Monday, April 12, 2010

Conquest of the Useless by Werner Herzog

First published in English last year, this is a diary kept by Werner Herzog during the making of his 1982 film Fitzcarraldo. The production of this film is legendary (it involved moving a 320-ton steamship over a mountain without the use of special effects), notoriously plagued with myriad troubles involving actors abandoning the project, Klaus Kinski's infamously difficult behavior (allegedly the Indians offered to kill him), grueling conditions in the jungle, and of course the task of moving a 320-ton steam ship over a mountain.

The text on the back (see above) is fairly indicative of the tone of the book: at once beautiful and bleak, somewhat hallucinatory and feverish. One of my favorite entries, hilariously terse, is from July 20, 1979: "San Francisco. Emptiness." Even July 13, 1980, "a beautiful, fresh, sunny morning," ends in tragedy when one of two newly hatched chicks drowns in a saucer containing "only a couple millimeters of water," the other one getting its leg and a piece of its stomach bit off by a "murderous" albino rabbit. "A sense of desolation was tearing me up inside, like termites in a fallen tree trunk." Oh, Werner, how I love your somber observations on the world. I'm reminded of a voiceover in the 2005 documentary Grizzly Man: "I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder."

Overall, though, the point of Conquest of the Useless is the attainment of a dream in the face of impossibility. So it kind of has a positive moral.

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