Fitzcarraldo isn't a movie, it's a public-works project.
The plot, based on a real incident, centers on an obsessive music-lover who's determined to build an opera house in the jungles of Peru. To film it, the equally obsessive Werner Herzog almost literally moved mountains.
To begin with, he tranformed a tangled patch of South American wilderness into an exotic shooting location complete with cast, crew, and hundreds of Indian extras. Then, in a prodigious technical feat, he turned to creating and capturing some of the most spectacular - and outrageous - scenes in movie history.
Ironically, the result is only a half-successful picture. Obsession has its price. Pouring so much of himself into the gigantic stunts at the heart of the film, Herzog neglected the logic and flow of the movie as a whole. Like his own hero, he has traveled through fire and come out cheerful, yet partly scorched.Whether that's a victory is for moviegoers to decide. The film opens commercially next Monday after closing the current New York Film Festival on Sunday night.
The main character, a wild-eyed Irishman living in Peru, is called Fitzcarraldo by natives who can't quite pronounce Fitzgerald. Between doomed business ventures he plays his gramophone and dreams of bringing opera to his adopted land.
Helped by the owner of a local brothel (the film's rating is PG) he sets out to raise capital for his plan. The goal: to harvest 14 million rubber trees from an inaccessible location. The method: work his way up a dangerous river, then haul his steamship over a mountain, thus reaching a navigable waterway on the other side.
It's a daring plan. In fact, it's a ridiculous plan. But you can almost hear him muttering Hollywood's classic line, ''It's so crazy it just might work!'' The main obstacle is the overland voyage, crossing a formidable mountain with a full-size ship in tow. This becomes the visible symbol of Fitzcarraldo's obsession, and of Herzog's in putting it on film. Not surprisingly, it also becomes the most riveting element of the movie.
According to an account in American Film magazine, written by an eyewitness to much of the shooting, Herzog actually outdid the man his film is based on. Around 1900 the real Fitzcarraldo did move his steamship from one river to another, by taking it apart and coercing Indians into carrying the pieces. More boldly, Herzog used a ship ten times larger than the original and had it hauled in one piece. Quite a task in a civilized setting, and all the more so on a Peruvian riverbank surrounded by teeming jungle.
In the end, Herzog prevailed. The shots of Fitzcarraldo fanatically carrying out his task have few precedents in world cinema and even these scenes are almost capped by an unintended ride down the very rapids our hero went so far to avoid. Resembling some moments in Herzog's masterful ''Aguirre, the Wrath of God ,'' it's the most extravagant travel footage since the otherwise poor American film ''Sorcerer'' a few years ago. We probably won't see its like for a long time - though, paradoxically, many scenes don't necessarily look more ''real'' than if they had been shot with miniatures on Hollywood stages.
In other respects, the film is less rousing. As the title character, Klaus Kinski lacks the warmth that might have tempered and humanized his demented character. The supporting cast is more colorful than credible, except for Claudia Cardinale, who manages to be engaging despite her dowdy role as a madam. Moreover, the story moves fitfully, plagued by a lumpy script and a mood that lurches between satire and seriousness. Except for its massive mountain scenes, the movie often seems uncertain what it wants to accomplish.
In a way, the casting problems aren't Herzog's fault. Jason Robards and Mick Jagger were the original stars, but Robards left because of illness, and Jagger was unavailable to restart the picture with a new leading man. Still, it's likely there would have been fewer problems if Herzog had consented to shoot in a less obscure location with less hostile physical conditions. Perhaps, like Fitzcarraldo, the talented West German director has himself learned the cost of indulging a commitment to art that passes the boundaries of reasoned and reasonable living. Adventurous moviegoing
There's a celebration going on at the Collective for Living Cinema, which is finishing its first ten years as a small but shining landmark on the motion-picture scene.
Located in New York in a former tablecloth factory - the largest space it could find without pillars to block the screen - the theater has become a mecca for adventurous Manhattan moviegoers. Its goal is to support worthwhile films, regardless of commercial considerations. Among other offerings, it presents regular screenings of widely diverse movies, ranging from Hollywood rarities to strictly noncommercial productions.
Its impact has been considerable. Over the past decade more than 800 independent filmmakers have exhibited work at the Collective, sharing the screen with established studio directors. The programs are eclectic and unpredictable, attracting an audience that wants more from film than Hollywood blockbusters have to offer.
Other activities have included filmmaking workshops, seminars, symposiums, art events in different media, and publication of two magazines. Such celebrities as actress Diane Keaton and filmmaker Jonathan Demme serve on the board of directors.
To mark its anniversary, the Collective is presenting an eight-week retrospective called ''Ten Years of Living Cinema,'' running through Nov. 21. Concentrating on styles and trends that emerged during the 1970s, the program encompasses all manner of independent film, from the dense autobiography of Stan Brakhage to the crisp cartooning of Robert Breer, from the precise constructions of Ernie Gehr to the modernist melodrama of Chantal Akerman and the amiable musings of Stuart Sherman.
It's the art of film in a nutshell, from a refreshingly nonestablishment point of view.The Collective was founded by a group of young filmmakers who needed a place to show their work. ''They had graduated from the film schools and colleges,'' says Renee Shafransky, a longtime Collective member. ''But they found no support community. There were few screening situations, and little press coverage.''
In addition, they wanted to dig out notable Hollywood movies that had been forgotten as well as offbeat items such as Yiddish and all-black pictures - a kind of ''film ethnology,'' as Miss Shafransky puts it. The idea was to show independent work and neglected ''industry'' films, ''incorporating all of them into the stream of film history.''
The group strove to avoid ''an isolated, elitist, avant-garde attitude,'' Miss Shafransky continues. And it worked. ''After a year, our audience doubled. Then it tripled. The attendance figures held up for the experimental work as well as the Hollywood movies. We got more grants, press coverage improved. The film scene blossomed all through the '70s.''
Indeed, the Collective soon found it was part of a growing network across the United States. ''We began to hear from other 'media arts centers' all over the place - in Minnesota, Texas, California, Pennsylvania,'' says Miss Shafransky. ''Many of them combined facilities for making films and showing them. Through this informal system, filmmakers from the whole country started funneling their work into New York, and then back out to still other areas.''
This counters any notion that groups like the Collective are limited to a few major centers on the East and West Coasts. And it explains why, of 95 filmmakers in the Collective's current show, only about one-third hail from New York.
If the Collective has a philosophy of film, says Miss Shafransky, it's to show ''films that are as radical in form as in content.'' In other words, both the substance and the ''look'' of a film should offer some new slant or perspective.
''This may involve the use of time in film, or the use of spatial perception, '' she continues. ''Or it may simply mean challenging the accepted ways of viewing movies. In any case, it's important that form and content have equal weight - if there is conventional content at all.''
The biggest pitfall in promoting such ground-breaking material is ''the constant pressure toward newness,'' says Miss Shafransky. ''There's a danger of accepting films that are not deeply felt innovations, but are just trying to be different.'' As a former programmer and director of the Collective, she has faced this problem many times. But she feels the risk is worth taking for the sake of exploring cinema as deeply as possible. And her awareness of the peril is good insurance against being tripped up by it.
Looking at the state of independent film today, Miss Shafransky feels the '80 s will be a vigorous period. ''Much ground was broken during the 1960s,'' she says. ''Now those discoveries are being applied to specific issues.'' Filmmakers of all stripes are participating, with women reaping extra benefits. ''In independent film,'' says Miss Shafransky, ''women have real access to the means of production and the society of filmmakers - much more than in commercial cinema.''
Meanwhile, the Collective continues to unearth bygone Hollywood treasures by such rediscovered masters as Douglas Sirk and Samuel Fuller, along with more recent efforts from within and without the established movie industry. Growth, exploration, and discovery are the watchwords.
''There's no way to transform people's vision,'' says Miss Shafransky, ''without literally transforming the way they see.'' It's a worthy credo for anyone who cares about the living cinema.