There have been many documentaries chronicling the difficulties encountered during the production of a film, with the most popular recent example being "Lost in La Mancha", looking at Terry Gilliam's ultimately futile attempt to remake "Man of La Mancha". With the continued popularity of DVD, it's rare that the events of production for today's films aren't recorded in some way or another.
However, in the subgenre of filmmaking documentaries, few have attained as legendary status as Les Blank's "Burden of Dreams", which chronicles the difficult (to put it extraordinarily lightly) production of Werner Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo". The documentary starts off with a plane landing in the jungles of South America. As the plane hits a primitive runway, it's seemingly swallowed up by newly displaced mud and Earth. It's a fitting moment for what is to come.
The native people of the area, understandably dismayed at the presence of any foreigners, are at first extraordinarily wary of the filmmaker and his crew. However, deals are soon worked out and the filmmakers make it known that they are only temporary guests on the native's land. They even engage in some soccer in one early moment of the film. However, the natives never become entirely comfortable with the film crew and the filmmakers are forced to leave.
More problems are looming on the horizon, though: star Jason Robards becomes ill and is forced to withdraw from the production when his doctor advises him to rest. Co-star Mick Jagger follows soon after, as the schedule for the film stars to conflict with a concert tour. The documentary does show rare footage of Jagger and Robards. "Fitzcarraldo", which followed one man's obsession with building an opera house in the jungle, soon has a new lead actor in Klaus Kinski. Kinski refuses to take part in a native ceremony of drinking a fermented brew that involves the spit of the natives.
The issues for "Fitzcarraldo", however, were just beginning. The main scene in the movie involves natives pulling a steamboat up a mountainside. Production takes much longer than planned, and the natives are losing morale and conditions are worsening. The steamboat pull goes not go well, and for a while, it does not appear to even be able to happen. The local engineer comes up with a plan to pull it up a 20% incline. Herzog wants 40%. The director, seemingly driven mad with his obsession for getting the movie completed, will not give up.
"Burden of Dreams" is a fascinating portrait of an artist who falls under the spell of his own dreams, marching forward to complete his work, despite any and all costs. A classic documentary from director Les Blank.
VIDEO: Criterion presents "Burden of Dreams" in its original 1.33:1 full-frame aspect ratio. This is a new digital transfer of the movie, created on a Spirit Datacine from a 16mm interpositive. Using the MTI Restoration System, thousands of instances of dirt, dust and other debris have been removed.
SOUND: Criterion presents the film in Mono. The soundtrack was mastered at 24-bit from the magnetic track, and audio restoration tools were used in order to remove pops, hiss and other distortion.
EXTRAS: The main supplement is a commentary from director Les Blank, editor/sound recordist Maureen Gosling and "Fitzcarraldo" director Werner Herzog. Gosling and Blank were recorded together and Herzog's somewhat limited commentary participation was recorded separately. Gosling and Blank provide an excellent discussion that fills in the, uh, blanks - it provides a more full discussion of both what we're seeing and what we didn't see. Despite the fact that Gosling and Blank do much of the talking, Herzog's comments are still very insightful and interesting, as he talks about some of the concepts for the film, experiences on-set and problems he encountered.
Also included are a few other supplements, such as "Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe", which is a 20-minute short helmed by Blank. In it, Herzog has made a bet with filmmaker Errol Morris that he will eat his shoe if Morris makes a movie. Morris responded with "Gates of Heaven", and Herzog cooked up his boot, which looks like it could have fed two. "Dreams and Burdens" is a lengthy, newly-done featurette that offers interview footage with Herzog. Split into four parts, the interview looks at issues with "Fitzcarraldo", such as casting, dangerous conditions and production issues. The interview footage is extremely interesting and Herzog shares a great deal of very honest, straightforward recollections of what happened.
Finally, we get a large stills gallery, the film's trailer, two deleted scenes and an 80-page booklet that offers exerpts from the production diaries written by Blank and Gosling. Overall, a great package.
Final Thoughts: An outstanding and often fascinating documentary, "Burden of Dreams" watches how far Herzog will go in order to attain his dream of finishing "Fitzcarraldo". Criterion's DVD edition is marvelous, offering a lovely new transfer of the film along with rich, insightful supplements. Definitely a must-see DVD.
The Film ****