Of all the major artistic genres, I find film tends to be the most self-referential. Or if you like the cruder way of saying it, the most masturbatory. Or if you like the more honest way, it can’t fucking shut up about itself.
In some cases this just comes in the form of loudmouthed directors who literally can’t film a scene without putting in a reference to another, much better film. But more directly, this can come in the form of documentaries.
Unlike their more wordy and expensive written cousins textbooks, documentaries are a form of artistically valid film making in their own right, with their own styles and tropes, and as we covered before, a favorite subject of these films is film itself, or usually a certain film. Usually this just takes the form of behind the scenes films for DVD extras, or whatever existed before DVDs. Everything before 2000 is a haze to me.
But once in a while one of these films on film goes above and beyond, and becomes a film that can stand alone, and those are the films we’re looking at this week: three documentaries, each chronicling the troubled production of a certain film. And when I say “troubled” I don’t mean “They ran out of coffee” I mean more like “People almost died”.
German film director Werner Herzog is….well, remember in The Avengers when Banner says Loki’s brain is “A bag full of cats”? He could just as easily have been talking about Herzog. Although replace “bag” with “cereal box” and “cats” with “rabid weasels”.
His film Fitzcarraldo tells the story of a man who, in a desperate scheme to raise money to build an opera house in the middle of the Amazon jungle, undertakes to pull 300 ton steamer ship over a small mountain as part of a plan to make it big in the rubber business.
Of course, most directors would accomplish this with camera tricks and miniatures. But remember, this is Herzog. He said “No, let’s just drag a boat over a mountain.” So he took his crew out into the jungle, a few hours journey from anything resembling civilization, recruited a few hundred local natives as laborers and extras and he dragged a boat over a damn mountain. It took fucking forever, and some people got hurt along the way, and prettymuch everyone thought he was crazy, but damned if that magnificent German bastard didn’t do it.
The documentary chronicling this mad attempt largely focuses on the always shaky relations between the natives working on the film, including the hazards they met with and the constant fear that they would be “culturally contaminated” by Herzog and his crew.
Of the three films I’m looking at, this one is perhaps he most bland or straightforward in its presentation, narrated by a bored sounding woman and cut together competently but not Earth-shatteringly. All the same, it’s still worth a look.
If you’ve ever seen a film by Terry Gilliam, you’d understand why the tale of Don Quixote would appeal to him. It’s a classic story of madness, honor, and the boundaries between truth and fiction, so in other words it has Gilliam’s name written all over it, and he’s been fighting to get it made for most of his career.
In the mid 90s, Gilliam finally secured funding and began shooting his dream project in Spain And then everything went wrong. And I mean EVERYTHING. Weather ruined outdoor shoots, there were funding problems and finally star Jean Rochefort had to leave due to medical complications.
Eventually, to Gilliam’s dismay, the entire project folded and hasn’t been unfolded since.
The Lost in La Mancha, which follows Gilliam and co. through the whole escapade, is both a joy to behold and heartbreaking. A joy because watching Gilliam at work is like watching a child at play, but with the demented purpose of the kind of child who’ll grow up into either a super-villain or a film director (same thing, some times). It’s heartbreaking however, because when bosoms finally become skywardly inclined, you can literally see his heart breaking.
The doc itself also comes with style to spare, and is charismatically narrated by The Dude himself, Jeff Bridges.
Possibly the most chaotic film shoot in history, the events that culminated in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now are often equated with the chaos and turmoil of the Vietnam war itself.
Coming off the massive success of the Godfather films, it’s understandable why Coppola was already under pressure going in to this thing. Add changes in actors, the chaos of shooting in the war-torn Philippines (the film was originally planned to be shot by George Lucas in Viet Nam itself…so I suppose it could have been worse), technical malfunctions and constant script re-writes, it’s no surprise that Coppola and many others involved in the film went through a psychological journey not all that different from the one Martin Sheen goes through in the film itself. On-set interviews, still photos, and recollections from cast and crew paint a portrait of a film maker slowly losing control of his own film, and coming close to losing his sanity in the process.
Hearts is probably the most intimate and personal of the films on this list. Not only is it narrated by Coppola’s wife Eleanor, most of her narration is actually excerpts from the journal she kept during the stressful shoot.
More than Burden of Dreams, Hearts will most likely change how you see Apocalypse Now forever. Learning the turmoil constantly going on behind the camera, to say nothing of how genuine much of Martin Sheen’s psychological breakdown was, definitely lends the film itself a new tone.
I can’t say I totally agree with a certain sitcom character’s assertion that Hearts is a better film than Apocalypse Now, but it’s still an essential companion piece to the film and a fantastic documentary in its own right.