Last night I screened The Burden of Dreams at my place, joined by Seattle documentary filmmaker Nassim Assefi and Seattle Film Institute cinematography instructor Steven Bradford and a few other friends. The 1982 documentary by Les Blank is a cutting portrayal of legendary filmmaker Warner Herzog during his 5-year quest to make Fitzcaraldo. I’m not keen on “making of” movies, but this one is far more about Herzog as a character than his film.
A psychotherapist once told me that to understand the behavior of people, including ourselves, it can be useful to think of them as actors starring in their own movies. The problem is, people don’t know when to stop acting. They get attached to the roles they define for themselves. Even when the results don’t make any sense or are harmful to themselves and others, they just keep playing out their parts, long after any adult in charge would have yelled “Cut!”
This film is a journey into Herzog’s vision of himself as a hero in his own movie, literally, with no one to tell him no. Except his film’s investors, who waste no time in doing so when it becomes clear Herzog is making what my psychotherapist pal might have called “poor choices.”
Everything continues to go wrong for Herzog, in large part because he insists on putting the cast and crew into extreme conditions of isolation and physical stress, in the name of extracting more authentic performances out of them. But it’s more than that. It’s as if Herzog WANTS to spend 5 years in the jungle. “I don’t want to live in a world where there are no lions, where there are not people like lions,” he says in one interview. In the jungle Herzog sees “overwhelming misery and fornication and lack of order. Even the stars look like a mess” here, he says, in his frighteningly ordered German accept.
I got so distracted by my repulsion for Herzog that I forgot to pay close attention to how the documentary was made. Nevertheless, I managed to come away with one useful observation, made by Steven. He reminded us that this film was made during a period when filmmakers, for the first time in history, came into the possession of film cameras that could also record sync sound while at the same time being small enough to shoulder-hold. That represented a technological breakthrough, just as momentous as the one many of us are buzzing about today with the arrival of HDSLRs like the Canon 5d. Directors like Herzog felt suddenly freed of the constraints of big studios. They were breaking free. Or at least, they were trying.
After the film, Steven showed us this 3:58 clip on YouTube, as an example of just how effective the studios have been in keeping directors out of the jungle and safely delivering earth-shaking apocalypse, on time and on budget. Check it out. Almost made me nostalgic for the sound of Herzog’s real steam ship crunching into real rocks. Almost.