Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Heart of Darkness

Janet is teaching a course entitled "The Amazon Through Film" this semester, and it's been a pleasure previewing films with her. Especially prominent is the Herzog film "Fitzcarraldo" and the Les Blank Film "The Burden of Dreams," which is about the making of "Fitzcarraldo." (Actually, we've been having something of a Herzog Blank film festival for months). By chance "The Burden of Dreams" was shown at AFI last Friday night, including an appearance by Les Blank. We arrived an hour late (by design — Janet has seen “The Burden of Dreams” many times and was there to see Les Blank, who was to take questions after the film). I went into the theatre and watched the second half of the movie. Janet stayed outside for what must have been 20 minutes. It turns out that she was talking to Les Blank, who she found setting up a table to sell videos and t-shirts.

Like most Americans (most Westerners, I suppose) I was exposed to the idea of a journey into the heart of darkness early in life. I recall seeing the 1960 film “The Lost World” on TV as a child of 4 or 5, jumping up and down with excitement about the prospect of seeing dinosaurs. Only when I saw the film again at the age of 9 or 10 — and when I read the Conan Doyle book in high school — did I clearly understand the plot line involving travel upriver, away from civilization and back in time, into the heart of darkness. When I first learned where Janet did her field work I quipped that this was no doubt very close to the plateau on which the dinosaurs were found in “The Lost World.” The same myth is most clearly delineated in Conrad's “Heart of Darkness” which I read as an adult, in a single sitting, on a transcontinental flight and “Apocalypse Now,” which I have seen many times and consider one of the very best films of all time (“Apocalypse Now Redux” being the definitive, and improved, version). There are also “Hearts of Darkness” (about the making of "Apocalypse Now") and Ken Good’s book “Into the Heart: One Man's Pursuit of Love and Knowledge Among the Yanomami” about his (ultimately failed) marriage to a Yanomami woman.

Whether it is the Congo, the Amazon or the Mekong, these works all refer to a fundamental myth of our culture. It is about nature, about colonialism, about the illusion of enlightenment and about the other. Janet tells me (her source being "King Leopold's Ghost") that the origins probably lie with the Stanley's accounts of his search for Livingstone, and the later writings by William Sheppard and Edmund Dene Morel about the horrors of colonial exploitation in the Congo.

"Fitzcarraldo" is about a foolhardy attempt to move a boat over a small ridge connecting two river basins during the Amazonian rubber boom. It is a great film, and "Burden of Dreams" does a good job of showing the parallels with Herzog's own efforts during the making of the film. Sitting in AFI on Friday I watched Herzog voice his answer to the immortal words of Conrad's Kurtz ("The horror! The horror!"):

[Klaus] Kinski [the lead actor, who plays Fitzcarraldo] says [the rainforest] is full of erotic elements. I don’t see it so much erotic. I see it more full of obscenity. It’s just … and nature here is vile and base. I wouldn’t see anything erotical here. I would see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away.… Of course, there is a lot of misery but it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing, they just screech in pain. It is an unfinished country. It’s still prehistorical. The only thing lacking is the dinosaurs here. It’s like a curse weighing on the entire landscape, and whoever goes too deep into this has his share of that curse. So we are cursed with what we are doing here. A land where God, if he exists, has created in anger. It’s the only land where … where creation is unfinished yet.

The audience, appropriately, laughed at his words. Through Les Blank, Herzog was making two films at once and he knew that the script called for horror, but I think that he confused his discomfort at being away from civilization as he knew it with the horrors of exploitation. I don't think that he was the first to do so.

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