Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Monday, November 30, 2009


Werner Herzog's BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS represents not just a triumph of a great European director over the cop film formula, but a triumph of drugs and the human spirit over the forces who've been playing them against each other for the last 70 years. With PORT OF CALL, Herzog raises the victory sign and lets the freaks know they can lay down their crack pipes and go home. In the face of maniacal Nicolas Cage, no locked-in-concrete reality stands a chance, particularly in post-Katrina New Orleans.

When all the world is underwater, fishmen shall reign.

Herzog's great victory here is over his own Germanic fear of unheimliche abject dirt and devouring nature, a burden welded to an explorer's soul that hitherto has led him all over the world, his anxiety never more than a few paces behind. Herzog seems to have been born without a nesting instinct, or thick skin, and the combination signals the same amount of pain Cage's bad lieutenant endures from his injury and withdrawal symptoms; the same manic highs of crack are nice mirrors to the highs of art. It's a perfect synthesis of fearless maniac actor, the right material, and a maverick auteur who has done more than most to erase the line between fiction and documentary.

With its weird non-sequitur scenes and throwaway framing (plenty of smokestacks and gutted pier backgrounds) it could just be random quirkiness but it works because in the case of both Abel Ferrara's original and Herzog's 'sequel' we have fearless men making movies about fearlessness, the holy grail of masculinity. It takes guts to go off the rails at will, and not edit out the embarrassment later. These are films that keep their noses close to the pavement, like a bloodhound or drunk slowly waking up on a hot Sunday afternoon to the sound of concerned passers-by, or waking up on your own floor, instantly sniffing the carpet for that one lost chunk of coke from the night before.

A lot's been written about the reptiles in this film, particularly the alligator's eye view along the highway, low and mean, mirroring our own as viewers, sunk deeply into our cinematic darkness. You imagine that gators feel not much pain, but plenty of joy, like a kid allowed to crawl in the mud all day in the rain, biting anything he wants, the murky, wet freedom. Then again, that gator is perhaps mourning its mate, leg still twitching with its guts hanging out on an off ramp after colliding with a car. For Cage's cop, the world of New Orleans is a seething swamp and, like that mournful gator, he carries pain that makes his mud-crawling joy sorely earned. It helps of course that his badge gives him power over nearly every situation, a power he abuses copiously, but we're never really meant to feel sorry for those he oppresses, especially rock-smoking yuppies and his call girl girlfriend Eva Mendez's dopey johns. Her sleazy exploitation would be played up with lurid, evil music and leering close-ups in less capable hands. But like Abel Ferrara, Herzog is way beyond such petty morality. In both their worlds, the deep-end net between mere sick druggie sex stuff and actual murder is the only one our sympathies aren't meant to swim cross

The way our hero earns promotions via planting evidence, and makes cash blackmailing football players shows that while America still wrestles with its emotional dependence on big brother and its unrealistic appreciation for nature as some warm, cuddly benevolent force that needs our help to survive one more day in its little hutch, Herzog and Cage have beat the rap and found contentment in the dog-eat-dog world of corrupt nature. Herzog previously --in his documentaries at least--recoiled from that corruption as much as he embraced it. Anyone can find a cute bunny rabbit cuddly, but that's not nature. If you can find an alligator eating a rabbit to be cuddly, then come hang with Herzog... but not too close, because you're a sick person.

If you're familiar with Cage's oeuvre you will undoubtedly realize this role is something of a mid-career capstone. He even finds his way home to the nasal whine he adopted in his uncle Francis's time travel romance, PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED (1986). Lots of us back then who were in awe from him from BIRDY (1984), RAISING ARIZONA (1987) and MOONSTRUCK (1987) thought to ourselves where the hell he picked up this ridiculous nasal vocal style? Shit was so good it became ridiculous in PEGGY, it was too much. Now we know how he got it, from all the crack he be smokin' in the future!

Lastly is the brilliant way the film brings in sobriety as an option. Going off to AA and leaving your druggie mate behind to drink alone is hazardous to any relationship, an instant point of cataclysm usually seen from the sober person view (28 DAYS, CLEAN AND SOBER), but Herzog would never dream of following the sober person and leaving the crazy druggie behind. When everyone else is slinking away as the abusive crackhead rants and froths at the mouth, Herzog walks boldly in with his camera and asks said crackhead about his dreams. Herzog would be a great "guide" on an acid trip. You can see him getting all up in a cop's face over his charge's right to eat the flowers in Central Park or to bite the heads off slow-footed squirrels. And that's how it should be, maybe, in a perfect world.

The only possible bid for moral high ground with a philosophy that Nietzschean is selflessness, the root of Cage's addiction (he hurt his back diving into a flooded prison to save a convict) but Herzog dispenses with showing us the moment of the actual injury or Cage's early days of dependence, i.e. his first week of, perhaps, trying to stick to his prescription regimen and be a good lieutenant. Did he do drugs ever before he got his back problem? Or is Herzog agreeing with the conservative notion that a prescription for Vicodin leads to heroin and crack like rain leads to mud? It don't matter, because we want Cage to be messed up, and there's a refreshing lack of cliche to the New Orleans aspect: no Hoodoo doctor, no fortune teller woman who gets killed by her own cat moments after revealing some arcane clue to Mickey Rourke. In fact, the grandma in PORT OF CALL gets a magnum pointed at her head for being "part of the problem!" In other words, Herzog is well aware that with medicine prolonging life until its far worn out its welcome they're bankrupting pensions funds and Social Security. It's not really hear fault, this old bat, but I do agree with him, even though I know it's morally wrong to think so. But that's the gist of the freedom at stake here. With no moral high ground to its name, Herzog's story is left to fend for itself. It takes a long way to get not very far, but it's a got a great serpent's tail-eating-style plot -- once the events sort themselves out, the whole thing disappears.

Lastly, Jesus Christ will they throw away that market research report that said ticket buyers respond strongest to recognizable faces brooding in the foreground on movie posters? Look at the one on the left and you see a poster inescapably similar to 80% of the movie posters out there. One face in front, second face to the right, possibly a third even smaller one to the left, shrouded in ominous  darkness, with a crime scene in HO scale at the bottom, like something you'd see at Blockbuster and not rent. Now go look at the gloriously pulpy poster Russia gets up top, and weep! Weep for the chickenshit nature of our America's cinematic marketers.

Here's my idea, take any script and roll a set of dice for each character to determine who should be male or female, which would then determine if they were gay or straight. So in any film any character's gender could switch. Why not let Fairuza Balk play the Bad Lieutenant next time? She could even have played Cage's part and even kept Eva Mendez as her girlfriend! Que caliente! The only film in which I've seen Balk really rip the roof off with a fully formed lead role was in 1996's under-appreciated THE CRAFT! Shit, son, that was almost 15 years ago! She's still hot enough to melt rocks without an oven or lucky lighter. Give this girl a seat at the table and chop her up some lines of cred! Que Guapa ella!!

1 comment:

  1. Awesome review, Eric. Totally agree with you on all points regarding Fairuza Balk - a fantastic, idiosyncratic actress who deserves way more than Hollywood has yet given her.

    Particularly loved your suggestion of making Balk the Bad Lieutenant in the next one and retaining Mendes as the g/f - aye caramba! There's a movie I'd queue to see!!


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