Tuesday 8 June 2010

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (Werner Herzog, USA, 2009)

‘Herzog is a metaphysician,’ according to Gilles Deleuze. ‘He is the most metaphysical of film directors…’ (C1:185). How, if true, is The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans a metaphysical film? Mark Kermode recently echoed Deleuze’s claim, yet went on to say that this particular film lacked a metaphysical dimension (though is, as I write, rethinking the film). On the face of it, both the assertion in general and Kermode’s exception seem accurate. Metaphysics, in essence, is a consideration of being beyond the realm of the physical world. In both his fictions and documentaries (which to a great extent blur the boundaries between fiction and documentary) Herzog digs beneath the perceptions, affections and actions of characters to explore how they understand and think about the world. Yet in The Bad Lieutenant Herzog appears content to focus upon the surface of Terence McDonagh, appears to make a black comedy out of the pain, drug addiction and corruption of the main character.

The film is a riot, and the humour is dark. For instance, McDonagh is promoted twice, once at the beginning of the film, once at the end. His first promotion to lieutenant comes from what is described, by a senior officer, as a heroic act. Yet, this is no heroic act, rather it was a bungled rescue, easily avoided. During the onset of hurricane Katrina, a drug addict looter is locked in a cell in the depths of a police station. McDonagh – after attempting to bet on the time he will drown –jumps carelessly into the rising water to unlock him. In the process he sustains an injury to his back that will take six months to heal and cause him pain for the rest of his life. This physical (not metaphysical) pain is to be offset by vicodin. But McDonagh self-medicates with coke, heroine, crack and a little weed now and then. This self-medication becomes drug addiction, which causes him to break the law himself in order to ensure a steady supply (wonderfully played by Cage, who moves around the screen like a broken dancer, a counterpoint to Kinski’s movements on the raft in Aguirre). At the end of the film, McDonagh is promoted once again, this time to captain. This promotion, like the first, is presented as a result of heroic acts. However, we know different.

A film then of cause and effects, though one that skews the effects: we expect tragedy, but get comedy. For instance, this is seen most clearly towards the end of the film when McDonagh returns to his office to find out the murder of three Italian gangsters he engineered has not only solved that immediate problem, but also caused the crime family to back off as well as have an internal investigation against him been dropped (‘phew’). Next, he finds out his gambling debts are sorted, despite his blackmailing of a baseball player not panning out. Finally, evidence he planted at the scene of the murder wraps up the case. The dovetailing of all these events that seemed to be moving inexorably towards tragedy are resolved in bathos – brilliantly so.

However, isn’t this just more proof of a lack of metaphysics in the film (which of course translates to The Bad Lieutenant being a lesser work of an aging director in the grip of the Hollywood studio system etc, etc)? Criticisms levelled at the film say this is no Aguirre, no Fitzcarraldo. Correct. However, this is not because it is a lesser film. Rather, Herzog continually veers between two types of film, the grandiose and the enfeebled. This distinction comes from Deleuze, who sees Herzog’s films as taking one of two paths. The first is that of the visionary ‘a man who is larger than life frequents a milieu which is itself larger than life, and dreams up an action as great as the milieu’ (C1:184). The second is that of ‘weaklings and idiots’ who are ‘reduced to an elementary sense of touch…and walk close to the earth, following an uncertain line’ (C1:184-5). The Bad Lieutenant has more in common with Nosferatu, Kasper Hauser

The crucial point comes in a conversation McDonagh has with the gangsta at the heart of the murder investigation. McDonagh tells Big Fate he will take bribes to protect him. Big Fate asks so you don’t care about the killings anymore? McDonagh replies look at your face, now look at mine… I never did.

We later discover that McDonagh was setting up Big Fate. The impulse here would be to understand McDonagh’s words as a lie, as a way in to his gang and the entrapment. However, what if we resist this impulse? What if we stay on the surface and believe that McDonagh is telling the truth to Big Fate. He never cared about the killings. The metaphysics in The Bad Lieutenant turn on this idea. Getting Big Fate is not his fate. Rather, it simply requires ingenuity. His ingenuity is simply the ingenuity of the drug addict after the next fix.

Solving the case is no transcendent event. It is meaningless. As meaningless as hurricane Katrina, as meaningless as all the barbarity set in the post-apocalyptic landscape of New Orleans. As meaningless as the murders. It is a lizard-like metaphysics. It is the logic of Herzog’s Nosferatu ‘caught in uterine regression, a foetus reduced to its feeble body and to what it touches and sucks’ (C1:185). The logic of Herzog’s Woyseck ‘reduced to his own Passion’ (C1:185).

What lies beyond, beneath the physical world? Sometime Herzog explores this as a grandiose, ecstatic, crazy vision. Sometimes Herzog explores this as the feebleness of a body in a world at the edge of a cosmos where there is nothing approaching meaning. Herzog’s metaphysics is not simply the playing out of the grandiose, but rather, it is the way humanity is caught between something and nothing. Between the grandiose and the feeble... As Deleuze puts it ‘the albatross’ big feet and its great white wings are the same thing’ (C1:186). This is the metaphysics of the quotidian...


  1. This is a very interesting take on Herzog's film. I had personally seen this film as Herzog's entrance to the grim side of Hollywood. Its narrative, although displaced by strange shots which are very much like 'Fear and Loathing' in some sense, seem to fit the Hollywoodesque narrative form - to a certain extent. Nevertheless, great work David.

  2. I agree with the above.