Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (Herzog, 2009)

– Originally posted elsewhere in late 2009

Junkie Logic

Various snakes slither through Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, poisoning the already tainted post-Katrina locale with staggering potency and conviction. Both criminals and cops seamlessly conduct acts of robbery, murder, and corruption as means to always outlandishly desperate ends. Their venomous acts seep into the aesthetics as well, blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, causing a tonal uproar in even the most stagnant scenes. Herzog’s comedic treatment of the dark material only further complicates the narrative, making the film a strange and unruly ride.

Herzog’s dynamic and absurd loose remake of Abel Ferrara’s cult classic focuses on one viper in particular, Lt. Terence McDonagh, (Nicolas Cage) and his slow descent into personal and professional chaos. Perpetually popping pills and snorting coke, McDonagh shakes down pushers, steals from crime scenes and evidence lockers, and tortures witnesses, all in a delusional attempt to secure an imaginary justice while satisfying his deep personal cravings. McDonagh’s ambiguous quest is framed by a consistent inner struggle between selfish addiction and sacrificial action, a problematic dichotomy consistently battling with his tumultuous surroundings.

Herzog sees McDonagh as the ultimate junkie, and the film exists within a warped timeline of surreal logic paralleling his disjointed and fleeting point of view. Every act of violence, blatant moral compromise, or power trip feeds into this manipulative perspective, basically cunning attempts at surviving long enough to enjoy one more hit. McDonagh might be a cop on the surface, but inside he’s a devious mixture of vulnerability and guilt, more dangerous and vindictive than any of the hoods he’s investigating. In a world this fucked up, what really constitutes as evil? Continue reading

Encounters at the End of the World (Herzog, 2008)


After watching the surprisingly underwhelming Man on Wire, Werner Herzog’s strange and sometimes fascinating Encounters at the End of the World feels downright refreshing. If you’re familiar with Herzog’s documentaries, you know the brazen filmmaker often travels to harsh lands where his subjects walk a thin line between sanity and madness. This time out, Herzog travels to a Antarctica where he maneuvers the brutal terrain, meets some benign (by his standards) but revealing people, and explores the specific style of life in this extreme locale. The film works best when Herzog lets his many subjects (they range from scientists to travelers) speak of the special draw Antarctica has for those souls who’ve fallen off the map, seeking adventure and/or scientific discovery. Encounters at the End of the World lacks the epic danger and solitude of his best non-fiction films, masterpieces like Lessons of Darkness and The White Diamond, but even Werner at his tamest seems daring this day and age.

Rescue Dawn (Herzog, 2007)

In Rescue Dawn, the fascinating new film from director Werner Herzog, Christian Bale plays Dieter Dengler, a German born U.S. fighter pilot who’s shot down over Laos during his first mission to bomb the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The year is 1965, and the American’s on board Dengler’s aircraft carrier, including himself, regard the conflict as minor, and from a distance afforded by their occupation. Herzog paints these initial moments with a calm, anti-climactic build which sets both the characters and viewer up for the more shocking, heroic, material to come. Almost immediately after being downed, Dengler is captured by a group of Laotian/North Vietnamese soldiers. Herzog’s staggering montage of Dengler’s trek to a far off P.O.W. camp introduces both the ferocity of his captors and the epic scope of the surrounding jungle environment. Once Dengler reaches the camp, he’s surprised to see other American and coalition forces being held, and at the length they’ve been held. See, the American involvement in Vietnam covered far before the mid 1960’s, and Dengler’s ignorance to this fact represents the military’s as a whole, bookened by the harsh C.I.A. presence at the end of the film. Rescue Dawn is essentially a series of discoveries for Dengler, and his fellow prisoners, which include Steve Zahn’s haunted Dwayne and Jeremy Davies’ pacifist/psycho Gene. As they realize their guards are starving as well and wish to kill the prisoners in order to return to their villages, the need for an escape becomes mortally pressing. During these tense moments, Herzog uses a series of long camera takes, creating some brilliant blocking to compliment this style, all encapsulating the compressed, almost real time evolution of the camp social dynamic. Which inevitably leads to the open, vast sequences of escape, equally haunting Dengler’s almost innate, instinctual need to survive. Bale’s stunning performance, which ranges from sublime to heart-wrenching, twitches with the intensity of a man driven by his purposeful blocking of the future. Peace talks, helicopters, gunfire, none of it matters to Dieter, and his cunning, singular motivation and improvisation is the only reason he ends up surviving (don’t worry the title gives that away already). As with all Herzog, the end result doesn’t stand a chance against the process, which Rescue Dawn, like many of his other great works, revels in the torture, survival, and triumph of a lost soul. Christian Bale is well on his way to being his generation’s Robert DeNiro, a shape shifting force of nature whose trauma’s end up defining his character, consistently producing a fascinating specimen of rage and goodness moviegoers can contemplate for years to come.

The Wild Blue Yonder (Herzog, 2005)

In anticipation of Rescue Dawn, I needed to check out some Herzog to get in the mood. The Wild Blue Yonder might be the strangest Herzog I’ve seen (although each film feels beautifully odd in it’s own way). It’s got Brad Dourif as the Alien rambling on in direct address about his journey to Earth, his people’s intentions, and a parallel space trek human’s are taking to his planet. As a narrator Dourif is haunting, especially when he speaks of how humans haven’t listened to his advice regarding space travel and his icy, frozen sky planet. You can tell Herzog relishes the experimental mode in which Dourif’s POV shifts to archival footage of the American space ship he’s speaking of, or the real life mathematicians who entice the images with profound views on the science of it all. The Wild Blue Yonder connects our own present day view of Manifest Destiny in the last frontier and Dourif’s own failures as a colonizer. Herzog’s camera follows him pacing through an abandoned town, which was supposed to be the Alien capital on Earth, there own D.C. You can see the pain on Dourif’s face, as if his disappointment and sadness should act as a direct warning for our own pioneering intentions. Herzog also unleashes a bountiful group of underwater images acting as visuals of Dourif’s frozen planet, the human astronauts swimming through with the practicality of colonization on the mind. These images remind of Herzog’s sublime and epic nature, motifs filmmakers and critics alike have connected with the director his entire career. So it’s no surprise Herzog holds on the hypnotic, blue/green mosaics for long periods of time. Always challenging and often mesmerizing, The Wild Blue Yonder examines the dangers of exploration, but also the inherit draw of discovering what lies just beyond the mountainside.

Wheel of Time (Herzog, 2003)

It’s been a pleasure discovering Herzog’s multifaceted and sometimes very frustrating work. Most of his films are epic in scope and diverse in subject matter. Wheel of Time, a documentary on the comings and goings of the world’s largest Buddhist ceremony held in a small village in India (the name escapes me, it is 130am) where Buddha himself found enlightenment, is no different.

Structurally, Wheel of Time comes off somewhat less complex as many of the Herzog docs I’ve seen. But this simplicity in structure fits nicely with the calmness, meditation, and devotion of the hudreds of thousands of Buddhist disciples he films. The film glides along, as if Herzog himself got lost in the shuffle, amazed at the beautiful sand scultpure monks spending weeks and weeks preparing and the monumental committment to faith each shares.

For me though, Wheel of Time can be defined by this extremely loose, hypnotic glide only to a point, because it lacks a filmmaking focus he shown in other docs, one example being his ultimate masterwork Lessons of Darkness, which he somehow created a mix of surrealism and immediate political commentary into a fascinating, mind-bending work about the aftermath of the first Gulf War.

Wheel of Time works as a free-spirited trek into a religion/terrain one might never have fiully realized before, but the repetitive images seem to be far more evoccative to Herzog himself than they did to me. Ultimately the images of “the faithfull” don’t have the lasting effect the inner sanctity Herzog is portraying deserves.