Werner Herzog is the Jackie Chan of German visionary filmmakers; like Chan, Herzog does all his own stunts. While filming the enigmatic "Fata Morgana" (1970), Herzog and his crew were arrested in Cameroon on suspicion of espionage; while imprisoned, Herzog nearly died of malaria. For "Heart of Glass" (1976), Herzog hypnotized his entire cast. In "La Soufriere" (1977), Herzog heard about a volcano that was about to explode in Guadeloupe and did what anyone would do; he flew there with a two man crew and filmed it. Fortunately, it never exploded; if it had, Les Blank would never have been able to film "Burden of Dreams" (1982), a "behind-the-scenes" documentary about Herzog's then-current film project.
In 1979, Herzog decided to tackle his greatest challenge yet, the filming of his South American jungle epic "Fitzcarraldo." By the end of the 1970s, Herzog had amassed a considerable international reputation as one of the leading figures of New German Cinema (along with Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and others.) He sought to capitalize on this fame with his most ambitious project to date. Herzog even attracted Hollywood talent; Jason Robards and Mick Jagger were cast as the leads.
"Fitzcarraldo" was the story (loosely based on a real historical figure of the same last name) of an Irish businessman who dreamed of building an opera house in the jungle so he could invite his idol, Enrico Caruso, to play there. In order to do so, however, Fitzcarraldo had to find a navigable path between two parallel, unconnected rivers. He solved the problem by dragging his steam ship over a mountain separating the two rivers. The real Fitzcarraldo disassembled his 35-ton steamship into several parts and rebuilt it on the other side of the mountain. Werner Herzog, however, had a more grandiose vision for his project; his ship would be 350-tons and he would drag it in one piece using ropes and pulleys and physical labor to haul it up a steep slope and over a mountain. For Herzog, there could be no models, no studio shooting; it had to be a real ship filmed in the real Peruvian jungle.
I fear I've skipped to the end of the story, though. You see, Herzog's problems began long before he ever tried to drag his ship over a mountain. Few films have ever been plagued by as many hardships as "Fitzcarraldo." "Burden of Dreams" chronicles an array of challenges and mishaps so absurd you would never believe them if they were written in a Hollywood script.
"Burden of Dreams" begins in 1979, with Herzog's first attempt to get the production off the ground. Unfortunately, he runs into a few minor problems. First, a border war between Peru and Ecuador threatens to break out and disrupt their supply lines. No matter, though, because there are more pressing problems even closer to camp. The Aguaruna Indians are angry because they have been gradually displaced by settlers, and left-wing agitators have convinced them and other local tribes that Herzog and his crew plan to do terrible things to them. Herzog negotiates a temporary settlement with the Aguaruna, and employs many of them on the film. However, things turn sour quickly. Herzog withdraws with most of his crew just in the nick of time before the camp is surrounded by angry Indians and burned to the ground. After several months of filming, Herzog is back to square one.
Herzog is nothing if not persistent, however, and relocates a year later to the nearby town of Iquitos where filming runs much smoother… for a little while. Five weeks into shooting, however, leading man Jason Robards is felled by amoebic dysentery and has to be flown back to the states where his doctor declares him unable to return for months. Mick Jagger, meanwhile, has a tour coming up and can't wait. Nearly two years into shooting, it's back to square one, part two.
After briefly considering taking on the role himself, Herzog turns to his "best fiend" Klaus Kinski to play the lead (Jagger's role as sidekick was written out entirely) and filming begins once again. Of course now the rainy season has already passed and the river is so low, it's all but impossible to get the ship through the rapids. A raiding party of unfriendly Indians attacks the camp and two Indians from the crew are nearly killed by arrows, prompting the Indians in camp to launch their own retaliatory strike.
And then things start to get really tough, but I'll leave you to discover the rest for yourself.
"Burden of Dreams" played in theaters and on PBS before "Fitzcarraldo" was ever released, and viewers tended to see it as evidence to support their own pre-formed notions about the controversial director. Viewers watched as a feverish Herzog proclaimed, "If I abandon this project, I would be a man without dreams… I live my life or I end my life with this project." Herzog's supporters saw the film as evidence of a dreamer willing to sacrifice anything in pursuit of his unique vision. His detractors viewed the film as evidence of a megalomaniac gone out of control, and endangering the lives of natives to bring himself greater glory. Herzog walked a high wire between madness and genius, and threatened to take everyone else out with him.
You'll have to forgive me if I've talked exclusively about Herzog so far – I spent the last six months of my life writing a thesis on his films, so I've got a bad case Herzog on the brain. However, while "Burden of Dreams" is a film about Herzog, it is not a Herzog film. It is a Les Blank film, and Les Blank may well be one of the greatest American filmmakers you've never heard of. Unless you've heard of him, of course.
If I had to sum up Les Blank's body of work in six words, they would be, "Great food. Great music. Great fun." "Burden of Dreams" is, by far, his best known film, but it also the least representative of his oeuvre. Blank usually focuses on smaller, more personal projects. He has made a career of capturing American subcultures on film, particularly ones relating to music or food.
Blank has a fondness for blues, jazz, zydeco and other genres on the margins of popular music. His musical documentaries include "The Blues According to Lightnin' Hopkins" (1970), perhaps his earliest hit, and "Always for Pleasure" (1978), a film about Mardi Gras. My favorite is his polka film "In Heaven There Is No Beer?" (1984), in which I heard perhaps the greatest lyric of all time:
"In heaven there is no beer.
That's why we drink it here."
Profound words, indeed.
Blank is a great cook as well as a great filmmaker, and his documentaries about food will positively make your mouth water. Perhaps my favorite Les Blank film of all is "Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers" (1980), which extols the wonder of garlic both as a tasty ingredient and medical miracle worker. The stinking rose never smelled so sweet.
In thinking of Les Blank's career, I'm also reminded of the title of a Sugar Cubes' album, "Stick Around for Joy." Blank has a wonderful sense of humor and dearly loves the subjects his films. His films are celebrations of life filled with ecstasy and vitality. They're colorful, loud, sometimes delirious, and feature truly eccentric and likeable characters. Les Blank's films are just plain fun. I don't know of any filmmaker who has made me smile as consistently as he has. Any man who can make polka seem cool simply has to be a genius.
"Burden of Dreams" is surely Blank's most "serious" film. The film was shot for PBS, and he was friendly with Herzog so he adopted a slightly different approach than usual, but he still found plenty of opportunities to place his stamp on the film. "Burden of Dreams" is anything but a standard "making of" documentary. Herzog is undeniably the star, and several remarkable interviews with him form the heart of the film. However, Blank also takes great interest in local culture. He films the Indian women as they make masato, a beverage produced by chewing on a root and spitting it out into a tub to speed up fermentation. Yum! He also takes time to speak to the prostitutes hired to help "maintain the peace" among the male crew. And his shots of the river, the jungle, and the local wildlife are quite beautiful; Blank has one heck of an eye.
After three years and against all odds, Herzog eventually dragged his ship over a mountain, but not without repercussions. Accusations from the production of "Fitzcarraldo" continue to dog Herzog even today. Some detractors still insist that his irresponsible actions resulted in the deaths of several Indians; Herzog denies this charge, and counters by noting that he helped them gain the title to their land, a title they still hold today. What remains beyond doubt, however, is that the story behind Fitzcarraldo is one of the most fascinating in the annals of movie-making.
Les Blank's "Burden of Dreams" is alternately funny and frightening, and certainly unforgettable. If we must call it a "making of" film, let's at least call it the "Citizen Kane" of "making of" films. "Burden of Dreams" is one of the best films by one of the best of all American filmmakers. If you're at all interested in the process of filmmaking, and the incredible and unforeseen circumstances filmmakers have to deal with in their profession, don't miss this one. It's a gem.
The DVD is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Compared to the VHS (from Les Blank's Flower Films), the DVD transfer is only a minor improvement. The major difference is in the color balance. On the VHS, flesh tones look very pinkish while on the DVD, they look much more realistic. The greens of the forest are also less garish and oversaturated on the DVD transfer. Otherwise, the image quality of both is about the same (good, but not great) and even the new high-definition digital transfer still has some debris from the source material and the transfer is grainy. Of course, the print didn't really need much improvement as it was already in good condition so this version is still quite satisfactory.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. The documentary features mostly location sound but also has a voice-over narrator and a good amount of music. All aspects are well-mixed, and the dialogue is all clear. The film is in English, German, Spanish and several Peruvian dialects. Optional English language subtitles support the audio.
I simply love this whole package, but then again I'm a Herzog geek and a Les Blank fan to boot. The extras are just perfect.
Commentary track by Les Blank, Maureen Gosling (the sound recordist on "Fitzcarraldo" and Blank's long-time filmmaking partner), and Werner Herzog. Blank and Gosling were recorded together, while Herzog was recorded separately. The commentary track makes clear what one could infer from his films; Les Blank is one funny guy.
"Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe." Several eBay sellers are pretty unhappy to see this one included on the disc. This 20-minute film, directed by Les Blank in 1980, has long been one of the "Holy Grails" of Herzog collectors. The title is the plot. Once upon a time, Werner Herzog met a young Berkeley student by the name of Erroll Morris. Morris kept talking about shooting a film, but never did anything about it. Herzog made a bet with him; if Morris ever completed a film, Herzog would come to Berkeley and eat his shoe. Morris filmed "Gates of Heaven" (1978) and Herzog pays off. Herzog cooks his shoes with garlic and some hot sauce, cuts them up with shears and washes it all down with a cold brew. This movie is very, very funny and much more typical of Blank's work than "Burden of Dreams." I could watch this once a week and never get tired of it.
"Dreams and Burdens." A 38-minute interview conducted with Herzog in January 2005. Herzog is a great story-teller and if you haven't heard him talk before, you'll get a kick out of this. However, for long-time fans, he covers familiar territory. The last part of the interview deals more with Herzog's relationship with Les Blank and is much fresher material.
Deleted scenes. These two short scenes were left out of "Burden of Dreams," but were included in Herzog's "My Best Fiend" (1999), his film about his relationship with Klaus Kinski. If you haven't seen "My Best Fiend," you'll get a kick out watching Kinski go ballistic because he didn't like his lunch.
The disc also includes an extensive photo gallery (most pictures taken by Maureen Gosling) and a theatrical trailer.
The 80-page booklet included with the disc is the very best offering of its kind. The booklet includes journal entries from Gosling and Blank during the shooting of "Burden of Dreams." Blank talks about food so much, I think he might be a hobbit.
When I managed to buy a VHS copy of "Burden of Dreams" for just six bucks from a poor, unsuspecting store owner, I was giddy for days. It has been one of my most treasured items ever since. So I greet the Criterion release of the film with some mixed feelings. Now any old schmoe can have a copy. Blank has distributed most of his films himself, through his company Flower Films. Except for "I Went to the Ball" (1989), his films have been notoriously difficult to find even for rental. I hope this release is just the first of many. If we're truly in the golden age of documentary film, Blank's movies deserve to be seen by as many people as possible.