Beyond the Multiplex

John Sayles on the campaign trail in "Silver City"; "Reconstruction" is a delightful Copenhagen confection; talking to Werner Herzog about "Incident at Loch Ness."


Andrew O'Hehir
September 18, 2004 12:00AM (UTC)

OK, so there's a new John Sayles movie, and what is left to say about that at this point? You pretty much know already whether you're going to like it or not. As one friend of mine puts it, John Sayles is the favorite movie director of people who don't go to the movies. And you know what? That's a niche, and there's nothing inherently wrong with it. Sayles is the prime example of how to write your own ticket in American independent film: He writes scripts for Hollywood flicks when he needs to make money, and has developed the autonomy to make his low-budget prestige films, one after the other, with no corporate interference.

Then there are his movies in themselves, which are the prime example of an entire career spent preaching to the choir. Sayles has basically been making the same picture for, like, umpty-five years now. I've gotten used to it; I even kind of like it. It's a picture in which some fine and well-intentioned actors stand in front of a scenic background, knees locked, and deliver a monologue about America. Sometimes it's a pretty good monologue about America. And once you get used to the movie's creaking plot, its aw-shucks ragtag heroes and sniggering, black-hatted villains, and once the general boringness of the filmmaking stops bothering you, the Sayles film can crank itself up to a certain power.

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That's certainly the case with Sayles' new "Silver City," which has gotten a lot of attention for Chris Cooper's performance as a tongue-tied, pampered boob who's running for governor of Colorado as the handpicked candidate of his United States senator dad (Michael Murphy) and a sinister, string-pulling tycoon (Kris Kristofferson). Sayles and Cooper presumably have George W. Bush in mind with the mangled syntax and generally addled demeanor of Dickie Pilager (Sayles has never been too subtle with character names, which I guess is in the Dickensian tradition). But to my mind the satire doesn't go far enough. Pilager remains nothing more than a cipher, an awkward kid wearing a grown-up's mask, while people who meet Bush generally report he's a relaxed and genial presence. Wouldn't it have been more interesting to make the vacant vessel of evil a genuinely nice guy?

Sayles has made some films I basically enjoyed (like "Lone Star" and "Eight Men Out") along with others I found tedious ("Passion Fish," "City of Hope") and a lot that are basically agreeable time-wasters. You can count on him for a few things: a tender touch with lost romance, an unforced sympathy for the underdog and a couple of good punches to the gut. Complication and ambiguity, though -- he doesn't really do those. I think it frustrates a lot of film critics that a significant audience of smart, literate, left-leaning moviegoers evidently prefers Sayles' didactic, ax-to-the-head melodramas to subtler and more artful filmmaking. But guess what? Americans by and large go to the movies to feel, not to think, and that isn't contingent on whether they listen to Rush or Nina Totenberg.

Except for its election-year topicality and Cooper's odd, strangled performance, "Silver City" is a pretty standard Sayles-ian drama of middle American greed and corruption. Its quasi-hapless hero is a disgraced journalist turned private investigator named Danny O'Brien, played by Danny Huston as a stammering, likable innocent who can't keep in his head the lesson that no good deed goes unpunished. Sayles has a way of thrusting unlikely actors into starring roles -- whether it's Joe Morton in "Brother From Another Planet" or Mary McDonnell in "Passion Fish" -- that you can't help but admire, and if Huston isn't likely to take Hollywood by storm, this is an irresistibly awkward performance.

Sayles also uses the same actors over and over again -- this is at least the fifth of his films for Cooper -- and assembles impressive casts, even if he sometimes seems to squander them. Tim Roth wanders through the background here (with an unconvincing American accent), playing Danny's former editor, now running a disreputable conspiracy-theory Web site. Kristofferson steals both of his scenes as Wes Benteen, the super-scary moneybags developer who tells candidate Pilager, as they ride horseback through a breathtaking stretch of Rocky Mountain wilderness: "Aspen and Vail? They ain't shit compared to what I can build here." Miguel Ferrer gets an entertaining two minutes as a Gordon Liddy-style right-wing radio host, and Daryl Hannah provides some cheesecake relief as the Pilager family's sexy hippie-chick outcast sister.

As you might expect, Benteen, the Pilager family and a slavedriver who imports undocumented Mexican workers are all tied together in a sinister scheme to defraud the public, poison the groundwater, privatize the Rockies and get dim-bulb Dickie elected. Danny's problem is that, like a lot of private eyes in noir movies, he starts out on the wrong side, working for a detective (Mary Kay Place) who digs dirt for the sleazy political operative (Richard Dreyfuss) running the Pilager campaign. But once Danny starts to trace the trail of a dead body that pops up at an embarrassing moment for Pilager, he of course can't help himself from pursuing truth, justice and the American way.

Throw in the fact that Danny's girlfriend has dumped him and his No. 1 lost love (Maria Bello) is engaged to a hunkadelic sleazeball lobbyist for the Benteen forces (an enjoyable turn from Billy Zane), and you've got two hours that clank along pretty well. "Silver City" isn't Sayles' best movie or his worst, but it's one of his darkest. What redeems him for me, at least part of the way, is his awareness that, idealism aside, the Danny O'Briens of the world may be able to set their private lives aright, but they're not likely to defeat the Wes Benteens in the long run. Whether or not this reflects Sayles' feelings about what awaits us in November, he signs off this time with a near-apocalyptic finish you won't soon forget.

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"Reconstruction": Sex and high style in Copenhagen
Just to go veering wildly off in the opposite direction, to an arty obscurity you probably won't get a chance to see (and might not want to if you did), my favorite European movie of the year so far is "Reconstruction," the daring and stylish romance from 30-year-old Danish wunderkind Christoffer Boe. (It just opened in New York and Los Angeles.) A handsome, tough-yet-sensitive type (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) meets a beautiful, just slightly weathered blonde (Maria Bonnevie) in a bar. They flirt; he asks her to go to Rome with him; she doesn't exactly say no. But wait: Are they actually strangers? Don't they remember each other from some other time or place? And what about the intrusive voice-over narration, telling us that, as we already know, this is only a film, only a fictional construction.

His name is Alex and her name is Aimee, and they keep ending up in that bar, several times over, during the course of "Reconstruction." Each time, the encounter doesn't quite go right, and at least one of them isn't sure what's going on. Boe presents the night streets of Copenhagen as a haunted landscape, a color-saturated descendant of the cityscapes of film noir and the French New Wave. Against this beautiful but none too warm city, these beautiful but careworn lovers are caught in some kind of fugue state that keeps bringing them back to the same turning point, the same two cups of coffee, the same bar.

There are other people involved here, too, and their roles grow murkier as the film moves along. Aimee has an older husband, August (Krister Henriksson), a prominent novelist whose book-in-progress seems to be telling the story of Alex and Aimee's affair. Then there's Simone, Alex's slightly too clingy girlfriend. He thinks he still loves her, in classic noncommittal-guy fashion, but after he sleeps with Aimee, Simone doesn't seem to know who he is. Oh, and neither does his best friend. And when Alex tries to go home his apartment simply isn't there anymore.

"Reconstruction" has been compared to both "Memento" and "Mulholland Drive," and Boe has been touted as the heir to his countryman Lars von Trier, but by far the most impressive thing about the film is not its list of influences but the fact that it feels like something you've never seen before. Boe lacks the maniacal puzzle-brain of Christopher Nolan or the paranoid density of David Lynch, but "Reconstruction" has a poetic sensibility, as well as an old-fashioned Continental appetite for romance, that makes it distinctive. Its dazzling camerawork and disorienting use of effects are completely contemporary, but in mood and tone it suggests the early bittersweet romantic comedies of Ingmar Bergman, or Wong Kar-wai's retro masterpiece "In the Mood for Love."

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Boe isn't trying to lead you down the rabbit hole into psychiatric distress, or blow your mind with the sheer lysergic power of his images. But "Reconstruction" is in its own quiet and lovely way a real mystery. Is it just a Twilight Zone-style story about a man who becomes a fictional character? Is it about the fictions we all create in our heads around the attractive strangers we see on the street? Is it a narrative lesson in the ambiguities of quantum physics, or an Orpheus-and-Eurydice tale about the male tendency to abandon the woman you have for the one you can't have? Maybe when I see it again -- and I can't wait -- I'll figure that out.

Dreams, ambiguity and "Incident at Loch Ness": A conversation with Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog doesn't want me to give too much away about his new movie, "Incident at Loch Ness." It's more fun for audiences, he says, if you go into it not really knowing what to expect. "Tell them they have to figure out what is real and what is not for themselves," he says on the phone from Los Angeles. There's no danger of my screwing that up, since: A) the New York Times already blew the whistle on the whole "Loch Ness" enterprise, and B) I'm not too sure what's going on in the film myself.

Here's what we know so far: Herzog, the legendary German director of "Aguirre: The Wrath of God" and "Fitzcarraldo," went to Scotland with Hollywood screenwriter Zak Penn ("Last Action Hero" and "X2") to make a movie at Loch Ness. What they came back with was a film (actually directed by Penn, not Herzog, no matter what various Internet geeks may claim) that purports to document Herzog's quest to make a documentary about the hunt for the Loch Ness Monster. That's right, a documentary -- or at least an apparent documentary -- about the making of a documentary.

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As to how "real" Penn's documentary is, well, let's just say that by the time you get to former Playboy centerfold Kitana Baker, who is supposedly working on Herzog's film as a sound technician in an infinitesimal bikini, you may have your doubts. "Incident at Loch Ness," I feel safe in saying, is something of a gigantic goof, perpetrated by Penn and Herzog -- and the goofees included much of the entertainment media, people in the film business, the Scottish authorities and (I think) even some of the film's cast.

Variety, the Hollywood Reporter and various daily newspapers ran stories reporting on Herzog's Loch Ness project, and it certainly appears from what you see on the screen that cinematographer Gabriel Beristain and sound man David Davidson also believed they were going to Scotland to make a film with the legendary eccentric. The vertiginous humor of the film -- and it's pretty funny, at least for the first 40 minutes or so -- comes from never being sure who's in on the joke and who isn't, and whether some of what you're seeing might just be genuine.

"Incident at Loch Ness" itself may be less interesting than the total multimedia hoax project -- there are Web sites soberly claiming that Penn had a whale airlifted into the lake to play the role of the monster, or that he hushed up the deaths of two crew members. Herzog, however, is highly enjoyable, "playing" himself not as a hothead artist but as a rational man trying to complete a job while surrounded by hopeless idiots.

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Penn is, if anything, even funnier; his portrayal of himself as a self-involved dunderhead Machiavelli who's trying to scam a great director reportedly enraged preview audiences. "People get that there's a hoax going on here," says Penn, in a later phone call from his production office. "But they don't necessarily get what it is. They don't seem to ask themselves, 'Why would Zak Penn make a movie that makes himself look like a total asshole?'" (Penn also promises that the forthcoming DVD version will make the precise dimensions of the hoax clear.)

"I get e-mails from people wanting to defend me from this bastard producer, Zak Penn, who is abusing me," Herzog says drily. Still, he is anxious to reiterate that he isn't the director of "Incident at Loch Ness" and this isn't really another of the meta-movies about his troubled career, in the vein of Les Blank's "Burden of Dreams" (about the making of "Fitzcarraldo") or his own "My Best Fiend" (about Herzog's tortured relationship with actor Klaus Kinski).

Herzog admits he has wound up on the other side of the camera too many times. "It's not really healthy" for a director, he says. "But in this case I was an actor, and that's something different. It's not about me -- that was just a pretext."

Penn's idea to use Loch Ness as the focal point for an elaborate spoof project was "immediately intriguing," Herzog says. "Loch Ness is such a wonderful candidate for exploring the strange borderline between truth and fiction. If Nessie is a figment of our collective fantasy, maybe our collective paranoia, it's a wonderful toy -- a way to play intelligently with the notion of what constitutes fact and what constitutes pure invention, as well as maybe semi-invention."

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Even if Herzog is acting in "Incident at Loch Ness," most of his dialogue is unscripted and most of the ideas he expresses about the monster hunt are his own. "Zak organized the film about real characters," he says. "What I say in the film about the need for monsters in our type of civilization, that's what I really think. There should be no doubt to anyone that we were not really searching for the physical monster, but for something else: What sort of collective mind-set makes us believe in the monster? Why do we need the monster? It has to do with being a highly advanced, technical civilization that has a deep longing to go back into the dark, where monsters lurk that are basically prehistoric. They seem to be more necessary than ever."

As Penn puts it, "Werner Herzog lends this film an off-the-charts credibility." There isn't much similarity between "Incident at Loch Ness" and Herzog's own quasi-documentaries like "La Soufrière" or "Wodaabe: Herdsmen of the Sun" (or "Lessons of Darkness," his extraordinary, little-seen study of the Kuwait oil fires after the 1991 Gulf War). But his reputation as a filmmaker who sees the categories of fiction and reality as artificial was crucial to establishing the "Loch Ness" hoax in the first place.

"For me, never anything is ambiguous," Herzog insists (his English is fluent but still inflected by German syntax). "My films are very straightforward and easy to understand. Documentary filmmaking as we see it on TV is very boring. I call it the 'accountant's truth.' It only shows you the surface of what is supposed to be true. I am always trying to dig much deeper, illuminate things and illuminate an audience, instead of boring an audience. I've always been after the ecstasy of truth."

After 42 years as a director and almost 50 films (he's only 62, but started young), Herzog now finds himself an international legend who is forced to make movies on the cheap. His last few pictures, like the 2001 feature "Invincible" or the documentaries "Wheel of Time" and "Little Dieter Needs to Fly," have been basically unseen in North America. He has difficulty raising money and can no longer reliably reach the worldwide art-house audience he once did (let alone a mass audience). Acting in other people's films is, among other things, a chance to make some money and stay on the radar screen.

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He has absolutely no regrets, and he says he'll keep making personal, unpredictable films until he's dead: "Movements trickle away, fade away. There are always a couple of figures just sticking around and struggling on, and I'm one of those. The films that I'm making today have the same spirit of -- I wouldn't say adventure -- something daring about them. Maybe it's the courage to articulate your dreams."


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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