So the long-awaited “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” — the Werner Herzog movie whose absurdist trailer has been an Internet favorite for months now — is finally dropping at the Venice and Telluride festivals and, predictably, people are generally underwhelmed. This is what happens when people more familiar with Herzog’s reputation than his frequently uneven work get something less consistently outrageous than they expected and — okay, maybe it’s not all that. (Though I doubt it.)
As a result, the media narrative is shifting back one last time to the Herzog-Abel Ferrara feud. You know the deal: Ferrara is angry about the remake of his 1992 crime story, the disrespect shown to his creative labors and — most importantly — that he didn’t get paid very much for the rights and had no say in it. Herzog, for his part, thought it was hilarious and claimed never to have seen the original film or even know who Ferrara is, comparing him to Don Quixote. And now Ferrara and Herzog are together at Venice together, and Herzog is, for once, erring on the side of restraint: “I hope that he will see my film while he is here,” he announced yesterday. (And apparently he knows something of Ferrara’s reputation, since he suggested sorting it out over whiskey.)
Let’s just say this story is stupid and leave it at that. I’m not really surprised that when it’s time to go potentially mano-a-mano, Herzog wants to make things right; he’s not lacking in bravery (and, in an unlikely fight, our money would be on the robust Herzog over the, uh, erratic Ferrara), but he doesn’t seem mean-spirited. And continually using Ferrara as grist for easy press-pleasing quotes just seems rude. The truth is that Ferrara probably wouldn’t care at all if he’d: a) been paid however much he believes he was deserved to be paid (which would never happen) or b) Herzog hadn’t, conversely, made much more than Ferrara did for the first film. (So Ferrara claims anyway.)
But the other thing is, Ferrara has to be wondering why Herzog still has a financially viable career and he doesn’t. Ferrara played by the rules: when there was a market for movies that were arty as long as they were exploitation-y, he made “Ms .45.” When it seemed like a good idea to do a big-budget studio movie, he made “Body Snatchers.” In a time when every movie sells easier if it has a “name,” he roped in Willem Dafoe and Bob Hoskins to star in “Go Go Tales” and still can’t get distribution. Meanwhile, the patently wacky, often unsummarizable Herzog makes one movie a year, except for when he skips a year and then puts out two. Where’s the justice? Play by the rules, get screwed; follow a muse literally no one else fully understands, and voila! — success. I can’t answer it, but I suspect there’s more behind Ferrara’s grumblings than simple proprietary pride.
[Harvey Keitel in “Bad Lieutenant,” Bad Lieutenant Productions, 1992]