Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Double Life Of Bad Lieutenant

Bad Lieutenant:Port Of Call New Orleans(2009)Directed By Werner Herzog
The funniest thing I heard about this movie from someone on IMDB... "Abel Ferrara should remake Fitzcarraldo: As a bunch of NYC crackheads trying to push a taxicab over a fire hydrant." Now that I have seen Herzog's version of BL I can say it is definitely a remake. Both Lieutenant's are drug and gambling addicts, who prey sexually on young women, and are only mildly concerned with solving crimes. The difference is where Kietel was too loaded on uppers and downers to do much more than just jerk off (any erection is a Christmas miracle considering how much heroin he consumes over the course of the film, but I digress...), while Cage on the other hand is all masculine thunder and wish-fullfilment. Notice in what people are incorrectly calling the "rape" scene, that the girl who offers herself to him to get out of the ticket, does so without being prompted or coerced. Where Kietel's scene was ultimately degrading for all parties, making him look like a dirty old pathetic man, and being kind of a psycho-sexual water-boarding for the girls (trauma inflicted with no penetration, no bruises, no marks, etc), Cage's scene has him shooting off his gun like the wild west and ordering her boyfriend to "watch him", in true alpha dog fashion. The first Bad Lieutenant is a tour through degradation leading to spiritual redemption, while BL2 is might as well be "Fear And Loathing In New Orleans". Herzog himself, probably embarrassed at having been tricked into making a remake has desperately tried to preemptively dismiss any similarities between the films "It does not bespeak great wisdom to call the film The Bad Lieutenant, and I only agreed to make the film after William (Billy) Finkelstein, the screenwriter, who had seen a film of the same name from the early nineties, had given me a solemn oath that this was not a remake at all... Nevertheless, the pedantic branch of academia, the so called "film-studies," in its attempt to do damage to cinema, will be ecstatic to find a small reference to that earlier film here and there, though it will fail to do the same damage that academia -- in the name of literary theory -- has done to poetry, which it has pushed to the brink of extinction. Cinema, so far, is more robust. I call upon the theoreticians of cinema to go after this one. Go for it, losers." Just to make a point clear there are not "small references here and there" but twin characters going down twin paths, but diverging in small details. If you played them back to back without telling anyone they were two different movies, you could call it "The Double Life Of Bad Lieutenant". It has nothing to do with literary theory, but just not being ignorant of a movie that has the same name and plot (and will likely end up right next to each other on video store racks). Had he bothered to watch the original BL, or even ask someone whaty it was like, he would have known he was making a remake. And also it's all well and good for Herzog to complain about academia now that he's been canonically established as an "autuer" (a literary concept if ever there was one) with a famous name. Basically I smell bullshit in Herzog's response, but it's Herzog so it's also amusing bullshit. There are important differences between the two films though, for instance where Kietel finds redemption through self-sacrifice/self-destruction for a higher good, Cage has no dramatic ideology or philosophy to cling to, and as such is a bit more down to earth as a character (Kietel was just another unsypathetic anonymous junkie, while Cage is self-medicating a heroic injury). By the end of the film he is not a last-minute saint, but just a recovering addict who backslides from time to time as all addicts do. "Sometimes I have bad days" being the most significant and scincere line of dialog in the movie. Instead of just documenting a drug induced squalor where even getting down a flight of stairs poses a great personal challenge, Herzog finds ecstatic truth anywhere he can get it, though mostly in animals which creep into the frame both literally and in hallucinations. Of course these hallucinations are of the fun kind, Herzog seems the type of guy who would want you to have a good trip, playing eccentric music and offering strange, fascinating conversation. Ferrara would be all Apocalypse, blood, and guilt; a bad trip if ever there was one. Herzog has revitalized the cop drama showing it is still fertile ground for inventive storytelling. Why does Cage show Eva Mendez his magic spoon from childhood? Maybe because it's a part of him that was pure and innocent, and he wanted her to know there were still things like that left in the big bad world. Why include the murdered boy's poem, with those "His fin is a cloud" lines, maybe just because it sounds nice, and it certainly helps us see the "victim" as a person, full of incomprehensible thoughts to anyone but themselves; a bit like Herzog himself. For all it's lucky crack pipes and dancing souls, the best moment of ecstatic truth (how something feels rather than how it might logically work), are the three bearers of good news who appear at Cage's one after the other. When it rains good luck, it pours. This was a fun movie in the end, a comedy more than anything else. I wasn't moved the same way I was in the original, but that wasn't the aim here. Herzog has a good time in New Orleans and invited Nicholas Cage America's greatest manic actor (who does deserve some kind of award for his role here) along for the ride. It's not always a smooth one, but it is enjoyable, unforgettable and certainly one of the best films of the year. But aside from nepotism (not that I think that is necessarily the case here) I can't fully understand why Roger Ebert included this on his best movies of the decade list?I mean it's good, but can anyone honestly say it's THAT good, better than "Encounters At The End Of The World" or "Grizzly Man", let alone dozens of other non-Herzog movies that came out in the past 10 years? I guess this makes me one of Herzog's losers (the way Charlie had his Angels) who can't let go of the past, and embrace whatever kind of vague new philosophy he's dreamed up to justify his actions this time (explanations I always love hearing, for how they criss cross poetry, stand up comedy, and crotchety old manisms), but so be it. Remake or not, my soul danced all the way home from the theater.

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