July 9, 2009

Justify My Netflix: Fitzcarraldo

(Like many Netflix customers, I too can get quite lax with the timely watching and returning of my movies, which of course defeats the entire purpose of having a flat-rate rental plan in the first place. To combat that, I am now writing standardized mini-reviews of each and every movie I end up watching through Netflix, both instantly and on DVD. Don't forget, all previous 'Justify My Netflix' reviews can be found on CCLaP's main movie page.)

Today's movie: Fitzcarraldo, 1982 (Amazon | IMDB | Netflix | Wikipedia)

Why I added it to my queue: Because it's the most notorious of the half-dozen collaborations in the 1970s and '80s between German New Wave director Werner Herzog and completely insane actor Klaus Kinski; and as regular readers know, I'm using Netflix as an excuse this year to finally watch all these collaborations, which will eventually be capped with the contemporary documentary chronicling these two artists' contentious relationship, My Best Fiend. Because something was attempted for this movie that was never tried before and will never be tried again, the actual dragging of a 350-ton steamship by hand across a stretch of South American jungle, in order to tell a fictionalized version of the real story of rubber baron Carlos Fitzcarraldo (the Latin pronunciation of the Irish "Fitzgerald"), an unrepentant dreamer who literally moved a cargo ship over a stretch of land in Peru in the early 1900s, in order to get to an inaccessible grove of rubber trees in the middle of nowhere, all in an effort to raise the money necessary to build a grand Victorian operahouse in the barely civilized jungle village where he lived. And how can I pass up the opportunity to see something like that?

The reality: HOLY CRAP. It can be difficult sometimes to understand just what so many people saw in Kinski in the first place, with him coming off in many of his films as not much more than a bug-eyed madman; but here in one of his last collaborations with Herzog, he finally turns in a brilliantly nuanced performance that justifies all the accolades he's received, presenting us with an always optimistic yet serially failing entrepreneur who literally doesn't understand the meaning of giving up, who accepts with quiet humility the taunts of his crude fellow European colonialists out there in the sweaty jungle with him, patiently explaining to them over and over the unadulterated genius which is Enrico Caruso, and why they should invest in the effort to bring him out there for a performance. And man, the film scholars are right as well -- you will literally never see another movie quite like this in all of human history, a production that was already ridiculously improbable even when first mounted (over half a dozen crew members suffered broken ribs by the time it was over), and which prompted the locals to saddle Herzog by the end with the mocking title "Conquistador of the Useless," a term he managed to actually slip into the finished film as well. It all adds up by the end to one of the most stunning movies I've ever seen, all the more surprising by the almost complete lack of awareness of it by the general American filmgoing public.

Strangest piece of trivia: Although well-respected in Hollywood circles by the early '80s, Herzog still experienced as many difficulties with this production as all his other films: not only were Jason Robards, Jack Nicholson and Mick Jagger all at one point attached to this movie, just to later all back out again, but the chief of the actual jungle tribe used as extras apparently gave the order one day for his warriors to kill Kinski for his infamously offensive behavior, until Herzog was able to convince the chief how important it was that Kinski stay alive until at least the end of shooting.

If I had watched it when it first came out: I would've sat there with my jaw dropped for two hours, muttering, "Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow."

Worth your time? F-ck YEAH

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:30 PM, July 9, 2009. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |