Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans

Our civilization doesn’t have adequate images, and I think a civilization is doomed or is going to die out like dinosaurs if it does not develop an adequate language or adequate images. . . . That’s what I’m working on: a new grammar of images. — Werner Herzog, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe
Is there a quality in art—in an artist—more important than delightedness?

The Bad Lieutenant, the new film by the great German filmmaker Werner Herzog, is delighted by the world. Unlike most films, it doesn't take delight in the world's demise but in its ongoing, omnivorous—Herzog might use the word "obscene"—beauty.

I suspect most great art, especially visual art, is born of delight: the fertile pleasure the artist, for reasons he or she often can't explain, takes in an image. With an image, the play begins.

The artist intuits that art's language of images forestalls our doom, as only art can, and yearns to speak of our ongoingness.

Herzog exuded this Shakespearean delight in images when I saw him at the University of Utah in—when? 1999? I hadn't heard of him and went with some friends to a lecture he was giving on campus.

During the lecture, he projected onto a screen behind him the image of a premature infant, just born, grasping the fingers of a doctor and being lifted up, naked, to hang, swinging, from the doctor's fingers. Seeing this image I gasped with just about everyone else in the audience, and wasn't alone, I think, to find myself abruptly in tears.

The great moments in The Bad Lieutenant—and there are many of them—arise from the world in the same fashion, naked infants swinging above the void. The plot stops, or at least slows (from its otherwise hurtling pace), and Herzog gives us: a water moccasin gliding through filthy post-Katrina flood waters into a prison cell that holds a drowning inmate; an alligator crushed on a Louisiana highway, its back leg twitching, and beyond it an overturned SUV; two iguanas on a coffee table beside surveilling city cops (the movie comes to a stop to allow the the camera to linger delightedly about the iguanas' heads, probing them, child-like); Nicolas Cage (brilliant again) hunched against the wall behind a rest-home door, working over his neck, his face with an electric shaver; the corpse of a mafia hit-man, and behind the corpse, the hit-man's soul, breakdancing.

During the film's most moving scene, Cage's character, Terence McDonagh, takes his lover to a shed behind his childhood home and describes to her the hours he spent there as a little boy, imagining. After talking, he stands behind her and they look out into the light, as if looking back on their innocence.

Their gazes are themselves a kind of innocence: the innocent delight of the once-upon-a-time artist, imagining.

Imagining: by which we mean: creating images.

This is an exuberant, brilliant movie, simultaneously joyous and grim. Herzog manages that seemingly impossible simultaneity better than anyone. I find most films—especially violent films—insulting, deadening, joyless. The Bad Lieutenant takes delight in the brutal strangeness of the world and communicates that delight in a language of images that's adequate to our time and enthralled by the beauty of our haplessness. It is the most best movie I've seen this year.

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