Herzog's Best Fiend


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American Movie
directed by Chris Smith

Gods and Monstrosities
"I am clinically sane," Werner Herzog insists in one of the clashes he had over a decade-long working relationship with the late actor Klaus Kinski. In his documentary-memorial My Best Fiend, Herzog reviews that battle of egomaniacs with dignified candor. Speaking in English over the original German narration, Herzog recalls outrageous Kinski incidents with an eerie calm that eventually sounds quite personal, as if measuring pain, balancing it. Respect stabilizes Herzog's account, presenting something different from the hysterical biography Kinski published in 1976 ("I helped him invent particularly vile expletives about me," Herzog admits). My Best Fiend uses on-the-set outtakes and recent interviews with Kinski costars Claudia Cardinale, Eva Mattes and others to create a scrapbook effect of Herzog's most inspired, mad-genius period.

It's helpful that this personalized insight into filmmaking evokes an era when movie culture was cognizant of greatness. The week's other new documentary American Movie accepts the diminution of film culture in its maker's effort to scavenge a career for himself. Herzog and Kinski (who died in 1991) fought with each other while making powerful, memorable, serious expressions?Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Woyzeck, Nosferatu the Vampyre and Fitzcarraldo. Clips of Aguirre's magnificent opening and closing scenes and the pantomimed erotic horror in Nosferatu show Kinski the consummate artist, but they also prove Herzog the real thing. At the time his genius inspired many, including Coppola with Apocalypse Now, but also, 20 years later, Jane Campion's self-centered racist piffle in The Piano and today, jester-imitator Harmony Korine, who further bastardizes Herzog's eccentricity for an obtuse era.


My Best Fiend isn't simply a diva contest; Kinski's intensity gave the wild-eyed fearlessness Herzog needed to create a series of cultural and psychological portraits of modern and historical madness, legacies of the European God-complexes, guilt and, certainly, Herzog's confrontation with his own neuroses. "When nobody, absolutely no one, nobody, not one, nobody, not one believe in the film, Klaus did," he salutes. Kinski's outbursts were extreme ("This is not how Brecht and David Lean did it," he screamed. "I couldn't care less," Herzog answers) but his performances tangled artistry, nerve, ego and imagination. (In a Fitzcarraldo scene he does the acting of two people?replacing Jason Robards and Mick Jagger, no less.) Kinski wrote peskily about Herzog: "Eventually he kneels before himself like a worshipper in front of his idol, and he remains in that position until somebody bends down and raises him from his humble self-worship." But a Fitzcarraldo outtake, panning from an indulged Kinski raging to the Peruvian extras poised to kill him at Herzog's request, also shows Herzog standing by fascinated, recognizing a complex, outre soulmate ("I thank his cowardice and his instinct").


Tracing their paths back to adolescence, Herzog revisits the apartment house they shared before either became professional?it's been made over in bourgeois comfort, the past gentrified in ways that show time, fashion and memory's inevitable change. Herzog's instinct for simple settings or exotic landscapes rivals Murnau's, making this documentary portrait as expressive as Tabu. The final image, a closeup of Kinski's broad head and beaming face circled by a butterfly, is as mysterious as any Herzog's ever found. It's a fresh, loving symbol of the actor-director symbiosis.


Flip-flop the disclaimer that appears before Action, Fox-TV's Hollywood satire series, and you get an apt description of American Movie: "Portions may be inappropriate for mature audiences. It is intended for younger viewers."


Action makes no difference between being daring and having bad taste (it revels in offensiveness like a morally blank version of The Player) yet it's still a pretty funny show. Its cast of fatcat greedmongers are worthy targets. But American Movie pirates that sarcasm, envies it, seeking the same insider's cool yet childishly using the inept poor as punching bags.


Director Chris Smith showcases Mark Borchardt, a beery Wisconsin ne'er-do-well, pursuing that nuttiest American dream, filmmaking. It tops the era's prestige totem pole to such an extent that everybody?reckless insiders, hopeless wannabes and derisive onlookers?wants to be in on it at any cost. And Smith?sharing the same hysteria?can't make up his mind if Borchardt is a fool or a hero. Probably because he can't decide that about himself. Yet he hasn't made a compassionate film. Smith's hip, juvenile perspective ridicules Borchardt, his decrepit family and loser friends, exploiting them as a desperate means of making Smith's own name. Where Action manages to be a narcissistic industry satire, American Movie represents a new low in national self-hatred and class spite. This hyper-hip mood in culture was inevitable, but it isn't necessarily a good thing. Immaturity is part of its essence?the generation that grew up idolizing media, imitating it, remains so far from achieving professional power, artistic elan or humane understanding that bitter pathos is the result. (Rushmore, at least, satirized it.)


A highly paid amateur like Kevin Smith has turned such adolescence into a bummy kind of style inspiring more followers, including Chris Smith, who thinks that by smirking at misbegotten aspirations he has discovered a truth. I laughed at some of the flubbed takes, but I know there's more to movies than that. The release of American Movie?a smash at Sundance?is actually a demoralizing affair. It takes failure as a measure of American intelligence (which might be more true of current film culture than I'd like to believe). Borchardt and mates talk inanities, malapropisms and mispronunciations to go with the brain-fried spaciness and low-rent production procedures. This rickety project is too specific to call "American"; it doesn't stand for anything except Smith's exceptionally insensitive choice of subject matter. Yet it hit home at Sundance?as did Blair Witch Project?because it represented how pathetic is the majority of independent filmmaking ambitions. Smith, the Sundancers and the Blair Witches can relieve their own self-doubt by pointing to Borchardt's ineptitude. "There's still a chance for me!" they'll whisper to themselves. But not in the fast lane of Action (where you have to look good and talk slick)?only in a culture that encourages smugness, insensitivity and anti-intellectual arrogance.


"This time I'm not gonna fail," Borchardt promises. He wants to begin a horror movie titled Northwestern but with a shamble of unfinished projects behind him, he needs to raise money by completing a horror short titled Coven. "Just to drink and dream is not enough, you must achieve," he says. And Mike Schank, his acid-burnout best friend, offers unending support: "Hopefully everything will collide." We're supposed to enjoy this undeniable pathetic case, but the amount of contemptuousness promulgated by movies like this (and mockumentaries like Dadetown) is epidemic. Current indie-mania obscures class envy and disgust.


Smith's perverse anthropology is a bad version of a film that should be an American classic (Demon Lover Diary), but has he or his celebrants even seen it? Demon Lover Diary, which showed Halloween weekend at the American Museum of the Moving Image, is the best movie I know about the neuroses of filmmaking and their relation to social manners. In 1979 the filmmaking team Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines watched a Michigan filmmaker make good on his comic-book, pop-inspired dream by organizing a post-George Romero production called The Demon Lover, using friends and family (and personal injury insurance claims) to keep the project going. There were cultural and class politics everywhere in the documentation, getting close to the imaginative impulse and too close to the anger, frustration and chaos of collapsed relationships. American Movie doesn't lack dramatic content, it's just that the niggling spectacle of Borchardt's drug-addled, ex-con friends and family is so utterly banal?elderly, noncommunicative divorced parents, distant siblings, hostile ex-wife and three dependent children?that nothing gets revealed.


Cut adrift from film history and cultural coherence Borchardt's circumstance is really too pitiful for such detached, unfeeling observation. Smith misses the import of working-class identification with horror as a chosen artistic idiom. So instead of analyzing social causes of monstrousness and deprivation, you grasp at incidentals: Borchardt's library of Spike Lee books, Norman Kagan's Kubrick book?not signs of learning or hero-worship but delusion, success-hunger. Borchardt's meaningless desire to shoot at "the magic hour"?a phrase stolen from the romance of the 70s American Renaissance (Days of Heaven)?has nothing to do with indie filmmaking struggles or trailer-park frustration. Then, Coven's hometown premiere is a travesty and a con job. Smith elides Borchardt's moment of primitive glory, chopping Coven into coming-attraction bits, no hint of plot, just the mess of clips that cinema has become to a generation of attention-deficit-disorder nerds.


Smith emphasizes the supposed levity of degradation, a bad inheritance of the Maysles brothers' Grey Gardens. His clueless, invasive view of Borchardt cadging his infirm uncle for production cash knows no bounds. Smith shows the wizened uncle's performance as a Coven extra out of context for a spuriously haunting effect. The uncle croaks numerous takes of "It's all right! It's okay! There's something to live for! Jesus told me so!" Still not fatuous enough, Smith plays "Mr. Bojangles" over the end credits commemorating both the dead uncle and foolish nephew while home movies of Borchardt's childhood claim our sympathy. Nothing in Action is that tasteless. American Movie's cruelty customizes verite for immature movie-fiends and that makes it hateful.


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