Monday, October 31, 2005

Day 31: Fitzcarraldo: Man vs. Nature 2

Martin: "I feel like I'm in Fitzcarraldo."
Nelson: "That movie was flawed."

It’s Halloween, I’m pressed for time, and it’s now officially been a month of movie-a-day madness, so I’m not really going to review this movie in terms of filmic quality or thematic content.  Briefly, this is an amazing movie, beautifully made and featuring a Klaus Kinski performance as the titular character that cuts right to the bone.  What I want to do is talk about what this movie did to me as I watched, bleary eyed, and struggling to stay awake.

Fitzcarraldo, actually named Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, loves the opera.  He’s willing, as the movie shows in its opening, to paddle two and a half days down the Amazon to see a performance by his beloved Enrico Caruso.  He dreams of opening an opera house in the rugged, undeveloped Peruvian city in which he lives.  He’s failed at many things -- when someone mentions his failed venture to build a transcontinental South American railway, the sadness he feels about this failure is quite evident on his face – and the thought of opening this opera house drives him to obsessive and ludicrous behavior.  A lot is made (and rightly so) of this movie’s crowning achievement, in which a steamship is dragged over a mountain by an elaborate pulley system, but what comes before this set piece is so perfectly delineated, so delicately presented, that it seems moot to even mention the steamship sequence.

Nothing defines this better for me than the moment when Fitzcarraldo, in an effort to raise money for his opera house, brings his phonograph to a party full of rich people, and plays the opera recording to the disinterest of the party goers.  When someone walks up to turn the phonograph off, Fitz flips out, screams at and nearly attacks the man, and, therefore, loses all hope of finding the funding he’s seeking.  The sight of Kinski, desperate and fragile, nakedly presenting a group of people the object of his intense obsession, I felt such a kinship to this obsessive madman.  He’s so focused, so singular in mind, that everything in his life is devoted to getting the opportunity to open the damned opera house.  

The movie renders Kinski’s point of view so well that when, earlier in the film, he stares lovingly at an opera performance, the camera work, editing, and acting in the film represent his passion in such a way that I understood, for the first time in my life, what people see in opera.  Obsession is the name of the game and it’s something I understand.  But Fitzcarraldo’s obsession is not one of those dirty secrets, hidden from only those closest to him.  The whole town knows what he wants, and how could they not?  He, in a fit of desperation, barricades himself inside the church, screaming from the steeple that the church will not reopen until he has his opera house.  After all of this, after all the humiliation he suffers, why on earth wouldn’t he drag the steamship across the mountain if it would get him closer?  And why wouldn’t he trust the natives who respond to the same phonograph record with curiosity and, perhaps, a bit of worship instead of dismissing it outright as the so-called cultured people do?

The movie’s never clear on exactly why the opera is so important to him (not that it matters, I mean, obsession is so random, he might as well have been obsessed with sweet potatoes or robots and very little about the movie would have to change).  I think the key to understanding his obsession is that party scene.  He wants everyone to understand what he does.  He wants them to listen, to hear the beauty, to experience the ecstasy that he feels when he listens to the opera.  And when someone wants to shut off this pure, undistilled joy, he gets mad enough to dash all of his hopes to the curb.  That is, I realize as I’m writing this, exactly how I feel about Robocop, strangely enough.  And, when I think about it, sharing that feeling is exactly why I’m doing this blog in the first place.  Naked, honest obsession.


Mr. Captain Magnificent said...

This film is nothing without its companion film: Burden of Dreams, the documentary Les Blank did on Werner Hertzog during the 4 or so years he spent attempting to make this film.

Now that is what 'Lost In La Mancha' was attempting to be.

and in addition, no Herzog/Kinski film makes much sense until you see 'My Best Fiend' the Herzog doc about How fucking crazy they both are. If you want to talk about ‘man vs nature’ Kinski is a force of nature unto himself.


Ash Karreau said...

Both those films are nothing until you see Herzog perform in Julian Donkey Boy. That puts all his films into perspective. Horrible, horrible perspective.

bigshoulders said...

capt. magnificent:
thanks for reminding me about "My Best Fiend" i need to actually watch that. i have had it for several years but haven't gotten around to viewing it.


Pacze Moj said...

Of course, the real question is: Which of Herzog's "Kinksi goes nuts in the jungle" films is the best?


My vote goes to Aguirre.

David Wester said...

Pacze: Gonna agree with you there: Aguirre hit me even harder than this one.