Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Conquest of the Useless

What a way to start the new year! Werner Herzog's Conquest of the Useless is the best book I've read in a long time. It's his journal about his time in the Peruvian jungle filming Fitzcarraldo. Fitzcarraldo is a rubber baron who wants to bring high opera to the rain forest and to do so he attempts to move a steam ship between two river systems over a mountain. Herzog was asked by the movie executives in LA (a hilarious section where he was staying at Francis Ford Coppola's house) to move a model steam ship through the San Diego botanic gardens. He chose to move a real steam ship through the real jungle. Even the initial canoe journey to the location shoot echoes The Heart of Darkness and Coppola's own Apocalypse Now. Everyone gets malaria and dysentery, Mick Jagger and Jason Robards quit. Klaus Kinski loses his mind. Kittens are eaten alive by chickens. Wives are bought and sold for the price of a jar of poison (for darts). A mad soldier invades Ecuador with his platoon of men and advances 30 miles. A villager stabs a spear at Herzog's belly. The film crew's own translator is a pathological liar who incites the villagers against Herzog. Floods destroy the set. Wars break out. Poisonous snakes and spiders are everywhere. Fantastic stuff.