The potential seems grand: what Klaus Kinski is to the Amazon, Bruno S. is to Wisconsin… Nicolas Cage is to New Orleans. For a director who has made a career finding documentary in fiction and visa-versa, Werner Herzog’s essentially unrelated appropriation of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, moved from New York to the Louisiana city post-Katrina, seems an inspired way to return to the U.S. (Herzog hasn’t made a fictional feature here since 1977’s Stroszek.) The result is a shock—exquisite in its comic absurdity, but at two hours not nearly absurd enough.
The real question is: where did the documentary go? Port of Call: New Orleans, as the Herzog film is bizarrely double-subtitled, is admittedly a profound document of a superbly cast Nicholas Cage, who transforms the drug addict lieutenant of unconventional morals into a forceful hangdog wanderer, perennially exhausted, surprisingly sweet in demeanor, only occasionally—along with the film—pushed to the edge, and all together embodying an exemplary interpretation of a kind of mythical, dying American spirit, forged in cinematic genre and the crimes of our city streets. But it is those city streets that are missing from the Herzog film, which, far from being set in New Orleans, could really have been filmed anywhere.
By comparison, Herzog’s other 2009 fictional feature, My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done?, despite starring Michael Shannon as a mother-killing mystic, is rooted not in performance but in mise-en-scène. If The Bad Lieutenant balances its rote policier requirements with both parody and heightened mania by finding in Nicolas Cage an impassioned hero worthy of the Herzog-Kinski legacy, My Son, My Son fills the human and performative void at its center with a fluid, almost sensuous construction of its very weird and very Herzogian world.
As a diptych, Herzog’s 2009 features are utterly fascinating. Having only made one fictional feature set in the U.S., and not having filmed a story set in the present in more than a decade, that in one year Herzog, chronicler of the ecstatically real, overturns his avoidance of an American story in two radically different ways is jolting. What would inspire such a change? Considering the setting, one would think Herzog was attracted to the extremity—of location, of behavior and characters, of nature—of New Orleans after the hurricane hit, but the filmmaker, along with editor Joe Bini and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, his regular collaborators, film the city as any grey-ugly urban mass. As any kind of quasi-doc on either the physical or the psychic character of the area, The Bad Lieutenant is an abject failure; one may even reach to say an ethical failure for this most gifted of documentarians. Yet, this is perhaps placing undue burden on the film instead of taking it for what it is: an unreal marriage of the sincere and the silly surrounding both a genre and American journeyman character. Is simply working the beat in New Orleans a 2009 equivalent, in its own way, to hauling a boat over a mountain in the 19th century, exploring the Amazon in the 16th, or discovering vampirism in the 18th? The most fruitful way of looking at the film is to consider how out of place Herzog’s fictitious mystics seem in a contemporary setting. Bruno S. is such an unreal actor that the extreme disjunction of him being filmed in Wisconsin in 1977 is understandable—Herzog injecting the alien into the regular. But with an actor like Cage, the degree of psychological and comedic nuance make the lieutenant’s existence all the weirder, his purpose in the world, in that city, all the more questionable.
This is certainly the best way to see My Son, My Son, apparently inspired by true events and executive produced by David Lynch for an authentic Southern Californian (in this case, San Diego) morose charm. Michael Shannon’s psycho, in flashback stories that do less to explain his character or his crime than present docu-tableaux of stand-out otherworldliness—spends the whole film presenting himself and his understanding of the world as something totally unrelatable to normal human beings. A great deal of humor comes from the fact his mother (Grace Zabriskie), his fiancé (Chloë Sevigny), his creepy theater director (Udo Kier), and his ostrich-raising racist friend (Brad Dourif) never are able to acknowledge the outer-space mystical non sequiturs that Shannon spouts any time someone is around to listen. Holed up in his mother’s flamingo-pink suburban house and surrounded by cops (including an equally unimpressed/unmystified Willem Dafoe), everything associated with this man—and especially his trips, filmed in beautifully inconsistent DV, to Mexico, China, and Peru—exist on a plane completely incomprehensible and out of context with our modern lives. Aguirre or Woyzeck, born today in a San Diego suburb with an overbearing mother—what kind of madness would his truth end up sounding and looking like?
It is “purer” than The Bad Lieutenant, which finds truth in a man, whereas the San Diegan film finds truth in the world. My Son, My Son is practically luxurious as a beautiful series of ur-Herzogian moments of unreal reality and strangely idiomatic English phrases of mystic and faux-mystic profound expression. Who else but Herzog could not only see but then film and dramatically contextualize—through modern murder!—the weirdness of sprawling, foliage’d and fountain’d hotel interiors, or the tunnel-of-time quality of the Calgary airport? The uncanny American setting missing from Port of Call: New Orleans can then be found in My Son, My Son, just as those looking for a portrait of a man on the edge of the world right in the heart of America need look no further than Cage in The Bad Lieutenant. Perhaps these films only really work together, place and person schismatically separated into a diptych panel, two pieces once folded together revealing nothing less than Werner Herzog’s impression of the America of 2009.