Conquest of the Useless
Thu Jun 25 2009
Time Out Ratings<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5
A crazed epic about a rubber baron who drags a steamship across an Amazonian mountain range, Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1981) set the bar absurdly high for cinematic realism. (There would be no special effects used.) Perhaps even more hair-raising were the stories that emerged from that shoot, including Peruvian border disputes, manic rages from actor Klaus Kinski and an unfortunate cinematographer forgotten overnight on a roaring rapids. Les Blank’s documentary of the making of the film, Burden of Dreams, is arguably superior to Fitzcarraldo itself.
Now comes a third narrative, director Herzog’s private journals, first published in Germany in 2004 and finally arriving stateside. Conquest of the Useless (from a line of dialogue in the film) adds significant details to the bigger picture, but also stands alone as a compellingly gonzo piece of reportage. Shrewdly omitting the better-known misadventures, Herzog focuses on his own determination and loneliness. And why not? It’s a diary. We start in the cush surroundings of Francis Coppola’s San Francisco mansion, circa the release of Apocalypse Now. Herzog toils on his script in the guest room while Sofia plays in the pool. A month later, he’s in Iquitos, Peru, observing animals as they eat each other.
As a read, Conquest flies along—but not because it’s especially plotty. Rather, it gathers its kick from the spectacle of a celebrity director escaping the late-’70s famescape into his own obsessions. Meetings with Mick Jagger are far less wild than Herzog’s mordant curiosity at the steamy rain forest and his vivid descent into what he calls the “great abyss of night.” When a local Peruvian fears the camera’s theft of his soul, Herzog tells him there’s no need to worry, but privately admits he’s lying.—Joshua Rothkopf
Herzog reads Friday 26 at McNally Jackson Booksellers.