When Werner met Nicolas

Blog by Keir Roper-Caldbeck | 15 Mar 2010

Getting shot on TV has been a good career move for Werner Herzog. The video clip of the incident, which occurred while being interviewed by Mark Kermode for The Culture Show, has become Youtube’s Zapruder film with over a million hits. The shooting is invariably mentioned in every profile of the director but there is something belittling about this – a career that has seen Herzog deliberately and systematically court extremes reduced to a single, freakish incident. As he said at the time, it was “not a significant bullet”. That he was being interviewed at all was part of an unlikely turnaround for the director who had become an industry pariah and by-word for a kind of eighties-nineties Wagnerian craziness. Through these lean years he continued working mostly on documentaries, made distinctive by his inscrutable presence and unhinged world view. The success of Grizzly Man in 2005 opened the door for Herzog into the mainstream. At the same time he began to have a certain ubiquity in the media where he had become known for giving good copy, dead panning answers in which he claimed to watch no films, only Wrestlemania, and to be completely blind to irony – a disability which he happily demonstrated in one interview after another. It started to look as if the visionary film-maker of Aguirre and Nosferatu might end up a self-parody.

Yet, of course, Herzog was crazy like a fox. His increasing public profile attracted actors looking for artistic credibility, and with them money for features. The first was Christian Bale for Rescue Dawn; the shoot was a troubled one, with the producers trying to use Herzog to make a cheap war film with a big name star and Herzog using all his wiles to make the film he wanted and deny the producers material to re-cut their own version. The end result was a minor success, and a welcome return for this maverick talent.

And now it is Nicolas Cage with Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. It is one of the most unexpected and downright loopy films I’ve seen in a long time. Since watching it at the Glasgow Film Festival a couple of weeks ago, scenes, images and characters have kept popping into my consciousness: the twitching body of an alligator at a road accident; down town New Orleans under a dark, lowering sky; Cage torturing an old lady in a care home; Shea Whigham as the cocksure Justin (“Whoa. Whoa. BIG MISTAKE.”).

Crime films have turned into a solemn business in recent years, simultaneously more humourless and more violent, and ruthlessly adhering to ever more complex plots. In his wilful indifference to plotting, in Bad Lieutenant Herzog returns the crime film to its glorious B-movie days. Each scene begins arbitrarily, seemingly adrift from the one before. As soon as Herzog has captured what he wants – and it is not always clear what that is – the scene grinds to halt. Then the next one begins. Somehow, bizarrely, Herzog’s life-long search for “the ecstatic truth” meshes with Raymond Chandler’s dictum that, if you don’t know what to do next, have a man come through a door with a gun. The overall effect is cumulative and anarchic, a rapid build up of scenes which, against the odds, just about hang together.

And what wonderful, off-kilter, and – for such a “humourless” director – funny scenes they are. There is one that involves Cage, Val Kilmer, two iguanas and the song “Release Me” which conjures up Hunter S. Thompson at his outrageously matter-of-fact best. Cage seems to take courage from the fearlessness of his director with a let-it-all-hang-out performance that is a return to the days of Wild at Heart, while Herzog's often infuriating abstruseness is leavened by his lead actor's pop-cultural fluency. I would love to have been a fly on the wall as Herzog and Cage worked together. Did they go out to dinner every night and carefully plan what they were going to do the next day? Or, as I suspect, did they simply turn up on set and proceed to try to outdo each other in an unspoken battle to be the most outrageous? Bad Lieutenant isn't for those who like serious, carefully crafted films that are, well, a little predictable. However, if you don't mind films a little rough around the edges and love watching the sparks fly when two wholly unpredictable talents rub together, then it is going to be a long wait until the film's release on 21 May.