J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, April 07, 2017

Herzog’s Salt and Fire

Werner Herzog is a modern-day adventurer who travels to the remote corners of the globe to make eccentric films and documentaries on-location. However, he perhaps spent too much time in the sun without his pith helmet while shooting amid Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni salt flats. Perhaps the film he brought back makes sense to him, but everyone else will be completely baffled by Salt and Fire (trailer here), which opens today in Los Angeles.

Laura Somerfeld and her two busybody UN ecologist colleagues have been kidnapped by masked gunmen, but before we get much further, let’s flashback to see if they had a pleasant flight to the unnamed country bearing a strong resemblance to Bolivia. They have come to collect data on the disastrous El Diablo Blanco (that means “White Devil”) salt lake. Before they can even start, they are kidnapped by Matt Riley, the CEO of the energy consortium cleverly known as “The Consortium” (which sounds only slightly less sinister than the “Cabal”), who were responsible for the disaster. Does he want to stop them from filing their paperwork? No, apparently, he just wants to recite dramatic monologues for Somerfeld.

As they work their way through Ecclesiastics quotations and renaissance art analysis, a strange Stockholm Syndrome-esque attraction grows between Somerfeld and Riley, until he up-and-strands her in the middle of White Devil Lake with two weeks-worth of supplies and two young legally blind indigenous brothers to care for.

If you think S&F sounds ludicrous, wait till you get a load of the outrageously stilted dialogue. Think of it as a film that combines the worst eccentricities of Eugène Green and … well, Werner Herzog. In terms of credible motivation, this film is an absolute train wreck—so much so, cult movie fans will be rubbernecking at its weird procession of non-sequiturs in slack-jawed bemusement for years to come. Herzog unsubtly goes for broke trying to invest the film with Biblical significance. Truly, in the Land of Salt, the nearly blind are just as confused as the rest of us.

One thing is for certain—you can’t fault Michael Shannon for a lack of trying. He struts about wearing his leather jacket in the desert and inveighing to the high heavens like a prophet in the wilderness. Veronica Ferres looks a little freaked out as Somerfeld, which in all likelihood she was. However, Gael García Bernal and Volker Michalowski are just cringe-inducingly embarrassing as the ineffectual Doctors Cavani and Meier, whom Riley deviously sidelines with nasty bouts of Montezuma’s revenge.

Just when you think the film can’t possibly run any further off the rails, it ends with a series of goofy sight gags. In filmmaking, there is the easy way, the hard way, and the utterly ridiculous way. Here, Herzog opts for the third way, all the way and then some. Presumably, there is an environmental message in there somewhere, but it will be hard to take it seriously, if you can find it. Frankly, all that salt cries out for a gigantic margarita glass, so cheers everybody. Indeed, the Salt and Fire can only be enhanced by potent potables when it opens tonight (4/7) in LA, at the Arena CineLounge.

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