Tuesday, December 01, 2009

THE BAD LIEUTENANT, SECOND TAKE. Some people were confused by my review of The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, and I don't blame them, as it was posted late, unedited and over-effusive. I feel compelled to revisit the topic. I warn you, I may not have this thing figured, but I enjoyed the movie and it stayed with me, and thinking out loud is how I stretch out the pleasure. (Thank God there are other sites on the internet for you to visit! One man shouldn't have so much power.)

Most of the lead characters in Herzog's movies -- Aguirre, Stroszek, Kaspar Hauser, Timothy Treadwell -- don't undergo old-fashioned dramatic transformations in which they confront the opportunity to change; their surroundings change, and the characters struggle against them as if change were out of the question. (Stroszek tells his girlfriend that America takes your soul, then goes on a rampage, but as played by Bruno S., he's practically catatonic and can no more be said to undergo recognition and transformation than could a cornered animal.)

Similarly, McDonagh doesn't appear to be making decisions; he acts on impulse, frequently fueled by drugs. That's what makes the movie so weird, all singing iguanas aside. He's set up as a mixed character in the Hollywood tradition -- a Cop Who Doesn't Play By The Rules -- and we are encouraged by custom to seek his badly-hidden good side and root for it. But Herzog makes that impossible by making him a Herzog character.

There's an interesting moment, for example, when the football player McDonagh is trying to shake down for points tells him he doesn't seem concerned anymore with the family murder he'd been investigating. McDonagh replies (paraphrasing from memory): "Look at me. Now look at you. I never was." What's shocking is that, given the way he's been acting, we really don't know if he's lying.

What's good about him? He seems devoted to his job, but he's busted, not for Not Playing By The Rules, but for an egregious screw-up that wrecks the case. His decision to plant the crack pipe (and really, how "good" a move is that?) might be the result of long-term planning under the pretense of criminality, but given his instability it looks more like junkie cunning with the power of the law behind it. He's a really Bad Lieutenant. His devotion to Frankie looks good, but when pregnancy and rehabilitation seem to have rendered her prostitution career inoperable, and their relationship more traditional, he's back to shaking down minor drug offenders and presumably getting sex out of it.

I really think if some other director had gotten this script, he would have planted "tells" to comfort us that McDonagh is a good man struggling to act like one, saved by his own actions, and played by Michael Douglas. In the Herzog version, every opportunity to see it that way is painstakingly removed. The settled and sober McDonagh -- drinker of sparkling water, bearer of the recovered childhood spoon! -- is a result of events playing out, not his will. Then he backslides, and has to be rescued.

That rescue (and who knows how long it will last?) has played on my mind. Part of me thinks it's just a concession to Hollywood tradition. Another way to see it is as a clue to the philosophy. Last time out, I was talking about grace; maybe the "good" is just something that comes to us, and we take it when and where we can. And if that's the last thing we see before the credits, those of us who were just thrilled to see Nicolas Cage flip out for two hours can go home happy. The rest can wonder if, after the credits, it all keeps happening over and over again. Is that his life? Is it ours?

Some smart people who are fans of Herzog really hate the movie, and I can't say I blame them, either. McDonagh closely resembles the glorious monsters played by Klaus Kinski in Herzog movies but, though McDonagh is almost as much fun to gawk at as Aguirre or Fitzcarraldo, he isn't on their scale. Those characters were forces of nature and had the fascination of landslides or hurricanes. Try to imagine Kinski as a Cop Who Doesn't Play By The Rules!

The question for me is, does putting this trademark Herzog brand of monstrosity into a cop movie destroy it? Are these creatures only fit for extremities, or do they mean something even in grimy little procedurals? I think the latter, because I think those monsters are not just great men, but characters to which even little people like me can relate. We are sometimes outsize, if only in our imaginations. We are sometimes awful, and think we may be awful all the way down. We are often damned by our actions and sometimes rescued by chance. And we may be forced to consider, when it is pointed out to us by an insane German, that chance might be the thing we thought was God.

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