Friday, April 3, 2015

Fata Morgana (1971)

          Challenging, enigmatic, and strange, the quasi-documentary Fata Morgana was among the iconoclastic German director Werner Herzog’s earliest feature-length projects. Working with a tiny crew, Herzog filmed weird images in the Sahara Desert, most of which illustrate the titular optical phenomenon of hazy sights playing against a flat horizon. Additionally, Herzog filmed such random things as decaying animal carcasses, impoverished laborers doing miserable work in punishing heat, and the wreckage from a plane crash. Fusing all of this material together in the editing room, Herzog married the footage with gloomy music (including several songs by Mr. Sunshine himself, Canadian tunesmith Leonard Cohen) and then layered ponderous narration atop the singular mix. In the first section of the movie, titled “The Creation,” Herzog engages questions about the beginning of the world. “Invisible was the face of the Earth,” the narrator drones. “There was only nothingness.” Some of this material is interesting in an abstract sort of way, but the fact that the picture begins with about a dozen repetitious shots of planes landing indicates Herzog’s utter disinterest in creating anything that could be characterized as entertainment. This is Art with a capital “A,” complete with all the positive and negative connotations that statement suggests.
          Eventually, the movie segues into its second section, “The Paradise,” which seems to convey Herzog’s signature philosophy that man is a toxic influence on the planet, and that the planet is inherently destructive and hostile, anyway. Herzog shares a few truly compelling images, then empowers them in his distinctive way by lingering on the images until they become hypnotic—as with a menacingly beautiful shot of flame (presumably from a burning oil deposit) rumbling against a perfect blue sky. Occasionally, Herzog’s fancy leads him toward images that seem trivial by comparison, such as a long vignette of a young boy proudly displaying his pet cat while flies buzz around the boy and the cat. By the time the picture reaches its brief final segment, “The Golden Age,” the viewer’s patience has been mightily tested. During this last segment, Herzog fixates on the kitschy sight of a singing drummer belting out tunes through an awful PA system while a stocky woman accompanies him on piano. “In the Golden Age, man and wife live in harmony,” the narrator says as the musicians play. “Now, for example, they appear before the lens of the camera, death in their eyes, a smile on their faces, a finger in the pie.” In his strongest films, Herzog presents existential mysteries that demand deeper investigation. In Fata Morgana, he merely presents things that are, at best, puzzling.

Fata Morgana: FUNKY

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