After a long silence, I’m back to talking about 80s’ cinema I have never seen before and plan to push on over time into the 90s and perhaps even further. I will be doing 4 films at a time from now on and if you’re not up to date on my first five blog entries in the series, please use the search bar and type in “80’s” or “Retrospective” to find them. There’s also “Horrorthon”, which deals with horror films from the same era, done between Mid-September all the way to Halloween.
Fitzcarraldo has been described as a spiritual successor or companion piece to Werner Herzog’s earlier masterwork, Aquirre, the Wrath of God. Both deal with obsession and madness though with starkly different outcomes. Both are set deep in the Amazon jungle, featuring European men of great ambition in a place they don’t understand and yet believe don’t need to. One is an ominous, haunting trek into desolation and failure, the other suggests the same will occur but doesn’t actually end on that note.
Both can be seen as self-commentary for director Werner Herzog, one of the leading figures of the German New Wave of cinema alongside Wolfgang Peterson, Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Many of his films deal with human obsession and the lengths we will go for matters that either end in vain or aren’t really worthwhile. Not all of them need be about himself.
As a film-making achievement, Fitzcarraldo is nearly impossible to impeach, though with one distressing caveat. It is about a man played by Klaus Kinski, who even in roles that are comparatively saner than Aguirre always looks like he is both without bedrest or sanity.
Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald(Fitzcarraldo) is an Irishman who due to the film being dubbed in Herzog and Kinski’s German, comes across as a Bavarian businessman. This Irishman living with his bankrupt company in the middle of Peru wants to give both the European colonizers and the native people of the Amazon a common joy he shares: the gift of opera. In his eyes, it is a universal beauty and no one should be kept from it.
So, he manages to convince a rubber baron to help fund an expedition down the Ucayali river to a certain spot that would be perfect to construct an opera house: a section of land inbetween two rivers, on a hill. Ideal for his vision. Of course, for anyone who has watched a film about a journey born out of great ambition like Aguirre or Peter Jackson’s version of King Kong, it has hardly a simple matter.
Fitzcarraldo is best known for the thing you see on all the posters, that of a riverboat being carried onto land. Because the two rivers are so close, it is feasible theoretically, that the riverboat bearing the name of Fitzgerald’s lover played by Claudia Cardinale, can be transferred over land to the other. It just so happens a nearby tribe is willing to help the businessman in his insane venture, at the risk of their own lives, for apparently nothing in return.
What sells the visual madness of this scenario is that Herzog actually did pull an entire riverboat across land. The line between the fictional character’s struggle to do something stupidly inconvenient and Herzog’s actual production is nearly non-existent. What you see is actually what you get.
That caveat I mentioned earlier was the human cost of actually doing the damn thing for real, as it is in the narrative text. Actual Amazon natives, who both played the hundreds of extras in the film and also helped actually pull the riverboat suffered fatal casualties in the production. One number is that four died. It makes the production surrounding Fitzcarraldo more morally dubious as a fictional character’s ethics are not the only one being scrutinized in light of that knowledge.
Werner Herzog is both a revered and criticized figure, more often for his hardline stances, rough temperament among those he works( especially with Kinski, which was an at-times near life or death series of spats) and being kinda of a grump.
He has seemingly lightened up by the time he starred in The Mandalorian, where he was impressed at little Baby Yoda not only being a convincing practical effect to work with, but that a modern Star Wars property even bothered. Maybe the Mouse was afraid of pissing off a guy like him. This guy has heard people getting mauled to death by bears and managed to keep it together though it was in the end still too much for him to hear the whole process.
Herzog is tough and both his work on Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo proves he can take pressure that would probably break other great filmmakers. But does his tough resilience blind him to others that can’t take exorbitant even deadly work expectations from him? In spite of the impressive result of a film like Fitzcarraldo, was it too high a cost when lives were ended for his vision?
What makes Fitzcarraldo a tougher pill for me looking back is that its mindset on certain issues seems at odds with the strong anti-colonialist message that Aguirre: the Wrath of God seemed to have. That film showcased a bunch of Spaniard conquistadors entering an environment they didn’t understand, didn’t try to understand, had this literal holier than thou attitude towards native people that did understand and they all die pointless deaths in a very inhospitable place, the last survivor too addled by madness, grief, hunger and dehydration to even notice how utterly doomed he is.
Fitzcarraldo seems to be setting you up for the same dark “just desserts” message from before. Several moments, such as some members of the riverboat’s crew giving up the journey seem to indicate that Fitzgerald was ever digging his grave further down the river he went. His comeuppance seemed almost inevitable and deserved if it were to follow the same critique of European colonist arrogance. How much more arrogant can a guy get when he wants to make a big honking riverboat cross land?
And yet, Fitzcarraldo does not end with Fitzgerald getting a dark but proper punishment. He gets a reward. He does not get his ambitious opera house in the jungle but he does get a comparatively much more reasonable alternative. He ends the film triumphant, basking in what he has accomplished ultimately: giving the denizens of the Amazon opera.
The image you’re seeing above you for this entry comes from an article that has a venomous condemnation of Fitzcarraldo’s message and the deadly production that made it. It calls for a severe reevaluation not only of the film but of Herzog who has gotten off scot-free for actions as a film-maker that aren’t just illegal but should put him in jail.
I’m not certain if I am 100% behind this article’s take. After all, some reports have stated that Herzog compensated the native help well and that they in return knew ahead of time the risks that were likely to occur during production. Does that act as justifiable excuse? I would say not. Some film productions that killed led to prison time and lawsuit. Some happened which didn’t hamper the production and no ill will was had, rather mournful tragedy with acknowledgement from all, such as a horrible stunt accident in the Bond film Octopussy.
Fitzcarraldo will take you places, that cannot be denied. It will astonish you, it will concern you, it will make you question what is and isn’t too much to ask of in making any product for any reason. In short, it could be the most Herzog of Herzog’s movies based on his most consistent theme. That is a presumptuous claim considering how few of his movies I have watched. But when I remind you that this is the “Riverboat is pulled across land” movie, do you in return think that still inaccurate?
My Dinner with Andre (1981)
Chances are very good you have not seen a film like My Dinner with Andre. It’s an experiment that seems simple to pull off but is perhaps far more difficult than it seems. For the majority of an hour and a half runtime, you spend time with Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, two real people playing themselves with fictionalization weaved into their personalities and viewpoints.
Directed by French filmmaker Louis Malle, you get to see in apparent real-time as two good friends, one a struggling NYC writer and the other a traveling theatre director with some wild anecdotes under his belt, eat and discuss…stuff.
Wallace is mostly the listener and Andre the speaker and it often reminded me of how domineering I myself can be when it comes to conversations, which I partially blame on my high-functioning autism. That itself may also stem from my fear that if I don’t make a point, I forget to make the point period. The world must know!
I doubt either dinner guest fits on any spectrum and Andre is certainly not neuro-atypical yet his worldview can be bewildering, uncomfortable and at times prescient. Many of his spiels on how human society functions in the then present of 1981 can feel much more relevant today forty years later. If I can sum up what I remember of Andre’s political and cultural ideology, it’s stop and smell the roses/ take a good long look at the world you often unconsciously navigate through. If you don’t, we’re pretty much screwed.
Wallace is often at odds with Andre’s perspective and I was much more willing to side with him than the other. Yes, maybe some of that is bias in favor of Shawn due to his latter work in The Princess Bride and especially in voice acting, like for many Pixar features like Rex in the Toy Story series.
Or maybe despite Wallace Shawn 1981 being a man of his time, I somehow gravitate more towards his side though I had a hard time totally dismissing everything Andre had to say.
It takes a lot to keep a movie consisting of generally two shots with minor variation interesting but it is the combination of Wallace and especially Andre’s compelling, changing topics, their manner of speaking and how there are cues during the portion of the movie to show you time hasn’t come to a halt.
There is a beginning, middle and end to the titular dinner, consisting of seating, ordering, drinks, appetizers, the main course and then basically a wind-down until it’s time for the conversation to end abruptly because the restaurant is closing. The ending is especially poignant, as like many conversations of varying importance or comprehension, it’s often ended by outside factors.
Many will feel impatient with My Dinner with Andre, especially I imagine for those in my hopped up generation. Even then, this is as unconventional as a mainstream Hollywood film will likely ever get. There isn’t even a story, just two real people having a somewhat stream-of-consciousness chat amidst dinner in a swanky Manhattan establishment. You get what you get, on the surface.
I must dare say it, My Dinner with Andre is an almost literal food for thought picture, not just in the concepts and themes being addressed, but in having you ponder what you have said and talked about with a friend, family member, lover or basic acquaintance on and off the dinner table. How often did your discussion be adversarial yet civil? Did it become a fight? Were you both seeing eye to eye or begrudgingly settled for agree to disagree? Was it as interesting or meaningful as Wallace or Andre’s?
That alone be enough to make this a recommendation.