Tag Archives: Werner Herzog

Taking French leave: Mark Kermode appointed new Observer film critic

17 Aug

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So Mark Kermode, 50, has just been appointed as the Observer’s film critic, replacing the venerable Philip French who retired after turning 70. While this may not do that much for lowering the age range of film critics (I often find myself the youngest person in the preview cinemas when I review movies, and I’m no wunderkind), it is a Very Good Thing, because Mark is a Very Good Thing.

A personal anecdote to explain why. One Tuesday night 20-plus years ago at Time Out, before I became editor and was still on the subs’ desk, I noticed young Mark lowering his trademark quiff over the new issue and comparing his printed review with the original copy on his screen.

Accustomed to writers complaining about their deathless prose being rearranged, I went over and asked if something was the matter. And he said something that, I swear, I have never heard before or since in nearly 30 years of journalism.

“Not at all,” he said. “I’m looking at how my copy has been improved, so that I can learn from it.”

I knew then he would go far. And learn he has. But he has never lost the fearlessness with which he first turned up at Time Out’s offices with a fistful of cuttings from Manchester’s City Life, claiming (falsely) to have an appointment with film editor Geoff Andrew.

And if you don’t think fearlessness is the single most important quality in a critic, here’s another anecdote. At the opening night dinner for the London Film Festival in 1994, I sat with a table of editors and critics all slagging off that evening’s Gala Premiere, Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein, starring Robert De Niro. Hang on, I said to one national critic who was joining in the general bashing, I saw your review. You said it was brilliant, and gave it four stars.

“Of course,” he said, unabashed. “It’s British. It’s Kenneth Branagh. The editor and the paper wanted a good review.”

Mark, I’m pretty sure, would never, ever, ever, ever alter a review. Unless he changed his mind himself, as he admits to doing on a second viewing of Blue Velvet in his excellent autobiography. (The autobiography is called It’s Only a Movie, it’s very funny, and I heartily recommend it. Especially for the chapter on the press trip from hell in the depths of Russia. And the one on how he was with Werner Herzog when he got shot in the arse.) Whether or not you agree that The Exorcist is the best movie of all time, you have to admire Mark’s conviction in sticking with it.

Mark’s appointment is also A Good Thing in that it reverses a trend for newspapers to treat arts criticism as disposable: something to be dispensed with altogether (the Independent on Sunday has fired its critics en masse, effective next month), or passed around favoured columnists. Mark has a passion for the pictures. Too much so for the BBC, who passed over Mark for Claudia Winkleman as a replacement for Jonathan Ross in 2010 on their flagship film programme.

“I don’t do moderation,” Mark explained on his Radio 5 show at the time, adding that the BBC would need “a mainstream sensibility”.

Congratulations to the Observer for appointing someone equally at home with horror and sci-fi as with European art cinema. And here’s to the next 20 years of Sundays.

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Bad Grandpa: Borat meets the school of hard Knoxville

1 Aug

I’m pretty sure I’ve just seen the runaway comedy film of the autumn. Or rather, the trailer for it, which was released just a few hours ago. Bad Grandpa features Johnny Knoxville as 86-year-old Irving Zisman, on a far from heart-warming road trip across America to reunite his eight-year-old grandson with his father. Suddenly scheduled for release on Oct 25, it was filmed in great secrecy over the summer, in order to keep the reaction of the public, Borat-style, authentic.

As you’d expect from the makers of Jackass, the comedy is broader than the Amazon river. Knoxville/Zisman collapses into a tower of champagne glasses at a wedding; knocks over the open casket at a funeral; and, in a glorious homage to Little Miss Sunshine, his grandson dons a dress and blonde wig to enter a child pageant, and ends his routine dancing round a stripper’s pole as his granddad peels off dollar bills. This at least shows that the humour will occasionally strike a valid satirical target, rather than just disturbing innocent bystanders whose shock, anger and bewilderment are recorded by multiple hidden cameras.

As a commercial idea, it’s genius: like all the most popular YouTube clips of people falling over and fighting and freaking out put together. As comedy it looks, expel me now from the Critics’ Circle (um, not that I ever joined), hilarious. As art… hmm. We’ll see.

I have teenaged sons; the watching of Jackass was mandatory for a while. The best sequences were not the crazy hurtful stunts, I always felt, but the ones where they would bewilder members of the public. The Bad Grandpa sketches, such as the one where he sits outside with his grandson (older than in the film), passing back and forth a cigarette and bottle of hooch and picking a fight with the local hard-nut, were hilarious.

I smell a hit. If this doesn’t take $100 million I will, like Werner Herzog, eat my shoe.

Aguirre, Wrath of God: the tale of a lunatic, told by madmen

18 Jun

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On Sunday I saw Werner Herzog’s startling, visionary, hallucinatory 1972 film Aguirre, Wrath of God at the BFI Southbank with my 17-year-old son. It was a big moment, as well as a great film, for two reasons.

One, that my son would choose this over the easy thrills of Man of Steel shows how far he’s come in his own cinephile journey (click here for the funny, sweet short film he made in Film Studies). Two, Aguirre was the film that turned me on to European art cinema, when I myself was 17.

The film stands up to time. Slow by modern standards, but, as my son said, still not a second wasted.

Aguirre tells of a doomed expedition of Spanish conquistadors to find the legendary gold city of Eldorado, sailing downriver through the jungle on makeshift rafts at the mercy of hostile Indians, in scenes that are a blatant influence on Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. It opens with an astonishing shot of hundreds of soldiers and their South American Indian slaves winding their way down a vertiginous mountain pass. As the fog slowly parts, like the mists of time, it’s clear that the film will be more symbolic as literal.

The second in command, Aguirre, is consumed with dreams of glory. He betrays his commander and leads his men through a combination of sheer will and sudden brutality. “That man is a head taller than me,” he says to his henchman, as he overhears talk of mutiny; “that may change.”

After the henchman takes the hint and decapitates the conspirator with a machete, so suddenly that his severed head completes his final sentence from the ground, Aguirre delivers an inspirational pep talk to the rest of his starving, fever-stricken troops: “Anyone considering desertion will be cut into 198 pieces and trampled on until you can paint the walls with him.”

But it’s not so much what he says and does, as how he is, that inspires fear and awe. Klaus Kinski is a one-off: a diagnosed schizophrenic and insatiable sexual libertine, his fleshy lips are set in a perpetual sneer, and slashed across his face like an engorged sexual organ; his jagged cheekbones provide a constant reminder of the skull beneath the skin; his gigantic eyes are as blue as the sky and as cold as ice.

Watching Aguirre stroke his 15-year-old daughter’s hand, brought along on this lunatic venture because he could not bear to be parted from her, is made especially uncomfortable by the revelation earlier this year that Kinski’s younger daughter Pola was sexually abused by him from the ages of 5 until 19.

Kinski’s mere presence helps elevate the film to the realms of myth. As Aguirre refuses to abandon his dreams despite overwhelming odds, you question what a fine line it is that separates the madman from the visionary, genius from delusion. It’s a question Herzog has returned to again and again in his film-making career, and in a sense, it is the story of every director, and every film. The making of each feature is a triumph of will, a victory of dreams over common sense, an impossible task conducted by a madman with dreams of glory leading a raggle-taggle band of occasionally mutinous followers.

Herzog more than others. The shooting of Aguirre was famously fraught: the perilous raft journey you see on film was real, and experienced by the actors; the fevers they suffered, real too. Herzog and Kinski fell out so badly that – accounts differ wildly – a gun was brought into play. And yet, a decade later, they reunited in the South American jungle to make Fitzcarraldo. This time, their task was to haul a three-storey, 320-ton metal steamship up a mountain – both fictionally, and in reality.

No, they really don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Aguirre, Wrath of God is still playing (till Thursday) in a new restoration at the BFI Southbank, Curzon West End, and after that at selected venues nationwide