My Dad turned 60 yesterday. It’s hard to believe that he has been on this planet for 6 decades! I wish I could celebrate this milestone with him, but we live on opposite ends of the country, so we rarely see each other in person. He is often in my thoughts though, and when I think back at the fun times we’ve shared, the most vivid memories revolve around the family movie night.
My step Mom Anne would make popcorn the old fashion way with a pot on the stove and would pour lots of butter on top before serving.
We would turn off the lights and sit around our floor model Zenith TV, with our glasses of coke and munchies, and watch movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Apocalypse Now, Runway Train and One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest, among many others.
Afterwards we would talk about our favorite scenes and do our best impressions. In my minds eye I can still see Dad do his best Dennis Hopper, “that’s dialectic physics, man!...”, or Anne doing her best Brando, “The horror...the horror”, or me doing a passable Martin Sheen, as I peered through imaginary blinds, “Saigon...shit; I’m still only in Saigon”.
Judging by those moments, I would say Dad and I have similar tastes in movies. More recently, he loved the Matrix as I did and he thought Avatar was the best thing he has ever seen, so for the most part, I think we see eye to eye on what makes a good film.
This has not always been the case however. At one point during my early teens, Dad discovered Wormwoods, which was the only theater in town that exclusively screened foreign films and also provided video rentals of movies from all over the world.
From what I recall, every other weekend or so Dad and Anne would walk down to the video store and come home with some obscure title that they were excited about but which held no interest for me (a kid raised on a steady diet of Star Wars or Death Wish just didn’t "get" Cinema Paradiso or My Life As a Dog).
One Saturday night, Dad offered me a choice between going to the Cineplex or staying home and watching a Wormwoods video. Usually this would have been a no brainer, but being the diplomatic and curious child that I was, I asked him what the video was about. He proceeded to explain that it was a foreign film and it showed Arabs having sex.
Well, needless to say, my raging teenage hormones convinced me to forget about the latest Karate Kid sequel and instead I opted to stay at home and examine the carnal passions of ancient nomads. The contraband Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler magazines stashed away in my closet didn’t always cut it, so I thought this could be a fun and stimulating experience.
Of course, the joke was on me that evening. As soon as I was alone, I popped the tape “Arabian Nights” (not the 1942 version) into the VCR and started to prepare for some voyeuristic excitement. From the get go, however, all I could see was a completely dark screen and a bunch of barely legible sub titles. The scene could have been interesting, as it seemed to involve a couple groping around in a tent, but I couldn’t make anything out, like boobs for instance, so after a few minutes I shut the TV off in disgust.
In my rage and disappointment at having been tricked into wasting a Saturday night, I left a rather snotty note for my Dad. I don’t remember exactly what I wrote, but as the story goes, I said something along the lines of;
this movie really sucked, like all the other Wormwood movies you rent. I think next time you should save up all your money and go rent a real movie made in Hollywood!
As Dad tells the story, him and Anne laughed on their way to the theater as they imagined the look on my face when I started watching this crappy, low budget art film. When they arrived back home, Dad picked up my note, read it aloud, and they both started howling. They still laugh about it today, whenever they bring up the story.
As one family story tends to lead to similar anecdotes, the topic of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo often comes up.
Fitzcarraldo was another Wormwoods favorite which I was duped into viewing, and if memory serves me correct, I stormed off to my room after about an hour, promising that I would never again watch another movie rented from Wormwoods! Gales of laughter no doubt followed me up the stairs as I retreated back to my room, filled with posters of real movies and more credible movie stars, like Sho Kosugi and Steven Segal.
The funny thing is, a few years ago I decided to give Fitzcarraldo another glance, and to my amazement, I thought it was great! Maybe Dad was on to something because Herzog’s signature cinematic masterpiece really grabbed me this time around.
I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure yet, but suffice to say it involves all the great themes of life, such as hopeless and irredeemable dreamers who attempt the impossible, such as moving a fully intact 340 ton steam ship (the Molly Aida) over a mountain in the heart of the Amazon, a sequence in the screenplay that Herzog insisted on recreating and filming on location without any special effects.
From what I’ve read about the film since, I would say the production of Fitzcarraldo and the drama experienced during filming was even more exciting and intriguing than the movie; something of this magnitude had never been attempted before (or since) and the whole endeavor was so monumental (not to mention difficult, frustrating and manpower intensive) Herzog later called himself, “Conquistador of the Useless”.
I was so impressed with this fictional tale, I looked into the backstory of the man whose exploits the film was based on; a Peruvian rubber baron named Carlos Fitzcarrald.
Like so many other real life figures who have been depicted in art, the person behind the fiction was not as endearing as the character brilliantly played by Klaus Kinski (who reportedly was so cantankerous on set that Herzog threatened to kill him and then commit suicide).
According to an article in the Iguitos News, Carlos Fitzcarrald was a brutal man who violently forced indigenous people to work for him under cruel and inhuman conditions. He also did not move a giant steam ship over a mountain but instead disassembled a much smaller vessel into sections, transported the parts over land and then rebuilt the boat with the help of paid professionals. I'm not sure if he was an opera fan or not, but it's doubtful he listen to Caruso while navigating dangerous river rapids.
But at it’s core, this movie is not about Fitz or racist colonialist’s. Instead, its about dreams and the importance of following them, even if it means certain defeat or annihilation. I can think of many real life examples of people who lived by that creed and are more inspiring than this Peruvian slave owner.
Take Chico Mendes for example. He was a simple Brazilian rubber tapper and unionist turned environmental activist, who was murdered in 1988 over his attempts to stop the destruction of the Amazon rainforest at the hands of cattle ranchers.
Mendes was quoted as saying, “At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realize I am fighting for humanity.”
In my opinion, if anyone deserves to be honored on the big screen, its Chico Mendes. He had many lofty ideals and sadly he died in pursuit of them, but he did not allow the world to crush his spirit or steal his dreams.
I think Herzog, like Mendes, knew the importance of this. When Herzog left the jungle to secure more funding for Fitzcarraldo after several months of setbacks during shooting, the producers asked Herzog if he should cut his losses and quit filming.
"How can you ask this question? If I abandon this project, I will be a man without dreams, and I don't want to live like that. I live my life or I end my life with this project."
Thankfully for Herzog and his fans, he survived the ordeal and managed to produce one of the finest films ever made. His dream may have been a burden, but in the end, it gave his life purpose and meaning; a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
So, when times are tough or someone like my Dad tricks you into watching a foreign film, just think of Herzog or Mendes and surrender yourself into the world of dreams. In the grand, cosmic scheme of things, nothing, not victory or even life itself, is more important than this.