Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Tale of Two Bad Lieutenants

I recently watched Werner Herzog's not-quite-remake (more like a riff) of Abel Ferrara's "Bad Lieutenant" and then revisited the earlier film the following night. Originally planning to write about both, I think the more interesting comparisons between the two have to do with how they were approached from the distinctive filmmaking viewpoints of both directors rather than what little plot or story each has to offer. This was something best conveyed visually. Sometimes, words cannot describe these films.

Each film is clearly a product of the directors' sensibilities, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. The tones of both films are also very much dictated by the central performances of Harvey Keitel and Nicolas Cage, who bring completely different energies to their roles.

It has not been a secret that when it was announced Herzog was going to make his "Lieutenant", there were several nasty comments exchanged between the two filmmakers. This video remix, as I call it, tries to show how these filmmakers' visions overlap, as well as fight with one another. It is rare to see two such notable directors tackle the same idea, as opposed to the usual scenario: a hack remaking a superior director's work. Oddly, in this case, I believed the superior director made the lesser, though bizarrely fascinating film.

You should be warned there are SPOILERS for both movies. I also do not shy away from either film's most lurid moments, so consider this piece very-NSFW.


Indiephantom said...

Well, Steve Santos...that was an amazing editing feat. The overlapping dissolves were most effective, particularly the closing bit of the extended takes from both films. It really feels like you've discovered some hidden yet possibly intended way to merge the two films (kind of like "Dark Side of the Moon", the Pink Floyd redux of Wizard of Oz). I'm a real fan of both films but admittedly more of a mark for Ferrara's film. I still own the old laserdisc version which preserves the censored rap number that you include here. I love the idea of having a string of Bad Lietenant films and I think the producers were smart to attempt a kind of art-house franchise here which I guess may also be inspired by those sexy DTV thriller from the '90s. Like the "sequels" to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Ken Russel's "Whore". Great blog entry and the quality of the video makes me envy you guys with top-notch software to match your considerable skills.

Ed Howard said...

That's a fantastic piece, Steven. I just watched Herzog's film recently, too, and have thus been thinking about the relationship between the two films. One thing your video points out is that, while Ferrara's film is certainly heavily stylized and over-the-top, it looks positively grounded and naturalistic in comparison to what Herzog has done with this material. Even the quality of the images attests to this: Ferrara's film looks gritty and dark, while Herzog's is blown-out and bright, with a sense of almost purity in its crisp images. There's something ethereal about Herzog's film, especially when juxtaposed against the grimy images of Ferrara; although Ferrara's the one obsessed with Catholic imagery, Herzog's film is the one that leads towards a moment of (possible or partial) spiritual transcendence and redemption. I especially love your layering of the iguana scene over Keitel's more straightforward zoning-out while on drugs, perfectly encapsulating the distance between the films; Ferrara's film is external while Herzog's film adds a layer of dreams and visions to this character.

I honestly couldn't pick one film over the other. They're both such distinctively weird and original pictures, with such drastically different concerns at their core.

Steven Santos said...

Thanks for the comments, indiephantom and Ed. This was an opportunity to bring my editor alter ego to the blog as I plan to do more video pieces in the future.

indiephantom, I just want to say that one of the most satisfying aspects of doing this was restoring the Schooly D track that we all first saw the movie with. As much as I love the film, it still feels as if it is missing something without that song.

Ed, I do prefer the Ferrara film probably because films about Catholic guilt tend to get to me in a certain way. But Herzog's film is far from the directorial assignment it was originally perceived. A good deal of it does not quite work, but it is so weird and such a product of his sensibilities that I found it fascinating.

As I said in the post, it is rare to see two directors like this tackle the same material and have the end results turn out this original.

Craig said...

Amazingly, I've never seen either film. I'm not sure I have to now: the experience of watching this was extraordinary. Matt Seitz said you raised the bar for video essays, and he's right. Brilliantly done.

Marcos said...

Great stuff, nicely done! This definitely pushes the whole film critique format into another plane.

Jason Bellamy said...

Terrific stuff, Steven. It's been a long time since I've seen the original, so I'd forgotten about some of the symmetries (and diversions) that you make so clear here.

Nice work!

Adam Zanzie said...

I finally found the time to watch this, as I knew I had to at some point. This is great, Steve. I actually saw Herzog's version first (when it was in theaters), and months later caught Ferrera's version on IFC. Like you (and, I suppose, everyone else), I prefer Ferrera's version, probably because it's more surreal and it takes its subject matter a little more seriously than the latter film does. But both movies are successful in approaching the same basic concept, and your splendid video addresses well that the two approaches might not be all that different--even if Herzog claims to have never seen Ferrera's movie.

Also, thanks for playing "Pledging My Love" during that one part where Keitel is drunk while you had Cage speaking on the soundtrack. Even though the song isn't in Herzog's film, I gotta say: "Pledging My Life" [i]IS[/i] the Bad Lieutenant. Pure and simple.