Fitz and Starts

I got lucky and blundered upon a copy of Werner Herzog’s Conquest of the Useless in a charity shop. £2. Possibly £2 wasted, since I bought his earlier book Of Walking in Ice and never read it properly. In that one, Herzog walks from, I think Paris to Berlin, or something like that. curiously enough, he apparently doesn’t meet anyone along the way, so has plenty of time to think. Conquest of the Useless seems more interesting, though.

I didn’t know the book existed and yet I’d SEEN it. Let me explain, lest I be suspected of indulgence in symbolism. In MY BEST FIEND, the movie Herzog made about his (dysfunctional) working relationship with Klaus Kinski, he mentions a memoir he wrote while shooting FITZCARRALDO (or, as my film school tutor called it, MAD KLAUS GOES UP THE RIVER AGAIN). We are shown the book, and it’s tiny, with little crabbed runic writing injected into it, the kind of script used for writing the Lord’s Prayer on a grain of rice. “You had that published, didn’t you?” asks Claudia Cardinale. “No. Afterwards I was afraid to read it,” says Werner, mournfully.

 

But apparently a few years back, Werner got over his decades of fear and the book WAS published, and now I stood in a charity shop holding a far heftier version of it than the one I’d seen onscreen. I weigh the book, and my options. £2 isn’t very much, but it would be £2 wasted if I’m never going to read it. Which Herzog am I going to get?

The Herzog we meet in BURDEN OF DREAMS, the FITZCARRALDO making-of doc by the late Les Blank, is a man I don’t care for too much. Told that the mechanism for dragging a boat up a hill is prone to failure, and if it fails it might kill a lot of workers, he proceeds anyway. His laments about the jungle, “Even the birds, I don’t think they sing, I think they shriek in terror,” strike me as adolescent. This man, I feel, might have saved himself the trouble of towing a ship up a hill, at risk of human life, and merely painted his bedroom black.

To be fair, the guy does look like he’s suffering whatever they call Post-Traumatic Stress when the trauma’s not actually over yet.

But the Herzog we meet in MY BEST FIEND is a revelation — the film is hilarious. It’s not obvious whether Werner is in on the joke, but that’s a film I can quote long stretches from, in my shaky but recognisable Herzog imitation (go sibilant, extend your Fs and Ss, and do weird things with vowels: if in doubt, use the OW sound anywhere you like). This film is like my SPINAL TAP. “He screamed and ranted in the bathroom for six hours straight. The sink and toilet were smashed up so fine you could strain them through a tennis racket. The police came… but they left him in peace.”

Then Herzog appeared in Zack Penn’s INCIDENT AT LOCH NESS, a mockumentary, and a good one (also the only good Loch Ness Monster unless you count THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES) and it seemed he did indeed know he was being funny. He had discovered his comic persona, the way Harold Lloyd did when he put on glasses or Chaplin did when he assembled the tramp costume or Ricky Gervaise did when some helpful fellow told him he was a c*nt.

I open Conquest of the Useless at Random and read ~

Across from the wretched Pucallpa airport is a bar with a beautiful monkey, black, with limbs that go on forever. He looks very intelligent and would make the ideal companion for Fitz. A drunk spat at the monkey and almost hit him from behind. The monkey inspected and sniffed with great interest at this globule from the depths of an unhealthy lung, as it lay on the ground, greenish-yellow and steaming. It looked as though the monkey wanted to eat the spit, or at least taste it. I said silently to him, Leave it, leave it alone, and he let it be.

The police came, but they left him in peace. Laughing delightedly, I buy the book, though I remain worried about that monkey, remembering the poor little chap from the end of AGUIRRE (and the poor little Indians nearly killed hauling that ship up an incline).

Monkey has typical reaction to co-starring with Mad Klaus.

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3 Responses to “Fitz and Starts”

  1. “£2 isn’t very much, but it would be £2 wasted if I’m never going to read it.”
    No. If you have the book you can choose not to read it. If you don’t have the book you cannot choose not to read it.

  2. Oh I can, but such a choice would lack the force of true will.

    Anyway, it’s doing a valuable job of keeping the dust off a patch of floor by my armchair right now.

  3. […] On Picking Up A Werner Herzog Book In A Charity Shop And Wondering Just Which Werner Lies Inside […]

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