“There is a thing called the bliss of evil.”
That’s what Werner Herzog reportedly told Nicolas Cage when Cage asked what his character’s motivation was. How does “the bliss of evil” differ from mere sociopathy, greed, or selfishness? I’m not sure, but I wanted to see what Nicolas Cage made of it.
R for drug use and language throughout, some violence and sexuality
Herzog seems fascinated by obsessive characters like himself, characters who attract tragedy like a lightning rod, and for whom life isn’t lived if it’s not lived on the edge.
Cage plays Terence McDonagh a cop in post-Katrina New Orleans. In the opening scene, after taunting a prisoner in a flooding jail cell, he finally jumps into the sludge to save him. The universe repays his good deed with chronic back pain that will stay with him for the rest of his life. McDonagh becomes addicted to pain killers, cocaine, gambling, and anything else he can get his hands on. He freely uses his police powers to shake down scared citizens for their drugs or favors, sexual or otherwise.
Yet he says his life has one focus, and that is to solve the murder of an African family shot dead in their New Orleans apartment.
The Bliss of Evil?
McDonagh’s evil seems to be motivated by opportunism rather than bliss. When he harasses the young couple coming out of the night club, he’s sure he can score some coke without leaving a paper trail. But it’s not like Cage shows any pangs of regret. And maybe there is a minor sense of triumph in getting what he wants. But bliss? Probably not.
When he sets up his climactic grand plan to fr
Ironically, the universe repays his evil with success, wealth, professional recognition, and a win for LSU’s football team.
I’m not a huge fan of Nicolas Cage. I don’t think he’s a particularly versatile actor. He always seems to be playing Nicolas Cage. He gives a very good performance for Herzog, though. Cage gives McDonagh a downward sloping arc throughout the film, ending in drug-fueld rants worthy of Dennis Hopper.
Herzog’s fingerprints are all over the film, and nowhere more visible than in the famous shots of the iguanas. Two or three iguanas — bright green three-foot lizards — are filmed very mundanely, yet their very inclusion is so strange as to lend a sense of wrongness to the scenes that they’re in. The same can be said for a dancing soul later in the film. These mundane surreal images are justified by Cage’s drug-addled brain, but that still doesn’t explain “why an iguana?” or “why a dancing soul?”
The best answer, the one that eluded me for much of my adult life, is touched upon briefly in the DVDs extras (more later).
You probably won’t appreciate Port of Call: New Orleans without a bit of detachment, and the better you know Herzog’s work the better you’ll like the movie.
I’m not sure I “get” Herzog myself, though I love his work. My world view is pretty far from his; I find it difficult to put myself in his shoes. Yet he’s so consistent in his obsession with jungles and tragedies that I stare fascinated and transported, even if it rings more like fantasy than emotional truth for me.
Extra features include photos from the set by Lena Herzog, plus a trailer for the film.
The biggest and best extra feature on the Blu-ray release is a 30-minute making-of documentary. And although it doesn’t answer the question “why an iguana?”, it does offer an occasional glimpse of the artist at work.
Art requires a bit of mystery. (That’s my direct answer to “why an iguana?”). But for the artist, if everything is explained, he might as well have been an essayist instead. And Herzog is an artist, not an essayist.
In one interview Herzog is stepping out onto the set talking about the meaning of post-Katrina New Orleans. “Here there is something like a beast inside ... it’s not just the forest, the ruined house...”; it’s an “all pervading climate of something not going right.”
Herzog is internally looking for what the “beast” is when the documentarian suggests that maybe “man is the beast.” Herzog’s mental search shuts down immediately, apparently offended at someone’s shallow-than-me attempt to get philosophical.
Later, when someone whom I am guessing represents the New Orleans film commission suggests a shot across the harbor that everyone likes, Herzog’s long-time cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger explains that “what everyone wants” is exactly what a Herzog film doesn’t want.
As if to illustrate Herzog’s ability to draw the wrath of God, he recounts having to create sludgy floodwater using thousands of cans of decaffeinated coffee (full-strength coffee would have permeated the actors’ skin). I can imagine in an earlier decade he might have already spent the budget on regular coffee and insisted on forging ahead rather than redoing the scene in decaf, offering to shoot the scene from within the caffeine bath to reassure his actors that he wasn’t asking them to do anything he himself would not do.
Oh, and one of the iguanas bit him.
How to Use This DVD
Get in your Herzog state of mind, and press play. Watch the making-of documentary if you have another 30 minutes.