Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Burden of Dreams (Les Blank)

A man with a 'mountainous' task. Literally.

Somewhere near the end of "Burden of Dreams", Herzog stated that he 'shouldn't make movies anymore' after the emotional, physical and intellectual drain that is "Fitzcarraldo". Of course, Herzog never stayed true to his words as he still kept on generating great films after great films since. But this documentary, capturing the legendary filmmaker's seemingly inexhaustible grasp to his ambitions in the middle of an Andean disillusionment, provocatively shows Herzog in near surrender (his film career) and without regard to the future.

But ironically, throughout the film, Werner Herzog shows an unusually calm demeanor. Looking at the things he is trying to fend off at the time, the likes of turbulent rapids, malicious rumors and political power struggles (not to mention the almost biblical task of moving a steamboat up a hill), a feeling of despair creeping within is not asking much. But he never snapped, at least not on the verge of suicide. Perhaps that's a consolation.

Herzog, known for his deeply tranquil voice (especially in his numerous films where he incorporates poetic narrations), is quite unsurprising in his display of passiveness in an environment that demands otherwise. Hell, he even got shot in the middle of an interview and could not care less. But what Les Blank's "Burden of Dreams" has captured brilliantly is his internal descent into a void of questions and uncertainties. In many sequences, Herzog navigates through the natives' camps, treacherous terrains and dangerous waters seemingly animated by a mission and even carries a smile once in a while. But along those moments, in the middle of each and every scene and triggered by Blank's questions, we hear him speak out.

It's not one of those pedestrian interviews where answers can be immediate, quick and solid. In these particular scenes, with his thick German accent, his words flow out, eloquent, vibrant, even frightening at times. It's a combination of a poet's uncommon inner articulacy, an everyday glib of a wisdom man and the dark, declarative enunciation of a doomsday prophet. And through that, he exposes his mind and soul. A mind that is pessimistic and unsure. A soul that is anxious and insecure. But a wholeness that is awfully determined and focused.

Yes, he can quite see the finish line, but he can't go into a full run. Budget, time constraints, the force of nature, you name it. He is a man of ambition and larger-than-life aspirations and will stop at nothing to put those into fruition. But he can see, in the distance, the looming presence of the inevitability of failure. And it's quite clear.

"Burden of Dreams", although about the agony of filmmaking, can also be seen as a documentary about the generalized significance of personal dreams. "Without dreams we would be cows in a field, and I don't want to live like that. I live my life or I end my life with this project." Herzog said. From that point on, the idea of finishing the film ceased to be merely just associated with the succeeding post-production. It is his ultimate self-affirming test as a filmmaker and as a dreamer. But on one side, it's also his sense of closure. A sigh of relief, if you can still just call it that.

Now, who would think that Herzog's harsh exploits in the wilderness and a psychological flirt between lunacy and megalomania would root out from his consummate, against all odds passion for his craft? Coppola maybe, with Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" on one hand and a gun on the other.

"...I love it. I love it very much. But I love it against my better judgment." Herzog said regarding on what he thinks of the Andean jungle. Maybe if you ask him regarding his devotion to finish "Fitzcarraldo", it will be the same answer. He just wanted it done, with his visions still intact, and more importantly, his sanity.


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