Saturday, a sunny afternoon in August on the Sunset Strip — before the cruisers started to prowl, when you could still get lucky finding parking on a block that isn't permit only — was a good time for the cineaste crowd to converge on Book Soup as filmmaker Werner Herzog made an appearance this weekend to promote Conquest of the Useless, a richly entertaining collection of his diaries from the famously harried production of his 1982 film Fitzcarraldo.
Previously chronicled in both the director autobiographical film Portrait Werner Herzog and My Best Fiend, his ode to his love/hate relationship with frequent collaborator and star Klaus Kinski in the making of Fitzcarraldo — the casting problems, the clashing with the local tribal extras in Peru, the manic rantings of Kinski on set as well as the Herculean task of pulling a 320-ton steamer over a muddy hillside which Herzog managed to pull off without special effects — is the sort of epic tale of bravado filmmaking which stands the test of being told time and time again. And in Herzog's own lyrical voice (albeit soft-spoken, as some of the huge crowd crammed into Book Soup's narrow aisles asked him to speak louder into the mic as he begins to read from the diaries), they're as entertaining as ever. From his ongoing run-ins on the jungle set with an aggressive albino turkey (?!) to the classic nugget about the native chief who offered to murder Kinski for the director after the actor had managed to alienate and offend pretty much everyone, it's legendary stuff.
The line of autograph-seekers that spilled out the door and down Sunset were geeking out as hard as the Comic-Con set, though most of them were of a certain age. (“Is there anyone else here under 30?” wondered one younger gent standing behind us as the reading was about to begin. There were, of course, but they were the grade-schoolers patiently lingering with their parents and occasionally plonking themselves down on the floor next to the greeting cards.)
Not all of them, though. As the autograph session began, one 12-year-old fan greeted the director with a nervous smile. “I really liked Grizzly Man,” he told Herzog, speaking of the fascinating and occasionally harrowing 2005 documentary about naturalist Timothy Treadwell, who was mauled to death by the bears he followed in the Alaskan wilderness. “Wonderful,” Herzog replied in his gently clipped German accent, smiling. He leaned down and inquisitively asksed the boy, “Did it frighten you?” The lad seemed a little trepidatious, wanting to show courage, but nodded and admitted that it did.
“That's okay,” Herzog assured him. “You know, it frightens me too.” Just earlier, before beginning to read from the diaries, Herzog admitted to the crowd that revisiting the Fitzcarraldo experience during the process of putting together the book was a frightening task in and of itself. But that, one supposes, is par for the course in the visceral experience of truly great filmmaking, no matter what side of the lens you're on.