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52 Books #13: Conquest of the Useless

April 10, 2011

First I heard of Fitzcarraldo — not being a film buff — was in the break room at my old work, about a decade ago. The Metro ‘news’paper had published a list of the best films ever, and in the top fivethey found a surprise. ‘What the hell is FitzFitzcarraldo?’ they wondered, seemingly actually wounded by its beating Star Wars and Lord of the Rings in this meaningless list. ‘I’ve never heard of it. Probably shite.’ Well: it’s not shite, and it does exist, but this latter fact is extraordinary in itself. Director Werner Herzog’s account of making the film, Conquest of the Useless (Harper Ecco), is based on two years’ worth of diary notes he claims he couldn’t look at for twenty years owing to the trauma of putting Fitzcarraldo together. After three hundred pages, the reader understands why this should be, and why Herzog called himself, with his customary deadpan irony, ‘Conquistador of the Useless’.

Much of the headache stemmed from Herzog’s extraordinary decision to realise the film’s central setpiece — in which the deranged titular character (played by Herzog’s regular leading man and sometime bête noir Klaus Kisnki) drives an enormous steamer over a mountain between two rivers in the Amazon — not as a model shot but for real, using a full-sized prop boat. As one can expect, accounts of his attempts to complete this ridiculous task — he acknowledges the ridiculousness of it, hence the book’s title and his own — take up much of the book: that he did succeed is testament to directorial panache, human single-mindedness, and rank idiocy in roughly equal order. Herzog is not unaware of this: he frequently considers giving up entirely, but it’s something of an empty threat, and he knows enough of himself to realsie he’s going through the motions of despair without any real intention of abandoning the project.

I can’t imagine anyone reading this book without already having seen the film, or at least having known the story of Herzog’s reckless endeavour, so it’s a foregone conclusion that he’ll succeed. Even so, it seems so preposterously unworkable that there’s a genuine tension in the book as he tries, fails, tries again, fails better, and so on. All the time Kinski is badgering him, flying off the handle and acting like the world’s least likely prima donna:  the Monkey, who read this before me, picked out the anecdote where Kinski screams at a make-up artist and claims not even his own hairdresser is allowed to touch his hair. Some weird synchronicity binds Herzog and Kinski together: they’re too bloody-minded not to wind up relying on one another. I’m desperate now to watch the film account of their at-loggerheads relationship, My Best Fiend.

Before we reach the mission-improbable heights of Fitzcarraldo‘s making, Herzog writes lyrically and winningly on the Amazon experience, notably the fauna (tarantulas everywhere: this arachnophobic winced at descriptions of the creatures lurking in shoes or wandering across one’s hand at unexpected moments. I did wish at times he’d described them as something other than “fist-sized” — counting three instances of this — then glanced at my own fist, and read on swiftly) and the strange vagaries of the Amazon waters themselves, the river swelling, flooding and dwindling with seemingly emotional unpredictability. This writing is charming and poetic — something of a holiday travelogue compared with the hard work of the eventual film-making — and as good an advert for spending time on the Amazon as one could hope for. Meantime there’s a parallel account of the film’s various false starts and dead ends, the most notable of which for me was the record of Mick Jagger’s involvement: cast in a medium-sized role, Jagger completed several scenes before Fitzcarraldo ground to one of its many halts; the Rolling Stones went on tour before production resumed, and since Jagger couldn’t return to participate in the remainder of shooting, Herzog excised his character.

One returns to Fitzcarraldo no less impressed by Herzog’s incredible ambition and indeed hubris. Conquest of the Useless is a companion piece to the film, far more so than other making-of books which lay bare the off-screen difficulties of a production, since that insane ambition is already there on the screen, well-documented by the very fact of the footage existing. Conquest complements rather than illuminates, and if not essential is hugely enjoyable nonetheless.

Incidentally, the workplace where I first heard people debating the worthiness of Fitzcarraldo even to exist went into liquidation in  2009 and now no longer exists. Some sort of lesson there.

Other reading in Week #13:

Alwyn W. Turner Rejoice! Rejoice!: Britain in the 1980s (Aurum Press)

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