Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans

I wanted to dislike this film. Herzog's recent work has often proven annoying - Invincible is bloated; Grizzly Man is overpraised - since much that is interesting about it stems from material that Herzog did not himself shoot and doesn't deserve THAT much credit for assembling, and Herzog's insertion of himself into the film is awkward at best. His participation in Incident At Loch Ness - a rather silly film that makes too much of the myth around the filmmaker, who plays himself - seems equally questionable; while Wild Blue Yonder is godawful, unwatchable, a lazy, silly mishmash of archival NASA footage with Brad Dourif muttering about being an alien that has been praised by some simply because of Herzog's name (I assume). Rescue Dawn seems to suggest an attempt to convince the world that he could channel his mythic stature into cinema on a Hollywood scale; so much of the press around the film focused on the ordeal the actors went through or Herzog's passionate confrontation of the jungle that these things somehow ended up being what the film was about - a testament more to the filmmakers own grandiosity than a film about war or escape or nature or... anything, really; it seemed to be about the very fact that it was a Werner Herzog film. I have such regard for some of his early work - and I sufficiently enjoyed one of his recent docs, The White Diamond - that I still picked up the DVD of Encounters At The End Of The World, to see his take on Antarctica, to be put off almost immediately by a rather silly joke (I assume) that he inserts into the beginning of the film - an image of a monkey riding a goat, with Herzog posing the question, in his narration, of why monkeys don't actually do that. I didn't stick around to see how he would tie this in with his purported exploration of Antarctica: I rolled my eyes and pressed stop, thinking, "What a bloated ego this guy has. What a precious fool he has become. He should stop making films. He should just stop, before he sullies what has gone before."

Well, sorry, folks, but I utterly loved Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans. I expected not to. I thought this would be the film to excuse me from seeing any subsequent films by Herzog, but it turns out to be an inventive, strange, and funny film, often brilliant and consistently compelling, both visually and in terms of performances and narrative. It appears to have been written (not by the director) as a remake of the Abel Ferrara film, but has been turned into something quite else by Herzog (who has protested publicly that he's never even SEEN the Ferrara film). For one, it's not a Catholic redemption drama - someone alert Mark Harris, but the themes of the previous film are nowhere visible here, despite all the coke, gambling, and corrupted sex. There's nothing particularly Catholic or even Christian about the film, and the ending and its meaning are vastly different from those which Ferrara crafted. If I had to say what the film was, if NOT a redemption drama, I'd call it a black comedy about American life at present - desperate, compulsive, out of control, selfish, corrupt, and deranged, but still adulterated with wide and glowing streaks of virtue and decency, just like Nic Cage's character, who crosses the line between virtue and vice so many times that you're seldom sure, at any given moment, which side he's on. Anyone attentive to Herzog's canon will note some of the same Sonny Terry whoops and yelps and harmonica playing that accompanied images of a dancing chicken in a certain other Herzog film set in America - the one that Ian Curtis liked so much - to help make it clear (I presume) that Herzog, now that he lives in the USA, is offering us his jaundiced reassessment the country, both fond and mocking and by no means simple (tho' vastly entertaining - and shit, America is nothing if not entertaining). The music, details of performance, and bizarre digressions like the utterly delightful reptile stuff make the film something very much other than what it might appear on the surface (or what it likely was in the screenplay), but attentive, intelligent cineastes - people who had a great deal of fun with Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers, say - will have no problem enjoying it, and will delight in the little audacious surprises Herzog throws our way (including exchanges that are quintessentially Herzog; though it's in many ways a genre picture, his identity as a filmmaker is all over this film, often most visible in the quirkiest characters). Can't say whether it will prove to have lasting mass appeal, but the cinema tonight was packed, so that seems a good sign.

Apologies to Werner Herzog for having liked so few of his recent films. I will cease to badmouth him as of now.

Anyhow, gotta go to bed, but for what it's worth, I liked this film a lot. Now if only Antichrist were still playing (it lasted all of a week).

No comments: