Werner Herzog is rather frenetic and instinctive in his approach toward filmmaking. He uses the camera in the same fashion Jackson Pollock uses a paint can, relying upon impulse and coincidence rather than deliberation. Though Herzog tends to be more straightforward than Pollack in both his narrative and documentary work, he ultimately remains an expressionist at heart, where mood and emotion are more central than linear exposition. Herzog’s improvisatory directorial style complements the hallucinatory qualities of his filmography, often foregrounding the surreal background in the process (the madness of Aguirre in Wrath of God is amplified by the handheld camera tracking shots and spontaneous acts of violence in the Amazon, while the Wagnerian ambitions of Fitzcarraldo is achieved by physically recreating the titular protagonist’s goal of carrying a steamboat over a mountain).
Thus, Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a much different picture than Abel Ferrara’s masterpiece of the same forename, neither a direct sequel nor remake of the original (reportedly, Port producer Edward Pressman, who was also involved in the Ferrara film, was the one who decided to reuse the Bad Lieutenant moniker, against the wishes of Herzog and to the chagrin of Ferrara). Although both pictures center on corrupt junkie detectives with a fondness for sports gambling and illicit sex, Ferrara’s movie is far more insular, almost completely focusing on its protagonist’s debauchery and search for a Scorsesian spiritual redemption. Herzog’s take, on the other hand, is primarily secular, less claustrophobic, more morbidly funny, and largely fixated on its setting of New Orleans; Port’s “bad lieutenant” (played by Nicholas Cage) acts as an extended metaphor for a post-Katrina America, both violent, volatile, and seemingly on the brink of self-destruction. The New Orleans of Port is portrayed as a city nearly bereft of any integrity; almost every character, be they cop, criminal, businessman, or pedestrian, seems tainted, be they by the sins of their past or their present. Port of Call’s saturated color palette and frenzied camerawork (including some quasi-POV shots spotlighting the reptilian wildlife of the Louisianan bogs) convey an urban landscape at odds with the surrounding environment; one of the feature’s most damning scenes, involving a roadside collision with an alligator, demonstrates that New Orleans cannot coexist with the natural world.
Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant though is not entirely pessimistic; like Ferrara, Herzog suggests that his antihero may be capable of self-consciousness and morality. Though Herzog’s story ends on a more ambiguous note than the original, he implies that Cage’s character is not without his virtues and perhaps at a turning point, one where he (and by extension New Orleans) can recover and adapt; whether he can is another question…
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