Film: Werner Herzog: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

As a filmmaker, Herzog often doesn’t appear to give one good goddamn about his stories. He slaps them up on the screen so he can plunder them, of unique performances and unearthly beats, in ways no other filmmaker ever born could dream up (or at least dare to tackle). Fitzcarraldo contains an extended sequence of scurrying masses of indigenous Amazonians hauling an enormous riverboat over the narrow berm of land separating two strands of the same river – and it’s no mystery now, as if the film doesn’t illustrate it clearly enough, that Herzog actually accomplished this. No CGI in 1982 could do what Herzog did with hundreds of extras and a lot of leverage, and this bizarrely awesome chunk of filmmaking stands straight up from the somewhat mediocre drama around it, a colossus of imagination and cinematic integrity. Everything else is an excuse to give us such moments of thundering visceral effect.

No shock, and in typical Herzog style, that Bad Lieutenant contains two scenes of such startling conceptual brilliance that the rest of the film feels sort of shapeless, but in a way that seems to give rise to the best parts. The first involves Nicolas Cage’s drugged detective and a pair of iguanas perched on a desktop, and the tiny handheld camera used to film the sequence. It’s an odd effect for Herzog, absolutely attuned to the psychology of his main character but perversely tiny in scale, and the comic genius of the scene only grows with its ridiculous duration and the flawless timing of performance and editing that concludes it. The second involves thugs, guns, and Nicolas Cage’s drugged detective giving perhaps the best excuse in film history for shooting a dead man again: “because his soul is still dancing”. What follows is a staggering few seconds’ cartoon of psychological malaise so vibrantly timed and rendered that, for the few brief seconds, Bad Lieutenant soars. We’re in another film.

Ultimately Herzog doesn’t quite know how to build to and from these scenes; they just emerge, free-floating, from the film’s ambient fog. Which is pleasurable enough, more Touch of Evil (1958) than Abel Ferrera’s Bad Lieutenant (1992), filled with blasts of colorful light and careening wide-angle photography and Cage’s untethered performance. But all this doesn’t feel intrinsic to anything contained in the film, or inducive of anything beyond. Bad Lieutenant feels like a rough cut of a much better film, its strongest elements in place but the connective tissue half-formed – a little premie, crying with life but unprepared to fend for itself (the ungainly, weirdly pirated title does little to compensate). It’s not a new problem for Herzog. Cobra Verde (1987), Woyzeck (1979), Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) – these are all missing parts, trundling along on vim and enthusiasm instead of cohesive cinematic fluency.

The same could be said of Cage’s performance. Just prior to Bad Lieutenant‘s release in New York, the Times ran an article by Manohla Dargis exploring Cage’s wayward choices as an actor (“Madness or Method? Tough to Tell“). She’s right to emphasize his broader strokes, like Con Air (1997) and Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), yet she skims over Leaving Las Vegas (1995) without moving on at all to what, to my mind, is Cage’s best work to date: Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead (1999). Cage can ham it up with bravado in The Rock (1996), but he is also capable of extraordinary pathos under the guidance of an intelligent and discerning director. His Frank Pierce is a moody wisp of a man wallowing in his own guilt and inconsequence – I can’t imagine another actor in the part. Scorsese convulses his way through Bringing Out the Dead to the tempo of Van Morrison’s “TB Sheets”, heaving and lurching through three nights with a paramedic battling the specter of death on a few hours of sleep. The film is a violent plane ride, the kind that has you worried about the airframe, and Cage is the kind of actor who will risk thespian virtuosity for the sake of turbulence. He’s got the face for it, soft but full of shadows, and when he opens his toothy mouth, the whole thing changes shape. Perhaps no one else short of Daniel Day-Lewis could consciously lift his gangling arms above a throng of giggling schoolgirls to avoid tarnishing them with his grimy soul.

Knowing that Cage is capable of so much tact, it’s concerning to see him repeat himself in Bad Lieutenant. The performance is a best-of amalgamation. I don’t deny that Herzog needed Cage’s abandon; Cage is a star, and Klaus Kinski is dead. But I wonder if Cage has played himself out, whether he’s got any new facets to show. The other possibility is that he needs the formal rigor of a Scorsese, rather than the free-form vigor of a Herzog, to find the right balance between honest expression and grandeur. Under Herzog, he leans too far to the latter, for effect instead of connection. Then again, so does Herzog – it’s hardly a surprise to learn that he completed two films in 2009. The other, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, is due for release in December.

Maybe bounding from odd peak to obscure hill is Herzog’s unique place, in world cinema, to keep. For all of his complete fiction films – Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Nosferatu (1979) – and documentaries – The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner (1974), Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997) – there are his La Soufrieres (1977): dramatic larks of ferocious ambition that somehow fail to come together.  But contained in La Soufriere is a portrait, however formless, of a specific place at a profoundly specific time: an abandoned volcanic island on the frothing brink of eruption. Who else could make that film? Who else would dare, at so likely a cost to perfection? Herzog’s films are experiences, first and last. They are to be seen and heard and felt, above all, from moment to moment, not as a formed whole. And he’s among incredibly few filmmakers – with Cassavetes, maybe, and Altman – who are content to begin a film with the conceit of abandoning control over it, in order to recapture a bolder declaration of vitality on the far side of production.

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