Sunday, 18 July 2010

Burden of Dreams (1982)

Country: USA

Burden of Dreams is a remarkable documentary that in many ways holds a greater prominence than the film it is documenting. The filming of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982) was becoming a legend while it was happening, but Les Blank’s documentary helps to clear aside the mythologizing in much the same way that Herzog’s army of extras cleared away a mountain pass for the central metaphor of the film. Blank’s camera helps to humanise the proceedings and documents in unflinching detail the heavy price that numerous people paid in service of Herzog’s dream. Dreams hang heavily in the air like the humid temperatures of the Peruvian jungle, and this is a document about the futility of attempting to capture a reality on screen that exists within the fevered realms of a dreamscape. The ‘making of’ documentary has become a debased form in the modern age of DVD with producers employing film crews dedicated to producing bland and generic featurettes during the making of the film for the sell through market. These artless self-centred ego trips are barely watchable, but it means that the cost of producing material for the DVD is absorbed into the budget of the film. The genius of Burden of Dreams, and the reason such a film wouldn’t be made now, is that it concerns itself with things other than the making of the film. Blank’s documentary possesses an organic and improvised feel which uses the events surrounding the production of Fitzcarraldo as an anchor for a very inquiring camera.

Whilst the events that befell the making of Fitzcarraldo form the spine of the movie, Blank seems more interested in the effect on the slowly fragmenting psyche of Werner Herzog. A border dispute between Ecuador and Peru saw Herzog’s first camp burnt to the ground as he became unwittingly embroiled in local Indian politics. His lead actor Jason Robards fell ill and never returned to the jungle, and Mick Jagger was likewise forced to relinquish his role due to touring commitments. In addition to this Herzog had to cope with the unpredictable Amazonian weather - the period in which he shot most of the film was one of the driest in recorded history, resulting in the low water levels that caused all kinds of logistical problems with the steamship. The arrival of Klaus Kinski would have been both a blessing and a curse as Herzog struggled to arrest the dwindling morale of an army of frustrated Indian extras. When you also add in plane crashes, disease, and Indian attacks, one marvels that Herzog even completed the film. These events are constantly in the background and Blank allows Herzog a space on screen to come to terms with them. What we see is a man slipping slowly into insanity. Herzog feverishly raves about the jungle, personifying it and viewing it as a curse. This is an affecting portrait and Herzog comes across as driven, stubborn and fiercely devoted to the symbolic and metaphorical value of his story. He is so driven in fact he rejects the advice of a Brazilian engineer when attempting to drag the steamship over the mountain ridge. Herzog is brittle with a perpetually haunted look on his face,  one which prompts the question as to whether it was all worth it? A viewing of Fitzcarraldo will answer that question for you.

Blank also takes many opportunities to emphasise that the cast and crew are over a thousand miles away from civilisation. The strangulating vines of the jungle encroach on numerous shots as the modern technology of the European film crew tries in vain to make order out of chaos. To his credit Blank attempts to give Burden of Dreams an ethnographic purpose. We are privy for example to much of the local ecology - weird bugs, screeching exotic birds, but also the disturbingly mundane and reassuring sight of pigs, chickens, and turkeys. Much attention is given to the customs of the Indians such as the production of Masato, we see how they resolve disputes, and how hard they labour. Blank films this in a dignified and non-judgemental manner as the commentary points out that Herzog is paying the locals twice the going rate. The local colour and the enthusiasm of the people of Iquitos and of the various Indian tribes alleviates much of the apocalyptic doom and gloom we here from Herzog. If the film has one weakness it lies in the fact that he doesn’t offer an alternative perspective. Herzog’s world view comes to dominate the film, and at the time it was a particularly bleak one. Burden of Dreams has justifiably become a landmark documentary and appears even more astonishing and enlightening in an age where documentaries about film production are empty and self serving.

© Shaun Anderson 2010

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts with Thumbnails