Tuesday, November 24, 2009

DRIFT PUNCTUATED BY EXPLOSIONS. I'm begining to think of it as like Renoir's or Ophuls' American movies. Of course The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is no Letter from an Unknown Woman. Hollywood is no longer the inviolable template with which foreign directors once had to contend; foreign directors have at this point changed the way even the way our blockbusters look, and style standards are more fluid. But as did the old masters, Herzog sure makes his hand felt.

How weird is it to see a police drama, even one with its malformed heart scooped out of Abel Ferrara's original, played like McDonagh, The Wrath of God? Instead of blandly mysterious flute-playing natives, we have a connected perv who repeats "whoa" and "hey" as if it were a magic incantation. Instead of Klaus Kinski maddened on the Amazon, we have Nicolas Cage gazing in horror out of a sea of slot machines. We have hysterical acting emerging from dead calm. We have conversations played within one room that seem to be conducted across vast fields of time and space. And we have iguanas, who don't sing exactly, but puff their ruffs and flick their tongues while a lounge version of "Please Release Me" blares, shot by Herzog lying on the floor.

This is candy for initiates, and so are the more transparently Hollywood scenes, like the one in which Cage tells Eva Mendes about his buried silver spoon: the distance between the insanity of the movie and this hokey dream-with-me moment out of The Rainmaker is so vast that it, too, makes you giddy.

But that scene has a payoff which is also Hollywood, and well-earned. As wild as the style is, there's something of the old template there. McDonagh's trip has a recognizable arc -- but it's backwards, and for all its deliberateness even more radical than Ferrara's. Unlike the Harvey Keitel Bad Lieutenant, Cage's is redeemed at the beginning rather than at the end. Bad Lieutenant 1 underwent a Catholic purgatory; Bad Lieutenant 2 is sanctified in a manner that I suspect Herzog associated with the slapdash Protestantism of Americans from the South (like God's Angry Man), which he may have associated, in the exceedingly casual manner with which European aesthetes usually regard us, with New Orleans -- a kind of jungle, or as J. Hoberman had it, a "smashed terrarium."

As he always does with natives, Herzog keeps his distance. The voodoo alluded in a funeral scene isn't an attempt to drop a theological marker, but a reference to a spiritual life that grows like kudzu around the lives of the characters. Herzog is not of a temperament to explain it or line it up with his plot. Like the rituals of the mystics in Bells From the Deep, the rituals in this movie (pipe-sharing, liquor spitting, gambling, AA meetings) are not expected to make sense, but to make their sense to us, the way dreams dreamed to Kaspar Hauser.

McDonagh's act -- of what? kindness? fellow-feeling? reflex response? -- charts his course in the first scene. What happens afterward is the playing out of a drama in which the climax has already occurred. Maybe that helps explain all Herzog's odd stories, and even his documentaries. From Even Dwarves Started Small to Grizzly Man, his style has been drift punctuated by explosions, and this may be what he sees as life. Put that way it seems hellish and almost inhuman in its disorder. But as is the redemption of McDonagh's rusty spoon, it can also, still, be beautiful.

UPDATE. Thanks Mnemosyne for spellcheck.

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