The Holy Bray

The title character of Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) is a donkey who goes through a series of owners in his sad life as a beast of burden.

Films about animals or featuring them as the main protagonists are usually the province of Walt Disney and other family friendly productions such as Benji (1974) and March of the Penguins (2005). Other than the horror genre, though, there have been relatively few departures from the usual formulaic approach to this type of movie with Jerome Bolvin’s dark satire Baxter (1989) and the ethnographic Story of the Weeping Camel (2003) being two of the rare exceptions. Yet nothing can really compare with Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), directed by French filmmaker Robert Bresson, which stands alone as a profound and singular achievement in this category.   Continue reading

Mortal Thoughts

The story goes like this. German director Werner Herzog made a bet with aspiring filmmaker Errol Morris that if the latter ever completed the film he was working on – which was inspired by a news story about the mass relocation of the graves from a California pet cemetery – he would eat his shoe. Morris did indeed complete his film, which was called Gates of Heaven (1978) and, true to his word, Herzog boiled and ate his show at the film’s premiere in Berkeley. Filmmaker Les Blank recorded the event and turned it into a documentary short entitled Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe in 1980.   Continue reading

Hunted and Haunted

Klaus Kinski plays an escaped mental patient in the German psychological drama/thriller, Der Rote Rausch (1962).

Klaus Kinski plays an escaped mental patient in the German psychological drama/thriller, Der Rote Rausch (1962).

When did Klaus Kinski first burst upon the international film world? The evidence points to his portrayal of the obsessive Spanish expedition leader Don Lope de Aguirre in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God in 1973. He followed that with other critically praised performances in Andrzej Zulawski’s The Most Important Thing: Love (1975), Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), Woyzeck (1979) and Fitzcarraldo (1982) and even appeared in mainstream commercial fare like Billy Wilder’s Buddy, Buddy (1981) and George Roy Hill’s The Little Drummer Girl (1984). But most of Kinski’s early work from 1955’s Morituri (in an uncredited bit part) up to the ‘70s were supporting roles; some were breakout parts such as 1955’s costume drama Ludwig II: Glanz und Ende wines Konigs (he was nominated for best supporting actor in the German Film Awards) or superior genre efforts like Sergio Corbucci’s spaghetti western The Great Silence (1968). Still, leading roles were a rarity for Kinski but one of the early exceptions was Der Rote Rausch (1962), directed by Wolfgang Schleif.    Continue reading

Les Blank, 1935-2013

Les BlankThe prolific independent filmmaker Les Blank died on April 7, 2013 but somehow that sad news slipped past me. I’m just now reading a host of glowing eulogies and tributes to the man, mostly from fellow filmmakers and critics. He wasn’t ever a household name because his movies rarely received theatrical distribution outside of a few major cities. Unless you happened to catch one on your local PBS station or attended a film festival, which is where most of his work first premiered, there’s a good chance you never even heard of Les Blank. Even though he made more than 40 non-fiction features and shorts, the only Les Blank film you can view on Netflix is Burden of Dreams (1982), his justly famous chronicle of the trouble plagued production of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, filmed on location in the Amazon.      Continue reading