Archive for Werner Herzog

Don’t Frighten the Vultures!

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 6, 2018 by dcairns

David Wingrove returns with another of his Forbidden Divas, dealing with a film that somehow completely passed me by on its release. He was worried that this piece might be too mean. But I think we have to be able discuss plastic surgery and performance in films… but let us know what you think.

FORBIDDEN DIVAS 

Don’t Frighten the Vultures!

 “A silly bitch! A chattering windbag! A conceited, gushing, heavy-chested

man-woman! A globe-trotting, rump-wagging, blethering ass!”

–          A male co-star describes Nicole Kidman in Queen of the Desert

I make no apologies for adoring Nicole Kidman. In a world of drab nonentities, she is a star who looks and behaves like a star. Her ten-year marriage to Tom Cruise was one of the outstanding acting triumphs of the 90s. Since divorcing Tom, she has had to act on the screen, not off it. But she did so brilliantly in The Others (2001) and Dogville (2003) and Fur (2006). She has kept on going in The Paper Boy (2012) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017). There was an Oscar for one of her less effective roles – as Virginia Woolf in The Hours (2002) where she suggests a supermodel impersonating a batty Bohemian bag lady. But she made up for it with the gloriously camp royal extravaganza Grace of Monaco (2014). Mind you, she is far more beautiful than the real-life Grace Kelly, not to mention a vastly superior actress.Her career has been one of odd and wayward choices – but seldom, if ever, a dull or a lazy one. So news that Nicole was teaming up with globe-trotting megalomaniac auteur Werner Herzog was something of a cinephile wet dream. She has the blonde hair and the vaguely manic blue eyes to become a female Klaus Kinski, who – under Herzog’s guidance – went mad in exotic locations in Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982). The role chosen was Gertrude Bell, a sort of female Lawrence of Arabia who explored and mapped the Middle East in the early 20th century and drew up the borders of present-day Syria and Iraq. Given that both countries are in a state of ongoing meltdown – beset by ethnic, religious and political wars – Bell now looks like a meddlesome amateur of the very worst kind. But however politically ill-timed it might be, Queen of the Desert (2015) had the potential to be a full-blown exercise in movie madness.It begins promisingly enough at an opulent stately home in England’s green and pleasant land. The young Gertrude is just down from Oxford and railing against her life as an upper-class debutante. There is nothing new in a movie asking us to sympathise with the woes – real or imagined – of absurdly entitled and over-privileged folk. Our disquiet is focused squarely on Nicole or, rather, on the ever-changing work-in-progress that is Nicole’s face. She is meant to be in her early twenties but looks at least forty. Her features have the glazed and plumped-up look of the 45-year-old Lana Turner, cast as a virginal bride in the opening scenes of Madame X (1966). We must take it on faith that the still-lovely Jenny Agutter is playing her mother. She looks more like a wise and well-bred elder sister who has opted for the natural look.Soon enough, her long-suffering parents grow fed up with her whining and pack her off to Tehran – where a distant cousin is head of the British Legation. Surely now is her chance to open herself wide to the mysteries of the Orient. Instead, she opens herself wide to a dashing junior diplomat played by James Franco. The kindest thing one can say is that his English accent is only slightly less convincing than Robert Redford’s in Out of Africa (1985). (Redford, famously, did not attempt an accent at all.) He climbs with Gertrude to the top of one of the mythic Towers of Silence, where the Zoroastrians leave their dead to be eaten by vultures. The lone vulture in residence takes unkindly to their presence. Jutting out its neck, it emits a loud squawk at the camera. This is by far the most expressive piece of acting we have witnessed so far. The intruding lovers retreat and consummate their passion elsewhere.Inexplicably, Gertrude’s parents baulk at this chance to get rid of her. It seems her suitor is socially déclassé and given to gambling. She goes home to England to nag them into changing their minds. Some months pass and Franco stages an abrupt exit by drowning himself in a river. Despairing of ever finding another man whose acting is worse than hers, Gertrude resolves to spend her life roaming the Middle East in his memory. She becomes – so the closing credits tell us – the leading expert of her day on Bedouin tribes and their culture. On screen, she displays all the cultural acclimitisation of Dorothy in her travels through the Land of Oz. Entire decades slip by with Nicole looking bored on top of a camel or wandering through an Arabian souk, in wafting white draperies on loan from Marlene Dietrich in The Garden of Allah (1936). The desert sands blow very prettily indeed. But whoever suspected that a trek lasting several months, through places quite devoid of human habitation, could possibly be this dull?!The dramatic high point of Queen of the Desert is not hard to pinpoint. It happened when our cat Toby found a cork that had rolled off the table during dinner. He rolled it deftly around the room, with the flair of a feline Lionel Messi. I’m honestly not sure what country Gertrude was meant to be in at that point. The film was shot on location in Morocco and Jordan – where Nicole, as any reader of Hello! will tell you, is a close personal friend of Queen Rania. There is a tentative – and even more tedious – affair with a second British diplomat (Damian Lewis) and an encounter with T E Lawrence, played as a cameo role by Robert Pattison of Twilight. In all fairness, his performance is no better than anyone else’s. But it is, at least, enthusiastically and energetically bad. He is a refreshing contrast to Nicole, who seeks to absolve herself of bad acting by not acting at all. Or is she just resting her facial muscles for their next encounter with the surgeon’s knife?I realise I have said nothing at all about Queen of the Desert’s place in the wilfully eccentric oeuvre of Werner Herzog. There is, frankly, no indication that Herzog or anyone else directed this movie. Still, I suppose somebody must have.

David Melville

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Steal from the Best

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 15, 2018 by dcairns

Really enjoyed James Gray’s THE LOST CITY OF Z — I’m not sure how much it amounts to, but as an impressively classical, slow-moving adventure and as a bold departure from his usual genre, it deserves praise.

Three swipes.

An abandoned boat calls to mind AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD, though Gray doesn’t go so far to have it wedged in the branches of a tree, hovering above the waterline. That would be too much.A WWI battlefield sports a damaged statue of Christ on the cross — clearly a nod to the opening scenes of Sam Fuller’s THE BIG RED ONE, though this figure isn’t minus an arm. Again, that would be going too far. And, when Charlie Hunnam leaves on his final mission to the jungles of Bolivia, he leans from the train window and Gray cuts to shots filmed as if from his POV, tracking rapidly through the bedrooms of his wife and children. A blatant borrowing from the ending of Fellini’s I VITELLONI, a favourite scene of mine. I’m sufficiently impressed by the cheek shown, the obscurity of the reference, and its aptness, that I’ll allow this. Though I think Fellini’s decision to use train noise throughout his sequence is superior to Gray’s choice to score the scene orchestrally.

Every Speliologist for Himself and God Against All

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Painting, Science with tags , , , , , on September 14, 2017 by dcairns

I tweeted that Werner Herzog’s CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS was maybe the best 3D movie ever, but maybe I should have said “best USE of 3D”?

I watched this movie with a colossal grin. Almost every shot did something delightful to my brain.

I’ve been waiting years to see it in 3D. Edinburgh Filmhouse took awhile to install a 3D system, and in the end went for a weird one where you need your glasses to be charged with electricity — I think this had something to do with them not wanting to install a 3D screen which would have compromised the picture quality of every flat film shown. And I think the Cameo installed such a screen.

Anyhow, when the Filmhouse installed 3D I was looking forward to finally being able to see Herzog’s film as it was meant to be seen. I’d avoided seeing it flat. But then Filmhouse decided “Our audience doesn’t like 3D” and never showed it. Anyhow, happy ending, they finally did, and got a pretty good-sized audience. Imagine if they’d shown it when the film was new.

But the Filmhouse system has drawbacks. You can’t be sure the glasses are working until the film starts. Fiona’s didn’t, and she had to run and change them. Mine conked out ten minutes before the end and I spent a chunk of the film’s climax running around the whole outside of the auditorium looking for a staff member to open the shutters and release a fresh pair… However, in spite of all that, this was still maybe my favourite 3D experience.

We weren’t totally uncritical of the movie. Fiona pointed out that Herzog kind of distorted what one of his interviewees was saying in order to justify his title. We don’t know that the Chauvet cave paintings have anything to do with dreams. Sure, the nameless cro-magnons who painted the paintings probably dreamed about ibex and horses, but probably the reason they painted them is that they SAW them regularly. Herzog also goes off on a mad spree to a nearby nuclear power station where the water from the coolers has produced a microclimate in which, we are told, albino crocodiles have arisen.

Herzog, of course, can’t help seeing this as some kind of allegory for something. But Herzogian allegories, like albino crocodiles, are strange, mutant beasts. Britta in the TV show Community helpfully defines an allegory as “a thought wearing another thought’s hat” (which is lovely because her definition is itself a kind of allegory) but Herzog’s thoughts always seem to mistake their wives for hats. Like the dwarfs who started small or the man who pulled a ship up a mountain, they never quite translate one thing into another without a lot of leftover bits sticking out. Still, I was grateful for the opportunity to see the pallid reptiles, and stereoscopically too.

Also: our friend Donald was particularly scornful of the way, when a scientist suggests simply listening to the sound of the cave, Herzog can’t resist almost immediately fading up a heartbeat and music. A relatively rare failure of the poetic imagination from the maker of KASPAR HAUSER.

The 3D is gorgeous. I even found it enhanced by the low-quality video from Herzog’s recce. As has often been remarked, the film focusses on flat line drawings, but drawn on the contours of curving walls, so a lot of the movie is looking at fairly subtle spacial gradations — a nice, tasteful use of the medium. But Herzog also had a guy demonstrating cro-magnon weaponry, who sticks a spear right in our faces. Subtlety is most effective when contrasted with its opposite. Ask Ken Russell.

And those cave walls are sometimes very curvy indeed. One daubing of a woman with possibly an animal head encircles a chubby stalactite so Herzog has to stick his camera on a pole to see around it — he’s not allowed off a walkway in the cave — like the time travelers in Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder. Leaving the path could disturb the past.

Herzog even has fun with the superimposed titles which identify his interviewees. I was amused by the floating subtitles in AVATAR (I guess the filmmaker has to choose a specific depth for them, they simple CAN’T be flat, but it was funny when, in an O.S. shot the foreground shoulder was closer than the subtitle. Don’t move left, Neytiri, we won’t be able to read what Eytukan is saying! When Herzog arrays two interviews at different distances, he does the same with their titles. he’s a puckish fellow, is Werner.

We also get drone shots of the surrounding countryside, but the handheld traversing of narrow paths is even better. Everything about the Cro-magnon lifestyle and environment, it seems, is perfectly suited to 3D, or else to Werner’s eye. I’ve noticed that filmmakers tend to get better at 3D on their second try — I hope we get another in-depth outing from Herzog.