Monday, January 28, 2008

Werner Herzog Lays an Egg.

In the scope of an entire artistic career, one is bound to "lay a couple of eggs". It doesn't matter how creative, visionary or brilliant the artist is- anyone who regularly takes chances is bound to make mistakes. Sometimes the product will be miserably bad. Or maybe it is viewed as merely uninspired. But when one looks at the works spread out over an entire lifespan, there are bound to be some that stick out as superior, and that means that (by necessity) some others will be "not-so-good". Certainly a few creators are blessed with skill, imagination, talent, and taste... and in those cases the worst of their output may be better than the the stuff coming from hacks. Still we are all limited by the finite resources of time, and therefore it makes sense to seek out the best from any individual artist.

There are many film-lovers that will identify German director Werner Herzog as one of the truly great filmmakers of all time. His movies are consistently challenging, beautiful and illuminating. The films he made with Klaus Kinski during the 70's and early 80's (Aguirre, Wrath of God, Nosferatu, Fitzcarraldo, Woyzeck, and Cobra Verde) form a core within a larger body of work that brought Herzog to the attention of international audiences. The fiery and contentious relationship between the director and his male lead may have proved untenable in the long run, but the resulting product was absolutely unforgettable. Meanwhile Herzog has a host of documentaries that he has made over a period of decades, that have largely been overlooked on this side of the Atlantic. Still, with the renaissance in film release and appreciation stimulated by the advent of DVD technology, people are now discovering this work as well. His recent feature Grizzly Man received its fair share of critical and commercial acclaim.

Even without Kinski, Herzog has been known to make idiosyncratic movies that are beyond comparison. Although they aren't all what one might call "entertaining", they are most assuredly memorable. In Heart of Glass (1976) Herzog employed an entire cast which he saw fit to have hypnotized by a mesmerist. Although I've never seen it, it is said to be akin to watching a parade of sleepwalkers. Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) features midgets and other "little people" in all the roles of the film. These anarchic diminutives overthrow a mental institution, and generally wreak havoc on anything they can get their hands on. While these works cannot be said to be "conventionally successful", they have served to enhance the director's reputation as an uncompromising iconoclast who is totally devoted to artistic integrity.

It is his public image that makes Herzog's newest feature film, Rescue Dawn (2006), so difficult to understand. Indeed the director had already made this story- in the form of a 1997 documentary entitled Little Dieter Needs To Fly. The narrative concerns a young military pilot (played by Christian Bale) whose plane crashed in the wilderness of Laos during the Vietnam Conflict. Because this fateful flight was part of "black ops" (a classified mission) , Dieter Dengler was left to his own devices to survive while his comrades surreptitiously searched for him. He was captured by a contingent of Viet Cong, and imprisoned with a motley little bunch of Americans in a make-shift prison camp. The bulk of the film deals with Dieter's plans for escape and his consequent struggle to reach safe ground and be rescued.

Rescue Dawn isn't a lousy film. It's adequately diverting for the bulk of its running length. The performances (especially those of Bale and Jeremy Davies,) are competent. Its setting is lavishly shot. What makes this movie an exception within Herzog's oeuvre is its sheer ordinariness. It's basically an action flick. The dialog and situations are presented without nuance or significant insight. It follows the conventions of the genre- even to the extent of containing the typically "inspirational" ending. Most glaring is the complete absence of Herzog's trademark "ecstatic truth". This is not a distinctive film. It could have been directed by any of 1000 filmmakers. The logical inconsistencies and glaring plot-holes would be forgivable in a "standard" Herzog film... but with nothing distinguishing Rescue Dawn from any other shoot-em-up, prisoner-or-war flick- I have a hard time figuring out the target audience. Why should his lifelong fans bother with this at all?

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