Lessons of Effervescence

*Two batches of small reviews up at The Savage Critics - a lil Garth Ennis thing, and an all-Japan post featuring my ode to the Mushishi manga, and the odor of the Witchblade anime. Smells like GONZO!

Rescue Dawn

Saw this film the other day - can't miss a chance to catch Werner Herzog on the big screen. It was good, but not great, and largely confirming for me that the Herzog of the last decade or so is most potent when working in the 'documentary' format, although he's hardly a typical filmmaker of that sort as well. Plus, I think the only other large-scale dramatic picture he's done in ten years was 2001's Invincible, so there's not really much to compare it with.

The best scene by far is the pre-title sequence, which is nothing but stock footage of aerial bombings set to lovely music, the center of the frame dominated by twirling, flaming bits of debris that soar in tune with the soundtrack. It's the kind of opening that really gets me going, totally eager for Herzog to knock my socks off. That doesn't happen, but there's still some interesting bits.

You probably know the film is a sibling work of Herzog's 1997 'documentary' Little Dieter Needs to Fly, a dramatization of pilot Dieter Dengler's imprisonment in Laos at the dawn of the Vietnam War, and his subsequent escape. There are many connections between the two works. The explosion of stock footage I just mentioned shows up (in part) in the prior film as well, and several scraps of narration and recollections from one work are recontextualized in the other. Christian Bale plays Dengler, who's set up as a lovable, almost cornpone embodiment of American good nature. Early scenes seem straight out of a '50s war film, complete with dodgy scenes in the cockpit accomplished by rocking the camera up and down and blowing steam everywhere. It's like Herzog wants to portray freedom as something of a dream, with the harshness of the jungle that Dieter's shot down over as total, cruel realism.

Certainly, all of the scene-dominating special effects are gone as soon as we're among the trees, and Herzog characteristically opts to dwarf Bale against the lush power of nature; nobody can quite shoot the jungle like Werner Herzog, and there's plenty of ominous natural beauty on display. But while Dengler's struggles to get out of the jungle alive are surely classic Herzog material, Rescue Dawn is more interested in conveying supple human attributes than mad compulsion; it's no secret that Herzog sees Dengler, his fellow German-come-to-America, as embodying good American values: perseverance, indomitable cheer, loyalty. Thus, we have a distinctly upbeat excursion into the wild, and lots of promotion of brotherhood between men.

Herzog's 'big' dramatic films are always deliberately-paced, so much time is spent among Dengler's fellow prisoners once he's caught and hauled off to the camp. All performances are somewhat stylized, reflecting Herzog's general avoidance of actorly realism. Jeremy Davies drifts perhaps a bit too far over the top, overloading his performance with stoner twitches and nervous vocal tics. On the other hand, Steve Zahn is almost shockingly good as a rapidly zoning-out man desperate to hang on to anything that seems solid and just. He and Bale really manage to sell Herzog's theme of fraternity, and their eventual trek through the wild in search of freedom provides some of the film's most effective moments, among them a lethargically creepy bit with the men peeling leeches off their chests, and a fine crack-up scene.

But Herzog's typical God's eye view of shooting, affording equal impact to a man's head being chopped off and a man finding an abandoned shoe in the water, doesn't work quite as well with such a low-key approach to character and theme. At times, the film seems to be going for suspense in the manner of a typical Hollywood escape movie, yet Herzog's cool approach often acts to sap 'thrills' from the screen, while his earlier studies of mad drive might capture the characters in such a way that the screen is charged to glowing.

Maybe this is intentional. One might presume that Herzog looked at something like Black Hawk Down and resolved to do the very opposite of that. The tortures Dengler underwent are kept mostly off-screen, or played down. The expected shootings are panicked, and unheroic. Surely nobody will accuse this film of sensationalizing anything, from Dengler's personal experiences to warfare itself. But this approach also effectively keeps the audience at a certain arm's length, while Herzog's earlier films projected mania and enigma and satire that couldn't help but draw the viewer in.

Still, a worthwhile film, and very much a Herzog work. Admirers may not be knocked out, but they'll have stuff to chew on.