30 September 2009

"The jungle revels in debauched lewdness"

Somewhere earlier this summer I encountered a review of Conquest of the Useless; Reflections on the Making of Fitzcarraldo, a new book by Werner Herzog (Ecco/Harper Collins, 2009). It's a curious book, created apparently by transcribing his notebooks from 30 years ago. It's not what one might expect in a "making of the film" book - it's almost stream-of-consciousness style, with disconnected thoughts and contents of dreams.

What was interesting to me was to discover that Herzog didn't live the life of a pampered director; he was on-site near the headwaters of the Amazon, living in squalor and coping with the incredible incompetence of local workers. Here are some of my jotted notes from the book to give the flavor of the contents:

12 – At the Indians’ request, we bring chain saws, machetes, and shotguns to the Rio Cenepa, as well as a large canister of poison for arrow tips. They no longer know how to make it themselves. Vivanco says they will pay for a spoonful with a gold nugget.

79 – The family who had given us a pot of hot water crowded around, and we fixed tuna for them and gave them tea; that is how it is done here – food is always shared, Cesar says, which is why there is no word for “thank you” in their language.

100 – Upon returning to Iquitos, I found the little bookshelf in my cabin encased in a termite mound; I had to peel the few books, the radio, letters, and journals out of the hard coating, and the most recent journal, which was on top, has been devoured, except for the cover, which is covered in plastic.

165 – One time I had grasped hold of a smooth sapling without noticing that a multilane highway of fire ants led up and down it. Then I made the mistake of trying to cut down the tree with my machete to protect those following behind me, but my blow was not strong enough and merely shook the sapling, sending fire ants raining down on me, getting under my shirt and in my hair, and for two days I was climbing the walls.

169 – The helicopter of the Bolivian president, Barrientos, flew into a power line and crashed from a low altitude. He had suitcases full of money with him, presumably from drug deals. The helicopter immediately caught fire, but although people were there and tried to rescue him from the blaze, no one could get close, because the heat made the submachine guns carried by the president and his entourage start firing wildly, and in the hail of bullets no one dared approach.

226 – Across from our headquarters overlooking the Nanay there was a huge explosion in a boiler, fortunately after the work day in the factory there as over. The one night watchman was blown to pieces and sent flying. A smallish bloody piece of him landed with a splat on our porch.

233 – Water is dripping from the roof, but the rain does not refresh anything. The cat has thrown up on the porch. The chickens are standing in the rain getting soaked. My suit is hanging from the rafters of my palm-frond roof, covered with mildew. There is mildew on my shoes and my notebook. you hang up laundry, but it does not dry. My shirts disappear without a trace… this morning a tarantula the size of my fist was sitting in front of me on the table, and for the first time in my life I was only half-afraid.

I've listed this in the category of recommended books, but it does tend to be repetitious and occasionally tedious, so most readers will be satisfied with a quick perusal; probably only film enthusiasts will read it cover-to-cover.

Addendum: Those who like the movie or read the book will also appreciate the movie "Burden of Dreams," the 1981 documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo.


  1. I assume you've seen "Burden of Dreams", the documentary on the making of Fitzcarraldo (1982). It's on Netflix.

  2. Mark, I've not seen it (yet); it's waiting for me to pick up at the library.


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