Some months you just don’t feel like writing about movies, and then you get behind and start forgetting things, and the whole point of the movie blog was to write those things down soonish so you didn’t forget them. I watched this after Heart of Glass, then kept putting off writing anything because I wanted to watch again with the Herzog commentary, but never got around to that…

1828, a languageless man with no knowledge of the world is released from his cellar by some shady dude and abandoned in town. They take him to the stables and interrogate him, reluctantly decide he’s not a criminal and take to educating him, lending him out to a family. After a while Kaspar is “beginning to be a burden on the community coffers,” so he’s handed to a circus freak exhibit, sharing a tent with The Little King (the camel-laugher of Even Dwarfs Started Small), a Brazilian bear tamer, an “untamed Indian” from Spain and The Young Mozart.

With rouge-cheeked circus leader Willy Semmelrogge:

Once Kaspar is able to hold conversations, the townspeople introduce him to music, religion, agriculture, government and take in Kaspar’s naive, Chauncey Gardener-like responses, until Kaspar is unexpectedly stabbed (two separate times!) by (I’m pretty sure) the shady dude from the beginning.

Stork eating frog:

Lead actor Bruno S. was reportedly a huge pain in the ass, but I loved his Kaspar. Little Clemens Scheitz (hypnotically hobbled as the Master’s assistant in Heart of Glass) steals every scene he’s in, as a bureaucracy-loving scribe. I liked Heart of Glass better, but what do I know – this won numerous prizes at Cannes, where it played alongside A Touch of Zen and The Passenger.

Clemens:

The little one starts a war, and the big one across the ocean extinguishes it … Then a strict master comes who takes people’s shirts and their skin with them. After the war, you think there’ll be peace, but there won’t be.

A Bavarian mountain town of somnambulist glassmakers is torn apart after the man with the secret of their famed ruby glass dies unexpectedly. The first couple of scenes establish that this movie will be more concerned with natural beauty, poetry, prophesy, and irrational human behavior than with story, and that’s just fine with me.

Prophet Hias is Josef Bierbichler (the man Woyzeck‘s wife is cheating with, later of Code Unknown). The rest are mostly non-actors who agreed to be hypnotized by the director, asked to behave strangely for the movie, and behaving strangely in different, unexpected ways due to the hypnosis. It’s a slow-moving, heavily stylized movie with bizarre music

Two neighbors have a slow-motion bar fight and later one dies. The Master of the glassworks has his people tear apart the head glassmaker’s house to search for the secret, later kills a girl to get blood for the ruby glass. The factory is burned down and the people throw Hias in jail with the Master. Either he escapes and fights an invisible bear or the ending is one of his visions, during which he tells of a boatload of men heading out from a remote island to find the end of the world.

“Everyone is walking into a foreseen disaster.” The commentary with Herzog is good. It was shot in Bavaria, reminiscent of the small village where he grew up, and the hypnosis was used to show the town’s “collective trance.”

“The oil is trying to disguise itself”

Impressionistic doc shot in aftermath of Kuwait war.

Divided into sections:
– A Capital City (pre-war helicopter shot)
– The War (bombing footage)
– After the Battle (post-war helicopter shot, big horns on soundtrack)
– Torture Chambers (implements and stories)
– Satan’s National Park (oil-drenched landscape)
– Childhood (traumatized survivors)
– And a smoke arose, like the smoke from a furnace (burning oil wells)
– A Pilgrimage (firefighting)
– A Dinosaur’s Feast (vehicles, opera music)
– Protuberances (boiling oil)
– The Drying Up of the Wells (capping wells with new hardware)
– Life Without Fire (some of the fires are re-lit, great narration here)
– I am so weary of sighing, oh lord, grant that the night cometh (finale)

Minimal narration, lots of slow motion. Great music selections from Mahler, Arvo Part, Prokofiev, Wagner, others. I know little about the Kuwait war apparently – why were the Iraqis torturing people to death? But these details are beyond the scope of the film.

Great point by Noel Murray:

Herzog was booed at the Berlin film festival after a screening of Lessons Of Darkness, and accused by the audience of being more interested in pretty pictures and philosophizing than in the human toll of the Gulf War. That’s not an entirely unfair criticism. Throughout his career, Herzog has shown less engagement with any one particular political conflict or social issue than with the bigger picture of how humans continue to fight with each other and with their environment. But then that’s why Lessons Of Darkness is still so beguiling, decades after the war that inspired it.

Herzog:

The words attributed to Blaise Pascal which preface my film Lessons of Darkness are in fact by me. Pascal himself could not have said it better… With this quotation as a prefix I elevate the spectator, before he has even seen the first frame, to a high level, from which to enter the film. And I, the author of the film, do not let him descend from this height until it is over. Only in this state of sublimity does something deeper become possible, a kind of truth that is the enemy of the merely factual. Ecstatic truth, I call it.

Emotionally similar to Grand Budapest Hotel, romance and work-obsession interrupted by WWII, with a sense of loss that doesn’t really hit until the movie’s final scenes, or a couple hours afterward.

Good movie, except when I am 100% distracted by the voice of Werner Herzog!

Herzog, whose voice is too rarely heard, listens to the stories of people affected by a stupid double murder in Texas, mostly the victims’ families but also a few unenlightening minutes with the killers themselves. There’s little attempt to question whether these two (one of whom is on death row; the other avoided execution because his dad cried in front of the jury) actually committed the crimes. And there’s little attempt to make polarizing statement regarding the death penalty, until the end when the movie tries to land hard on the anti- side. But I’ve been on the anti side for years, and the movie almost has me convinced that the death penalty is a great thing, because these kids are horrible and have learned nothing, so they might as well be dead. One of the highlights is a long interview with a former death row prison guard, who walks us through the whole procedure before saying he had to quit after too many executions messed with his head. No mercy from Texas. Music by Soul Coughing’s Mark De Gli Antoni.

“the illusion of movement, like frames in an animated film”

Cave drawings from 25k to 40k years ago, during the last ice age, including drawings of extinct animals. The earliest recorded human artworks. Somewhat ecstatic movie, between the cave camerawork and the string/choral music, with notes of Herzogian strangeness (a master perfumer speaks of trying to sniff out hidden caves). The first half suffers from having to use a subpar camera, without the time or equipment needed to set up perfect shots, but the crew gets to return with better stuff later, slowly moving a light source while the camera remains still to expose the rock’s textures. Herzog faithfully edits their two journeys separately instead of just using images from the second trip and pretending like they got it perfect the first time.

Cave sniffer:

Sidetrack interviews with cave explorers, engineers plotting the cave with laser imagery, a historian who demonstrates statuettes, ornaments and musical instruments from the ice age, carved from mammoth tusks. Then an unexpected poetic epilogue about albino alligators in a steamy greenhouse warmed by runoff waters from a nuclear plant.

Herzog in Cinema Scope:

There’s not much room for intentionality. You have one week. You have four hours a day to shoot. You have to build your cameras and then reconfigure your cameras on a 60 centimetre-wide walkway. You’re allowed only three people with you. You’re allowed only three small panels of light. So intentionality is reduced to having to film like crazy and deliver.

Of course there was a very clear idea about why 3-D was necessary, and clear ideas about music. There was a clear idea about not trying to define what things represent… because we do not know. There are a number of hypotheses made by scientists, but what’s construed to be a ceremonial site could just as easily have been the traces of children playing. I think we have to keep possibilities open if we want to understand what can look to us like the sudden awakening of the modern human soul.

Ode to the Dawn of Man (2011, Werner Herzog)

Also on the DVD, Herzog takes a camera to the recording of the film’s score by really amazing cellist Ernst Reijseger. I could watch this a bunch more times. Probably I should just buy the soundtrack.

“Razzle them. Dazzle them. Razzle dazzle them.”

“Sometimes I’m really not sure who’s worse: us cops or the fuckin’ criminals,” says a cop (Willem Dafoe) in Werner Herzog’s new movie – which premiered two days after his Bad Lieutenant. I appreciated that little connection, as well as some casting borrowed from producer David Lynch (Dafoe from Wild at Heart, Brad Dourif from Blue Velvet and the ever-creepy Grace Zabriskie from Inland Empire) and Lynchian attention paid to coffee cups. Unfortunately, I didn’t appreciate much else – not the flat camerawork, the easily-predicted hostage twist, nor the go-nowhere story.

Grace has jello:

My two biggest problems with the movie are identified as assets by Herzog on the DVD extras. He says that feature films should be made cheaply and he achieved this by using a lousy DV camera (probably a Lynch hand-me-down), hence the flat grey photography (fortunately Herzog still knows how to frame a nice shot – it’s not just a visual wasteland out there). Then he talks about interviewing the crazy fellow on whom Michael Shannon’s character was based, noting hundreds of loony little details, then making up his own loony details with Shannon to avoid making a boringly specific true story. But it’s all random details. Shannon is always saying crazy shit with no connection anywhere else, and hey, maybe that’s what fellows who call themselves God and murder their parents actually do, but it comes across as trying too hard to be zany.

Chloe starts to worry about her boyfriend:

Framing device: Michael Shannon (last seen being crazy in Bug) has killed his mother with a sword in front of neighbors Irma P. Hall (Coens’ The Ladykillers) and Loretta Devine (Urban Legend). Detective Dafoe and his overeager partner Michael Peña (Shooter) wait outside because Shannon yells that he has two hostages – but he won’t say who, and the only characters missing are his pet flamingos named Macdougal and Mcnamara, so guess who the hostages turn out to be? Until Shannon comes out, Dafoe kills time by interviewing the neighbors, Shannon’s girlfriend Chloe Sevigny, and friend Udo Kier.

Macdougal and Mcnamara are great flamingo names!

Theater director Udo describes the background of the play he cast Michael Shannon in: “a dynasty of ruthless kings and diabolical queens who eat each other’s flesh and fuck each other’s wives – century after century, generation after generation – and only Orestus can lift that curse, but he has to murder his mother to do it.” This is the part that was based on a true story. He also reminisces about Shannon taking him to uncle Brad Dourif’s ostrich farm (flamingos + ostriches = a good bird movie). Chloe says Mike went to Peru with his buddies a couple years ago and started having premonitions, ditched the raft trip they were all supposed to take and ended up the only survivor. Meanwhile, Shannon in flashback walks around a market in some country or another with a Pi-camera strapped to him and says things like “I hate it that the sun always comes up in the east.”

Michael, Udo, Brad and a sword:

DVD extras tell us the writer used Jules Dassin’s A Dream of Passion for inspiration. I was thinking that “hostages” kinda sounds like “ostriches.”

Nicolas Cage’s first good part since Lord of War and Val Kilmer’s first good movie since Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Cage hurts his back rescuing a prisoner, starts taking lots and lots of drugs and racks up gambling debts. He robs kids outside clubs, gets a violent dude mad at Cage’s hooker girlfriend and loses a key witness. Surely he is a bad lieutenant, but he has a few principles, and Cage’s charismatic intensity keeps us on his side even as he’s waving guns at grammas (lovable Irma P. Hall of the Coens’ Ladykillers). Ultimately he takes down a drug baddie (Exhibit, fifth-billed in the second X-Files movie), saves his girl (Cage’s Ghost Rider costar Eva Mendes) and pays off his bookie (Awwww Brad Dourif is getting old. Life is too short).

Nic, Brad and red beans:
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The story (from a lead writer on Cop Rock) isn’t great, and the idea (remaking Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant) is awful, but Herzog pulls it off with flair. The occasional weirdness (extreme closeups of reptiles, including an iguana music video – what is it about drug movies and visions of reptiles? See also Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas), the sense that Cage is having too much fun to take anything seriously, and a lovely tacked-on ending where Cage meets the ex-con he saved and they get philosophical at an aquarium rescue this doomed movie and turn it into something I’d actually recommend. Can’t wait to see Werner’s other 2009 movie (star Michael Shannon, the contagiously crazy dude in Bug, shows up here as a police property guy).

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Cage pulls up at a building I think I saw in Wild At Heart. Maybe lots of buildings in New Orleans look like that. Jennifer Coolidge (Pootie Tang), Fairuza Balk and other names I know or faces I’ve seen pop up regularly. Surprising that so many actors wanted to be associated with a cheapie indie remake of a cult film, but I guess you can’t discount the Herzog factor.

Salon:

Your ending really defies expectations. I’m not quite sure what to think about it, in fact. We expect one of two possible endings — the bad lieutenant triumphs, or he is punished for his misdeeds. And you really don’t give us either one.

Herzog:

In my opinion, it’s a very beautiful and very mysterious ending. You see, according to the screenplay, it ended with a false happy ending that became a real abyss of darkness. And I thought, no, we should not dismiss the audience like that, out into the street. There should be something vague, something poetic, something mysterious.