Thursday, April 16, 2009

Scream of Stone

Scream of Stone is a weird, uncharacteristic feature from Werner Herzog, a minor footnote in the director's long and prolific career. The story is perfect for Herzog, a tale of two competing mountain climbers adapted from an idea given to Herzog by real-life climber Reinhold Messner. Messner was himself the unforgettable subject of Herzog's 1985 documentary The Dark Glow of the Mountains, a chronicle of Messner's attempts to scale two 8000+ meter peaks in succession (he'd already climbed all 14 of the world's tallest mountains once). Messner's story is about a world-famous climber who has achieved the same feat: the driven mountaineer Roccia (Vittorio Mezzogiorno), a Messnerian daredevil who, having scaled all of the tallest mountains the world has to offer, now seeks an even greater challenge. That challenge is the mountain Cerro Torre: not as tall as the other peaks Roccia has conquered, but much harder due to its sheer, nearly vertical face, which has never been scaled by any climber. Roccia himself has failed twice in his ascent and is preparing for a third climb when he rashly challenges the much younger climber Martin (Stefan Glowacz) to climb the mountain with him.

Martin is a very different type of climber from Roccia. Atheletic and acrobatic, he climbs mostly indoors, on treacherously difficult artificial rock faces assembled especially for various TV competitions. He seems to defy gravity in his climbs, contorting his body into impossible positions while dangling upside down and thrusting his body from one perilous handhold to another, sometimes literally hauling himself upwards merely by the strength of a single finger. He does it as a sport, and is the best in the world at it, but Roccia looks down on him, believing that his televised exploits, on carefully controlled indoor obstacle courses, are nothing compared to the real thing on a real mountain. It's not difficult — especially since Roccia is so obviously based on Messner himself — to extrapolate that this is Messner's own opinion. It's also, one suspects, Herzog's, which perhaps makes his cameo appearance at the beginning of the film, as a demanding television producer, a sly joke at his own expense. But it's certain that one of the film's throughlines is the lamentation of the closing possibilities for true adventurism in an increasingly mapped out and insulated modern world.

Roccia and Martin's first attempt to scale the mountain is disastrous, though not necessarily unsuccessful. After numerous delays for bad weather, Martin, sick of waiting, decides to climb the mountain himself, along with one Roccia's friends, while Roccia himself is off in a nearby town buying supplies. Upon his return, he finds that Martin has returned from the mountain, claiming that they had reached the top, but on the way down the other climber was lost in an avalanche. With no way to prove or deny Martin's story, a frustrated and disillusioned Roccia retreats from the world, while Martin becomes a media celebrity under the guidance of the journalist Ivan (Donald Sutherland) — Martin even steals away Roccia's girl, Katherina (Mathilda May).

What Herzog's aiming for here is a rather bitter satire of televised spectacle, which turns Martin's feat into a media circus. And when some rival climbers publicly decry Martin and declare their skepticism about his story, he vows to climb the peak again, this time with a huge television accompaniment to document his ascent. His first climb, with no photographic proof, is rendered void: if it's not on TV, it's as though it didn't even happen, though Martin himself is haunted by recurring visions of the climb. There's a certain undercurrent of sadness throughout this film, the sense that what Herzog's concerned with here is not mountain-climbing, not even Messner, but the death of his own favored kind of filmmaking. Herzog had made a career of filming in extreme and dangerous locales, places truly off the map, where he ventured without the benefit of safety nets or huge crews. His productions — especially the films he made with actor Klaus Kinski — often teetered on the brink of disaster, terrifying whatever money men might've been foolhardy enough to invest. That he'd always managed to emerge from these fraught shoots with a raw and compelling finished film was as much a product of luck as it was of his own ingenuity and vision.

By this point in his career, however, the moment where Herzog could make those kinds of films was likely past. The film industry in general has been moving towards taking fewer risks, not more, and one wonders what modern film investors and producers would think if offered a project like Herzog's quixotic Fitzcarraldo. Actually, one doesn't wonder, because this film provides the answer in the form of the modern film producer (Al Waxman) whose complete disinterest in his subject — once he's out in the cold for a few days he thinks of doing a water-skiing movie instead — is matched only by his craven interest in maximum profits and maximum spectacle. Martin's second climb up Cerro Torre becomes a lunatic three-ring circus, as helicopters circle the mountain with cameras trained on the rock face, while other crews attempt to climb part of the way with Martin, shifting his ascent into slow motion as he's forced to keep pace with the camera equipment. He's no longer climbing, not really; he's posing for pictures. Perhaps this is what Herzog felt like at the time, hemmed in by producers and a film industry in which he was increasingly being pushed even further to the margins than ever before. It's obvious that he's sympathetic to Roccia's dismay at Martin's media deal: the glare of the TV cameras turns an intense, private drama into a lurid public spectacle.

It's interesting to see Herzog working out his frustrations on screen, mourning the days when he could head off into the Amazonian rain forests with a small crew and a camera and simply live there until the film was done. But at the same time, one can ironically see the evidence of the new limitations on Herzog's art right there in this film, which simply lacks the spontaneity and intensity of his best work. Too much of the film is given over to turgid, indifferently filmed melodrama involving the Roccia/Martin/Katherina love triangle. May does a fine job with her thankless role, but she's not much more than eye candy, a pretty distraction from the fact that basically nothing is going on for long stretches of time in this movie. It doesn't help that neither Mezzogiorno nor Glowacz (the latter a professional rock climber rather than an actor) are very compelling leads, though Glowacz's stunts, obviously performed for real, are often stunning. The most typically Herzogian character exists only at the fringes, in the form of a half-mad, unnamed climber (Brad Dourif) who claims to have ascended Cerro Torre and left behind the fingers on his right hand. This fingerless climber, who says he made his journey as a tribute to the actress Mae West — for whom he built a makeshift shrine in the cave where he currently lives — wanders into the film at intervals to rant and remind us that, oh yeah, we're watching a Herzog film. The fact that it'd ever be possible to forget this if not for Dourif's presence, is a bad sign; there's no danger of ever forgetting who made such singular masterpieces as Aguirre, the Wrath of God or Stroszek.

Scream of Stone, on the other hand, seems torn by compromises, split awkwardly between a romantic drama and a Herzogian inquiry into extreme existential states. In its final ten minutes, during a bracing dual climb with Roccia and Martin racing one another to the top, the film at last settles into the latter mode for good, working its way towards a breathtaking final few moments, along with a clever little touch that resonates back through the rest of the film. It's an interesting but badly flawed film, an expression of frustration that is itself marked by the sources of that frustration.


bill r. said...

Ah, well. I still want to see this, because I love Herzog, but he's been struggling with his fiction films for a while now. I liked Resuce Dawn, but it's missing a certain spark, and I found Invincible to be a real grind to get through. On the other hand, I'm extremely curious for the next few films he has in the pipeline, especially My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, as that sounds like pure, mad Herzog. And Michael Shannon is in it, so...

Ed Howard said...

Yeah, I mean it's worth seeing if you love Herzog, which I obviously do. It's not without its merits, but Herzog really has been a bit off in his fiction films for some time now, while his documentary output has generally been as strong as ever. Not sure why that is.

I was just reading about My Son, My Son the other day and it sounds brilliant, I'm really excited for that one. I'm not quite as excited to see him working with Nic Cage in that weird Bad Lieutenant project, but we'll see.

Ryan said...

This is such a great and thorough review, thank you. I've been on the hunt for more obscure climbing movies and just heard about this Herzog flick. I've enjoyed some of his other work, for sure... It took me a long time to track down the Dark Glow of the Mountains. I will certainly add this to the list to watch, even if it isn't stellar. Still probably better than some of the really bad climbing movies I've seen! :)