Burden of Dreams (USA, 1982)

Directed by: Les Blank. The best way to describe this film is by asking if you’ve seen another film, Hearts of Darkness—you know, the one Eleanor Coppola made about the making of Apocalypse Now, and which is arguably more fascinating than the movie it’s about. The film Fitzcarraldo is a good movie, but honestly, if I’m being honest, I don’t know if it’s a great film. And when you see this film, the making of Fitzcarraldo, and all of the tremendous hardship they go through, including the deaths of some people distantly associated with the film, and the injuries of several members of the crew (including one carpenter who was bitten by a poisonous snake, and had to cut his foot off to stop the poison and save his life), it’s hard for me not to ask the question—is this all worth it? I mean, first of all, I have nothing but tremendous respect for Herzog and his career and his commitment to his art, and it seems, from his interviews, that he’s a bit sensitive to the insinuation that his flights of fancy, his dedication to his artistic creations, sometimes put people’s lives in danger, rather than just his own, as he insists. He certainly seems to chalk up those horrible accidents to the hazards of life itself, and not any particular hazard with his movie. And perhaps rightfully so—I definitely take him at his word that he never asked anyone to do anything they didn’t want to do. In this movie, that means that the actors and camera crew who are on board the boat as it’s drifting over dangerous rapids, getting tossed around so violently I was sure it was a replica or a miniature, until I saw Burden of Dreams, with footage of Herzog and Kinski and the cameramen running around frantically trying not to get smashed as the ship gets smashed against a rock face. But for me, there were points in the film where I had to ask myself if the movie, Fitzcarraldo, and the story of one colonial adventurer/businessman’s passion for this arbitrary thing—making an opera in the jungle, and then taking a steamship over a mountain to the neighbouring river—was all worth it. Was that such an incredibly important story to tell? Important enough to go all that way, trekking through the jungle in your bare feet in the mud, building these elaborate contraptions out of wood and pullies, hiring hundreds of Indigenous extras, running afoul of the complex political situation in that country, and risking the life and limb of everyone, including yourself? Of course, the fact that I can even dare to ask that question means that I’ll never be a great filmmaker. Fair enough. Herzog definitely gave us some human heights of excellence to aspire to, like an Olympian for the arts. As he says, there is something important about bringing these dreams to reality, this image of a steamship going over a mountain is somehow important, and it’s worthwhile in the act of just doing it. There is some social and cultural function in going to the effort to express this intention, whatever it is. And he definitely wore a great moustache for several years during the filming of this movie, one of the great moustaches in cinema. But seriously, I think Herzog just released a book all about the making of Fitzcarraldo, and I’d definitely recommend it without reading, because the story behind the making of that movie, at least as documented here, is one of the most compelling narratives of real human artistic endeavour of all time.

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