Director: Werner Herzog
Benaroya Pictures/Construction Film/Canana Films/Skellig Rock/Madman
A comparison can be made between the film director Werner Herzog and the musician Neil Young. Both are prolific, headstrong, they both follow their own path – it’s paved with hits and misses; the best of their work is extraordinary, near-transcendent, the worst just utterly baffling. Geez, imagine them pairing up…
Herzog’s docos are, one way or another, a safe bet, safer than his narrative feature films at least.
Salt and Fire out on DVD now is one of the all-time head-scratchers from the fascinatingly hit-and-miss auteur. Here decent actors (Michael Shannon, Veronica Ferres) are given monumental clunkers of lines – “Truth is the only daughter of time”, Shannon attempts to deadpan.
Like a bad Neil Young album you sit through and find some tiny little glimmer of hope.
Salt and Fire tells a story – with a terrible script – of a weird hostage-taking situation among a small scientific delegation. The characters are 2D if they’re lucky. And the sole reason for the film to exist, it seems, is for the exquisite cinematography when the film’s setting shifts to the magnificent salt flats in Uyuni, Bolivia.
Shannon’s the bad guy – and he has a moral conflict. It’s absurd. Convoluted. Comical. Ferres is given little to work with dialogue-wise as well. She’s saddled with two blind boys and placed in a context so far removed from ‘normal’. This might be one of the preoccupations of Herzog’s films – the docs and the fictional features – but here it makes about as much as sense as the off-kilter timing of Neil Young’s lines in his own Human Highway movie. The problem being that Salt and Fire isn’t trying to be a type of quasi-trash.
When we reach the baffling denouement we’re none the wiser, there’s certainly no glimpse of the characters moving through anything or learning anything at all – and yet it’s strangely hypnotic.
Maybe that’s just because it’s fascinating to see a Herzog failure. But there’s a point, right near the end, where I suddenly imagined the filmmaker’s glee – like it was all falling into place. That he had taken us on a weird, wild, oddly paced ride to drop a truth-bomb, albeit one that’s heavily disguised, stealthily arriving on the third wave of boredom.
It make me chuckle to think of Werner being so pleased with himself while bombing so badly. Just like ole Neil when he sings through vocoders, or creates concept albums or ventures into movie-making…
I’m glad to have them around. But like Neil’s Old Ways album I consider myself a survivor with regard to Salt and Fire. I’m glad to have made it. I’m sorta glad he made it. But I ain’t recommending it to anyone.