Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Doc Watch: Burden of Dreams (1982)

Watched:  07/03/2024
Format:  Criterion
Viewing:  First
Director:  Les Blank

As I mentioned when discussing Fitzcarraldo, as good as the movie is, it's probably more famous for the impossible conditions around the production of the movie - which was shot on location in the Amazon with a crew and cast comprised of indigenous locals and Klaus Kinski, famously one of the least agreeable actors to have ever walked the face of the Earth.

Burden of Dreams (1982) documents the production.  

I won't say the documentary fails to convey the catastrophe that was the production, but if you also saw Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse, a documentary chronicling the epically horrendous filming of Apocalypse Now, everything else is going to suffer by comparison.

Hearts of Darkness was originally captured by Coppola's wife, Eleanor Coppola, and so there's an intimacy to the conversations and scenes shown that Burden of Dreams is unable to achieve.   Burden of Dreams seems shot like a respectful third-party observing with the good-graces of Herzog and crew, and while it's a catalog of many of the miseries of the set - and there were innumerable setbacks and problems - it's not a camera rolling during conversations that feel private or raw, until maybe the end, where Herzog is clearly at his breaking point.

And while the emotional intensity and feeling of creeping dread is not there while watching Burden of Dreams, it's still an absolute ride watching events unfold, and the very obvious problems baked into what Herzog seemed hellbent on doing, against reason and logic.  And I wish the movie had been willing to be less dispassionate about how Herzog's weird hubris fucked with the lives of thousands of people, and got people injured and killed and disrupted multiple native tribes and the massive impact he had during his relatively short stay.  

Part of the problem is that a lot of what happened seems to have happened when the filmmakers weren't around, and so it's being reported to them when there's spats with or amongst the locals.  We never really see the rainy season, and they missed the whole part where Jason Robards shot weeks of film before taking ill and quitting the movie - meaning the movie also lost Mick Jagger.

Equally odd about the doc is that only Herzog and a few locals get real interviews.  We don't hear from Kinski, co-star Claudia Cardinale (I would love her version of events) or Miguel Angel Fuentes, who seems like he'd have plenty to say as a young actor.  

But what is abundantly clear is the recklessness and naivete with which the film was mounted, and the trust and hope the locals put in Herzog that doesn't seem to really pay off.  They're not dumb, and they know that, for example, if the boat's pulley system breaks and people are hurt of killed, it will not be Herzog who gets hurt - and they seem very unsure why they're supposed to be taking this risk.

Managing the long shoot - which has full stretches where nothing is shot - is insane, and it seems like a lot of trouble could have been managed with a better producer or production manager to ensure boats were where they needed to be, people were where they needed to be - but it's also clear if anyone tried to control this chaos, they'd have gone crazy while failing.  This is a movie that went up against the jungle and - much like Fitzcarraldo - maybe barely got what it wanted out of all the trouble it went through.

But, yeah, when you see Herzog sort of shrugging off his discomfort about hiring a prostitute for his film set to keep the peace - on the advice of a priest - you've gone through a rabbit hole.

Further - you may have seen memes or clips of Herzog's meditation on the jungle and what it represents, but it is - by far - the most powerful moment in the film, and by that time, you're inclined to agree with Herzog's take.

Anyway - I do feel like Fitzcarraldo is a richer experience for having had seen the doc and having some "how did they do that?" questions answered in this film.  I just wish they'd been able to get some better access.  

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