A new movie called Bronson by filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn is traveling around the country, three screens per week. It’s about a man (true story) who’s so incorrigible that British authorities had to lock him up in a jail (or rather, a gaol) for 30-odd years. He’s the kind of chap who hauls off and belts people just for being within arms’ reach: school teachers, police officers, you name it. Bald, mustachioed, and hard-knuckled like a carnival strongman, he has no place in a civil society, even though his crimes don’t seem to warrant three decades in solitary confinement, either. It’s not like he killed anyone, but what else to do? In prison, he continues his fisty ways and gives himself the fight name of “Charlie Bronson,” taken from some American actor known to be a tough guy. Frankly, the actor was never this kind of tough. The Bronson of this film would likely mop the floor with the actor and stick an apple in his mouth as a perverse homage to Magritte, but that’s mere conjecture.
I saw the film when it premiered at Sundance in January, not really sure what to make of it. It’s a bravura piece of filmmaking with an astonishingly intense performance by Tom Hardy. The film is highly watchable, but its artistry is placed in service of a story about an articulate, punch-happy maniac. Bravo?
But now it strikes me (thank you) that this Mr. Bronson is an apt analogy for a certain brand of punch-happy filmmaking that surfaces at regular intervals, although not usually in waves. And we seem to be experiencing one of those rare waves just as Bronson arrives in local theaters.
Enter the director-provocateur. He or she makes movies designed to win eyeballs through the sheer threat of ramming a thumb into them, and certain viewers and critics seem to relish the act of getting exercised over their impudence. The yin and yang of the art-vs-trash tussle exist in a perpetual dead heat.
These fellows don’t normally like to travel in packs, because the very strategy uses audacity to stand out from the crowd, but in the last few months, art houses and film festivals have seen their schedules tread upon by the likes of Harmony Korine whose new movie Trash Humpers is about hooligans who don’t even bother to take neighborhood receptacles to dinner before trying to get busy with them. (Naturally, it’s shot on VHS. Take that.) And Gaspar Noë upped the ante on his brand of shock art with a two-and-a-half hour hallucination called Enter the Void that involves a vagina cam (special effects). And Lars von Trier’s Antichrist—which premiered to gasps in Cannes—applies scissors to genitals, in close-up, and none-too-surprisingly its North American premiere had people “throwing up”: http://twitchfilm.net/news/2009/09/tiff09-vomit-at-ryerson-antichrist-screening.php.
Now veteran Werner Herzog is unleashing two films almost simultaneously, neither one as viscerally extreme as the foregoing provocations but both of them just as deranged, in part because they seem like such odd career moves for a legendary filmmaker. Regardless of the merits of the films, you gotta hand it to a guy who earns the attentions of the Hollywood A-list, actors like Christian Bale, Nicholas Cage, Chloë Sevigny, and Willem Dafoe, but then casts them in movies that run entirely counter to the usual Hollywood track. With his recent film Rescue Dawn, I wasn’t sure if he was trying and failing to make a mainstream film, but this time I’m certain: he’s definitely not.
But just as the character in Refn’s film adopts someone else’s name for credibility only to spring out from under it moments later, both of Herzog’s new films lurk initially in the shadows of other distinctive filmmakers.
Herzog explains that he made Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans because a producer owned the rights to the title, not because he had any particular interest in expanding on Abel Ferrara’s personal and idiosyncratic film The Bad Lieutenant. (Ferrara is insane in his own right, by the way. Go listen to his commentary track for King of New York. Fantastic.) And Herzog’s other film, My Son My Son, What Have Ye Done , is produced by David Lynch’s film company.
But there’s danger in thinking first and foremost about Ferrara and Lynch when you watch these two films. Such imprints make the films sound like detours for Herzog, who shares neither Ferrara’s religious obsessions nor Lynch’s flair for the surreal. These two movies on the contrary are hardly the kinds of things most filmmakers make when they’re trying to capitalize on prior success, and that alone is a testament to Herzog’s truly maverick spirit. Seeing these films as mere echoes of Ferrara or Lynch is the same as seeing von Trier’s Manderlay as Dogville redux without recognizing its own timely brilliance. Or seeing Trash Humpers and noting, as many critics have, that Korine has retained the “Rec” and “Stop” and tracking bars produced by his source VHS without noting that video cameras don’t insert such things onto a recording. Video players do. Korine is capturing the experience not of making but of watching and sharing an old tape. This doesn’t mean the film is good, and it certainly doesn’t mean he’s a good filmmaker, but it’s a clear example of the way preconceived notions can drive the impressions of a film.
For Port of Call New Orleans, Herzog and star Nicholas Cage seem to have hijacked a banal policier for their own weird agenda. Cage is the coked up eponym, flashing his badge left and right to obtain more blow, and the film’s most engaged audiences seem to be waiting with bated breath to see him do something nutty. Herzog says that Cage came to him during shooting and asked, “But why is he so bad?” And Herzog told him, “I’m not interested in such things as psychological motivations. There is such a thing as the bliss of evil.” And so the film revels in it, and Cage runs with the idea. The way he chuckles after saying a certain character’s name—every single time—kills me.
My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is another animal entirely, the story of a guy holed up in his house in a standoff with the police. To my eyes it looks like Herzog being weird for weird’s sake, and it’s as unconvincing as the smiley freeze-frame at the end of Rescue Dawn. But sometimes good and bad co-exist, and the melodrama and compassion in this film are hollowed out by Herzog’s intriguing (but cruel) desire to monkey with the actors, leaving them to hang in silence after a line of horrendously worded dialogue. Actors stare awkwardly waiting for him to yell cut, but he waits, as if to say, “Think on that bit of stupidity, won’t you?”
And of course there’s a way to see these two films as the latest entries in Herzog’s life-long work to observe Man wrestling with the elements. Sometimes those elements are in a man’s own head. It’s one of several themes that Herzog picks up from his own filmography: those who think he borrowed the dwarf imagery for My Son from Lynch may want to reconsider.
The point is that, first, a high-concept provocation is so quickly digested (“they hump trash on VHS”) that it loses its appeal almost immediately. It’s a sugar spike. But, second, its appeal will wear off not only for viewers but also for good filmmakers, and if it wears off before the film is finished, the director and co-conspirators may look for other ways to stay interested. And those germs and flourishes, spawned of disinterest, may become the film’s saving grace: the consistent, unexplained chuckles after certain words, the pauses, the subtle textures, the minor WTF moments that flow like water over pebbles even as the film’s own clunky plot diverts from its trunk unexpectedly like a dammed tributary.
The key to enjoying the film is for viewers to find those small moments, too, if they care to and if they exist. Smirks and non-sequiturs and strange tracking shots may not generate accolades for the auteur (damned tributaries, so to speak), but they mitigate disaster and sow the seeds of cult classics. Better yet, they solidify the evidence that a real and curious artist still exists behind the jabbing thumbs of the provocateur. May he show his face and not his thumbs next time.