser’s vivid scenes, each one a depiction of urban or rural landscapes, a contrast that embodies the divided spirit of the protagonist. Sebald notes how so much of what occurs in Walser’s stories slip quickly and inexplicably out of memory, and I see what he means, Walser’s transitions can be so unassuming as to barely punctuate epiphanies, events, entrances and exits. Yet once you’ve read through The Tanners I think you’ll find that its faces and places and states of mind cascade through your memory. The order is lost, but the impressions remain.

The Tanners was my first experience with Walser’s work and I rushed directly from it to another Walser, Jakob von Gunten (NYRB Classics, $16.50), published in 1909, which I gather is his most famous novel, and which some of you may know as the source material to the 1995 Brothers Quay film Institute Benjamenta, which I haven’t seen. This shorter novel, translated by Christopher Middleton, written in the form of a diary, describes a deeply mysterious school for boys where very little is actually to be learned, so says the titular diarist, who at one point writes, “pupils are slaves, young leaves, torn from branches and trunks, given up to the merciless gale…” Yet Jakob seems to like this very much. He has come here, having ran from an oppressive father—in more ways than one does this novel seem to have had a major impact on Kafka—is eagerly striving to become “a zero” and aspires to a career in servitude. But there is also something very sinister about the Institute Benjamenta, which promises to be revealed to Jakob as he’s gradually embraced by its staff of two, made a favourite, and ushered into secret chambers where he at one point is instructed to “fondle” a “Wall of Worries.” The intrigue is only partly paid off, yet the finale is nonetheless satisfying.

Monday, February 1, 2010

"There is such a thing as the bliss of evil...": Werner Herzog on The Bad Lieutenant

Call it a twisted little demonstration of the vagaries of karma. Corrupt cop saves guy from drowning and gets saddled with chronic, agonizing back pain for his efforts. Cop is celebrated as a hero while descending deeper into corruption, gambling, gobbling narcotics swiped from the property room, cutting deals with crooks, and generally harassing, threatening, and soliciting sexual favours from civilians. Plus, he’s a total showoff. But then, just when it seems things can’t get any worse, that he’ll never crawl out of the pit he’s dug for himself, everything starts to go his way. Enemies are eliminated. Creditors become pals. Problems disappear. His previously flailing football team even wins a game. We’re left with the possibility that he may be reformed, though it’s difficult to tell. He remains prone to hallucinatory visions of nature, and the lure of chemical therapy never quite dissipates.

Who is Terence McDonagh? He’s played by Nicolas Cage, so we already know not to make presumptions. He’s the titular antihero of
The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans, which suggests that this sordid tale we’re watching unfold is just one of many pit stops along some longer road to perdition. Of course it also suggests the movie’s somehow related to Abel Ferrara’s cult classic Bad Lieutenant (1992), though connections are limited to their both featuring lieutenants, and the lieutenants are really bad. Perhaps it’s most useful to regard Terry as, above all, a Werner Herzog protagonist, a terminally marginal male, enigmatic, ecstatic, tainted with hubris, capable of violence, witness to revelations or mirages, a tormented refugee from the dark wilderness of the subconscious. Of course, this is also a cop movie, with a lot of perfectly corny generic cop movie shenanigans. The weirdest thing about The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans, even weirder than it’s absurdly double-coloned mouthful of a title, is that Herzog, author of Aguirre: Wrath of God (72), Stroszek (77), Fitzcarradlo (82) and, more recently, Grizzly Man (05) and Encounters at the End of the World (07), directed it at all. Yet the result is a deliciously improbable success, a shotgun marriage of off-Hollywood exploitation and Herzog’s eccentric, romantic, doom-laden outsider art.

It’s also the marriage of Herzog and Cage, who gives one of his most captivating and imaginative performances, steeped in gleeful pathology, seemingly seized by some invisible force that compels him to do things like terrorize a little old lady in a wheelchair with an oxygen tank. He waits for her hidden behind a door, shaving. Herzog and Cage introduced the movie to a very excited capacity crowd at the Ryerson Theatre during last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival, where both The Bad Lieutenant and Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done had their Canadian premiere. Cage played it cool while Herzog played the showman, a position to which he’s naturally suited. In that unmistakable Bavarian-accent, Herzog merrily boasted about how “Herzog delivers the goods!” He explained how he instructed Cage to “turn the pig loose,” and Cage dutifully complied. Is Cage the new Klaus Kinski? Is Eva Mendes, who plays Terry’s call-girl girlfriend, the new Eva Mattes? Such comparisons do injustice to either party, but it’s clear that this new, increasingly almost multiplex friendly Herzog has found a fresh and reliable muse for his lessons in darkness, an actor who also just happens to be one of the biggest box office draws in the world.

When offered time with Herzog I was thrilled, even though the interview would only run about 25 minutes and would be a roundtable rather than one-on-one. This meant that I’d be sharing Herzog with a handful of other writers, including some who appeared shy of legal driving age and a kindly older lady who a tendency to interject with questions that have nothing to do with the topic at hand. Herzog was utterly charming, irreverent, frequently hilarious, playfully aggressive, and occasionally evasive. It made for a surprisingly funny group discussion. The first young woman to ask Herzog about
The Bad Lieutenant got the ball rolling with an ill-advised question the director eagerly pounced upon. I think he made her a little nervous.
“How did you make this remake your own?” she asks.
“Explain remake,” Herzog counters, his eyes narrow, fixed dead on his subject. His body is motionless. “What is the remake?”
“Well it was already… Cause, I mean…”
“Explain it.”
“Cause, uh…”
“You are the one who is challenged now.”
“Cause it’s based on a film by Abel Ferrara.”
“No it is not. Explain that. How is it based on a film by Abel Ferrara?”
“Cause it basically follows a similar… It’s based on a screenplay that was…”
“It is not. What is similar there?”
“Okay… Yeah… Nothing.”
“So why do you call it a remake? Why use the term? Because it’s floating around somewhere.”
“Okay, I’ll ask another question…”
Herzog smiles and sits back and gestures for everyone to relax. “It was just a title that was owned by the producers,” he explains. “They hoped to open some sort of franchise. That is the only connection.”

I get my first chance to pose a question. I try something I’d never normally use as an opener, but the clock’s ticking. “I was thinking that the protagonists in both The Bad Lieutenant and My Son, My Son, like many of your protagonists, are men who commit terrible transgressions yet are seized by unnerving visions of the natural world. I wonder if you see these visions as somehow being redeeming qualities in these characters, or if these visions are what drew you to these stories.”
“I don’t think in such abstract terms,” Herzog replies. “There was a good story in both cases. I didn’t really make much choice. The film projects that I do always come like burglars at night. Like a home invasion! I just get them out. It is legitimate that you ask a question like that, but there are much simpler reasons why I do it. The Bad Lieutenant, a wonderful opportunity to work with Nicolas Cage. We kept an eye on each other for three decades. It never occurred to either of us that we should work together, and then, almost at the same moment, we thought this was an outrage. We started to try to find out about each other. I stumbled onto this screenplay and that same day I got a call from Australia from Nicolas Cage and within less than 60 seconds we were in business.”
“Do you feel any personal connection with these characters?”
“I only know that both are welcome new members to my family of characters. They’re comfortably seated at the table. Your question is certainly correct even if I don’t spontaneously connect to the way of thinking.”

Another writer asks about Cage, in what way was his performance a revelation?
“It’s not a revelation,” says Herzog. “I just pushed him to his limits. Just by my standing next to the camera and lingering there, he knew he had to go for it. He knew this was not a boy-scout field trip! But I’m not one who torture his actors like Kubrick would have done with 120 takes, completely senseless. I shoot two, three times and then it’s over.”
The kindly older lady interjects. “Woody Allen likes one or two shots. He likes to go home at 5:00, he says.”
“Well, he’s lazy bum,” says Herzog. “I’m not finishing my days early because I want to go home by 5:00. I finish it because I know this is the best we could have done.”

A young fellow asks about William Finkelstein’s script for The Bad Lieutenant, noting how much it seems like Herzog’s work, especially the iguana sequences, and lines like “Do fish dream?”
“That’s all mine,” admits Herzog. “And the entire beginning. I said to Billy Finkelstein that the beginning is boring. In his original screenplay the bad lieutenant rescues someone who is suicidal and jumps on the tracks of an incoming subway train. So what? I said we have to start it completely vile and debased and evil from the first moment, so I invented the flooded prison tract and they’re betting over how quickly the forgotten prisoner is going to drown. Also, I wanted to have more substance to the relationship between the young woman and the bad lieutenant, so I wrote the scene with the pirate treasure and the sterling spoon he gives to her as if he were handing over his whole childhood dreams. And of course the iguana and dancing souls, that’s all mine. But it was a very nice collaboration. I liked Billy so much I gave him a part as a gangster. He’s the one whose soul is dancing, with the pink jacket.”
“That’s a very impressive performance,” I blurt.
“Yes,” agrees Herzog. “I make everyone good.”
Everyone laughs.

The young woman who asked the first question returns. “In the movie you see Nicolas Cage being rewarded even though he’s constantly behaving badly. Do you feel that way about American society? That bad behaviour is constantly being rewarded?”
“We must be cautious,” says Herzog. “We are into movies. Nicolas asked me, ‘Why is he so bad?’ And I said don’t bore me with conceptual questions. And he laughed! He said, ‘Is it his childhood? Is it drugs? Is it New Orleans?’ I said to him, ‘There is such a thing as he bliss of evil. Let’s go for that.’ He just nodded and understood what I meant. But don’t draw too many connections to real life and real society. This is movies.”
Another writer says, “You’ve said that fiction is more interesting than truth…”
“No,” Herzog interjects. “Fiction is more interesting than fact. Truth is something way beyond all that.”
“Yet in terms of shooting locations,” she continues, “you vastly prefer a real city with a real story to a studio where you can control everything. Is that because the fact of landscape is inescapable?”
“I’ve never been a person who would ever like to work in a studio,” says Herzog. “Working in New Orleans was quite fascinating. I think the screenplay was written originally to be set in New York or Detroit, and the producer Avi Lerner was very apologetic and said, ‘Werner, we have to look after money, could you consider to do it in New Orleans because we have these fantastic tax incentives in Louisiana?’ I said, ‘Sure, wonderful! Can it get any better? Yes, let’s move to New Orleans!’ And what I didn’t know was that Nicolas Cage was pushing very hard to have it be in New Orleans because he loves the city. He speaks of renewal or being reborn in New Orleans. Whatever he actually means by that is certainly of deeper meaning for him. You can see that city is in a way a leading character. I avoided the clichés, Bourbon Street and voodoo and jazz musicians and you name it. It’s a very bleak…”
“And good restaurants,” says kindly older lady. There is a long pause. No one knows what to say. Kindly older lady breaks the silence. “But I don’t understand bliss of evil. I’ve never felt very much bliss of evil. I’ve felt bliss of good.”
“You are speaking of personal life,” Herzog says to her with a warm smile. “I’m speaking of movies. It’s figments of fantasies. We have to make a distinction. You have probably lived a blessed life so far. The bad lieutenant lives elsewhere.”