JUNK FOOD: Shifting Landscapes

May 2021

My list of top three movies hasn’t changed in, well, decades. I stand by the list of films that, I think, use every frame to maximum effect: Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind(1977), and Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982). My copy of Fitzcarraldo is the same one I checked out from the county library back when tapes comprised the video collection and the checkout limit was 10 per week. I bought the tape at the library’s annual sale years later when tapes were deaccessioned for 10¢ apiece.

an old man sits in the dirt with a sign that reads, Stop and be friendly; from Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind

For those uninitiated, Fitzcarraldo follows an Irish immigrant living in South America around the turn of the last century as he tries to bring European opera to the Amazon. To fund this dream, he plans to provide the unjustly well-heeled rubber barons with a true delicacy: ice. But fulfilling his dreams by pandering to the wealthy is quite literally built on the backs of the native tribespeople, who become the labor force that drags Fitz’s riverboat up and over a mountain. This is not a metaphor: watch the movie, they really do it. Watching the formerly highfalutin boat get dragged up and over a steep hill in the Amazon changed me: the clash of the ship and the surrounding environment remains, for me, the defining image for surrealism.

white man in a white suit looks concerned as he stands in front of a riverboat stuck on the side of a mountain; Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo

But as the cultural landscape claws towards accountability and awareness, I’m prompted to think and rethink what was happening on, and off screen in Fitzcarraldo. I get to keep my formative steamboat imagery and let it promulgate new ways of seeing the world and its components, but the past few years have prompted me to shift my vantage.

a riverboat sit halfway up a mountain; from Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo

We see the steamship get dragged over a mountain then leave. Even the making-of doc shot and released in concert with the film, Burden of Dreams, leaves the jungle… But this leaves me to wonder: what happened to the mountain?