Werner Herzog's approach to "the truth" has always been fascinating, fearless, at times ferocious and to continue in this alliterative vein, faithful. Faithful to life -- to its wonderful or horrifying craziness, to its lyrical splendor, and to its appalling ugliness that in turn, can often reveal a deep, multi-faceted beauty. Life is unclean. Life is violent. Life is corrupt. Life is fantastical. Life is chaos. Life is, yes, beautiful.
Watch his Lessons of Darkness, concerning the Kuwait fires and you're left breathless by their destructive magnificence. As the oil wells burn we hear Prokofiev, Verdi, Wagner, Grieg and gloriously, Mahler's "Resurrection" (2nd) Symphony. Interestingly, Mahler conceived the second Resurrection as recalling positive remembrances for the dead. Yes. Laudable thoughts. Burn baby, burn -- in a wonderfully optimistic and exalting pitch. This feels like Herzog.
And Herzog feels like Herzog. When meeting him, I was so inspired by his presence, his intelligence, his realness, his voice, that talking to him made me feel (and please excuse me for sounding hyperbolic but I'm being honest here) like how Marlene Dietrich described Orson Welles, like "a plant that's been watered." And I thank god I'll never forget our meeting because, perhaps not surprisingly, after one of the most interesting and fulfilling interviews I've ever conducted, the tape jammed. Sitting late at night in my bedroom, ready to transcribe this fascinating talk, my heart stopped when I heard that awful sound of tape being sucked into machine. Broken. Fearful of pulling it out of the recorder, I stared at it in disbelief. Unspool and possibly repair? Or leave it? I decided to leave it there. I suddenly felt like Herzog was telling me I must never listen to it.
This disappointing reality caused further reflection of Herzog and his movies. You don't go to a Werner Herzog picture and think: "That's not realistic." Because, really, what does that mean anyway? This is his truth. This is their truth. Or your truth. Or an iguana's truth. It's part of Herzog's grand yet entirely grounded theories about "reality" -- what he calls "ecstatic truth." Herzog claims that his approach toward filmmaking, whether in his documentaries (like Little Dieter Needs to Fly or Grizzly Man) or biographical pictures (like Aguirre: The Wrath of God or Fitzcarraldo) reveals, as he has said: "Something deeply inherent, where you recognize yourself as a human being again, where you find images that have been dormant inside of you for so many years and all of a sudden it becomes visible and understandable for you -- you read the world differently, your perceptions change."
A true auteur and a true adventurer, Herzog understands (instinctively and intellectually) just how much we take for granted when not looking out of the corner of our eye -- when we only see what's right in front of us. "Reading the world differently" is an important element to his filmmaking, and as he braves Antarctica, or walks hundreds of miles, or drags boats over mountains, or contends with true forces of nature -- the jungle, the cold, the animals and Klaus Kinski -- Herzog is adept at tackling any type of movie, any type of obstacle, any type of eccentricity.
And now he's taken on Nicolas Cage.
With his un-hinged, gloriously debauched, hilarious, and uniquely gorgeous The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (one of the best films of the year so far), he's dazzlingly in synch with his subject -- the portrait of a man, a crooked cop (Cage) rotting and raving in a decimated land. That's post-Katrina New Orleans, a place that well covers Herzogian themes -- the violence, the beauty, the destruction of nature, the warped passion of a fanatical man. Cage's Terence McDonagh -- drug impaired, dishonest, abusive, and yet, often kind and certainly conflicted is a jangly, imbalanced creature of inspired madness. What's brilliant here is that Herzog, not one to create a standard police procedural, places Cage in something like that: there's a an internal affairs investigation, a murder mystery and strangely sweet complications with a prostitute (Eva Mendes) and a drug dealer (Xzibit). There's also gambling and drug addiction, inappropriate pat-downs, lucky crack pipes and relations with his impaired dad and stepmother, that recalled a Flannery O'Connor story or Rip Torn visiting his pill addicted mother in the brilliantly brave Payday.
And like Mr. Torn, Cage is absolutely fearless in his approach to character. Throw out all the rules and just be. Be crazy. But be real. He's true to his own style -- that of Nicolas Cage -- but Herzog must cast magical spells on actors because as the movie goes along, Cage begins to resemble a Nosferatu or an Aguirre -- he even walks with a slight hunchback. And then, he tops it by throwing in throwing in some giggling Richard Widmark Tommy Udo and snarling Edward G. Robinson Little Caesar. It's a diabolically mythical performance. To describe his rhythms and humor and in the end, his humanity isn't easy -- Cage is almost musical in his approach, and he stirs mysterious, complicated emotions that will yes, make many people laugh. At him, with him, and with the very things that make him laugh. When we are looking at iguanas from the perspective of the animal and the perspective of drugged out Cage considering the animal, the hallucinatory power borders on hilarious and yet, remains honestly poetic (it reminded me a bit of the chicken at the end of Stroszek).
Which comes to the question: what kind of movie is Bad Lieutenant? It's a noir, it's a comedy, it's a character study, it's a southern gothic, it's a police story. Yes, it's all those things. But really, it's a Herzog picture. Real, unreal, maddening, inspiring and utterly sincere.
Read more Kim Morgan at Sunset Gun.