Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Werner Herzog, Three Films, Two Profiles, and a Manifesto; Les Blank, Burden of Dreams, 1982

I had been saving an old New Yorker with an article about a pair of archaeologists who're attempting to settle the question of whether the Donner Party actually cannibalized itself, but when I opened it up my eye was drawn first to Daniel Zalewski's profile of Werner Herzog. I had just read Tom Bissell's essay on Herzog in the December Harper's and thus inspired, rented The White Diamond, which Herzog claims is his best, as well as Burden of Dreams, Les Blank's making-of doc about Fitzcarraldo.

I first saw Fitzcarraldo as a kid, in the little art house theater on the hill above Albany. It's one of my father's favorite films -- I think he had already seen it, but he wanted us to see it, too. This was 1982; I was 10. Even then I could see that the movie represented something my father wanted my sister and I to know about him. Back then he was stern, preoccupied, work-obsessed; a teeth-grinder. Our mother was light-handed, adventurous, and given to convening wild, absurd dinner parties, the greatest of which crescendoed in a spitting-for-distance contest. My mother's boyfriend of the moment, a muscle-bound children's book author named Michael, took first place by surprising everyone with a giant pink goober that sailed across the room (newspaper had been laid down) like a tropical bird. His secret, he revealed, was a bottle of pepto-bismol he'd found in the back of our medicine cabinet. Ancient, and probably once my father's.

My father did not participate in spitting contests, but he did take us to Fitzcarraldo, the story of an Irishman on the Amazon, played by Klaus Kinski, who dreams of bringing opera to the jungle and to that end decides he must haul a steamship over a mountain in order to make a killing in the rubber trade -- money which he will use to bring Caruso to the wilderness. My father admired such flamboyant, poetic gestures, and wanted us to know he admired them. He was not trying to tell us that he was Fitzcarraldo, only that even as one buckles down to the work of life, one must remember the sound of opera in the jungle.

Maybe so. But in Fitzcarraldo, particulary as interpreted through Burden of Dreams, Herzog seems less interested in the sound of opera than in the sound of the jungle itself. He hears the screech and the scream, the terror-filled howls he says the trees would make if they had mouths. Herzog clearly admires lunatics and dreamers who defy nature -- Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, Timothy Treadwell of Grizzly Man, the balloonist who builds The White Diamond so that he can peer more closely at the jungle's canopy -- but the common denominator of such films is not the flamboyant gesture, but the monstrosity of nature.

This became clear to me reading Zalewski's profile, which centers on Herzog's production of Rescue Dawn, a feature re-make of a documentary he made years ago called Little Dieter Wants to Fly. "Dieter" was an American pilot who was shot down in Vietnam and who then escaped through the jungle. In Rescue Dawn, Christian Bale playes Dieter and Steve Zahn plays his wounded buddy. Herzog spends a day dragging them through the jungle, looking for just the right spot to film an epiphany: "Bale and Zahn, after clambering up a steep hill, get their first glimpse of a wider view. The vista below them, partially obscured by branches, is an Edenic blanket of green, but the effect is deflating: this prison cannot be escaped."

Rescue Dawn has focussed the attention of Herzog's popular press interpreters on Herzog's ambivalent relationship to fact, as conventionally defined. Herzog, for instance, refuses to distinguish between his fictional films and his documentaries. Why then, both Zalewski and Bissell ask, remake Dieter? What greater truth can he achieve in this fictional telling? In the documentary, Herzog films Dieter opening and closing a door in his California home as he explains that the freedom to do so could only be appreciated by a former prisoner. Perhaps; but, it turns out, this was not Dieter's sentiment, but Herzog's idea. Herzog insists that Dieter's willingness to perform the idea is proof of their collaboration -- Dieter would not have done so, Herzog argues, had he not felt that the gesture illustrated some essential truth.

Leaving aside the matter of how a talented storyteller with an enormous ego and a regular joe on the other side of the camera "collaborate," I still pause on Herzog's definition of documentary. One might argue -- though I'm not sure I would -- that documentary is defined by the tension between "truth" and facts. Facts don't necessarily add up to truth, so documentarians must sift through them, identifying patterns, discovering connections, and, yes, constructing arguments. Truth is an argument that the documentarian finds irrefutable.

Herzog doesn't go in for such shaky definitions. To him, in White Diamond and these two profiles, Truth is Truth. He seems confused and annoyed by further questioning on the matter. He seems, in fact, to be rather dimwitted on the subject. Perhaps the apparent artlessness of his films is not a ruse? Perhaps he is an idiot savant?

Or maybe he is a trickster, who knows that the question of truth, seemingly as central to his films as the grand, operatic gesture of Fitzcarraldo, is really a cover for other pursuits -- just as the operatic gesture may be a cover for his exploration of the inherent terror of nature. I see evidence of this possibility in Grizzly Man, and the angry reactions of the few people I've met who hated Herzog's appropriation of the late "Grizzly Man" Timothy Treadwell's footage from his many summers spent living amongst the grizzlies of Alaska. What bothers these people the most, beyond what they perceive as the exploitation of Treadwell -- viewed as either a mentally ill person or a pure soul, either way entitled to protection from public eyes -- is the certainty with which Herzog interprets Treadwell's story in his voiceover. Herzog declares Treadwell naive, blind, in a sense, to the blank "murderousness" in the grizzly bears' eyes. Herzog's detractors may or may not agree with this diagnosis, but they loathe Herzog's assertion of it as fact.

Such sentiments reveal a faith in facts, a belief that they add up to truth. Herzog holds no such convictions. He is more interested in authority. Not the echoes of fascist authoritarianism with which he grew up in Bavaria, but his own authority, his own discovery of truth, his own right and ability to tell a story unbound by qualifications and disclaimers. That is, his chance to respond to the randomness of nature by becoming a force within it, asserting narrative authority not based on facts but on his own literally wild vision -- the facts of a jungle vista as a prison, of murder in a bear's eyes, of the trees slashed by Fitzcarraldo in his attempt to haul his steamboat over a mountain screaming in vengeful fury Fitzcarraldo can't hear because his head is full of Caruso. Like Fitzcarraldo, and, to a lesser extent, the balloonist of White Diamond and Timothy Treadwell, Herzog is a narcissist. But whereas his characters seek to escape into interior visions, Herzog wants to project his outward. That is his operatic gesture, and that is commentary on truth. It sounds awful so-phrased, but as an argument, I find it more compelling and honest than the handwringing of responsible documentary, or even the seemingly artless poetics of cinema verite.

A year ago, I invited the filmmaker James Marsh to come speak to my class about two of his recent films, a feature called The King and a documentary, after a fashion, called Wisconsin Death Trip, inspired by my college mentor Michael Lesy's book of the same name. James brought with him a manifesto by Herzog, "Lessons of Darkness," worth reproducing in full.

1. By dint of declaration the so-called Cinema Verité is devoid of verité. It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants.

2. One well-known representative of Cinema Verité declared publicly that truth can be easily found by taking a camera and trying to be honest. He resembles the night watchman at the Supreme Court who resents the amount of written law and legal procedures. "For me," he says, "there should be only one single law: the bad guys should go to jail."
Unfortunately, he is part right, for most of the many, much of the time.

3. Cinema Verité confounds fact and truth, and thus plows only stones. And yet, facts sometimes have a strange and bizarre power that makes their inherent truth seem unbelievable.

4. Fact creates norms, and truth illumination.

5. There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.

6. Filmmakers of Cinema Verité resemble tourists who take pictures amid ancient ruins of facts.

7. Tourism is sin, and travel on foot virtue.

8. Each year at springtime scores of people on snowmobiles crash through the melting ice on the lakes of Minnesota and drown. Pressure is mounting on the new governor to pass a protective law. He, the former wrestler and bodyguard, has the only sage answer to this: "You can´t legislate stupidity."

9. The gauntlet is hereby thrown down.

10. The moon is dull. Mother Nature doesn´t call, doesn´t speak to you, although a glacier eventually farts. And don´t you listen to the Song of Life.

11. We ought to be grateful that the Universe out there knows no smile.

12. Life in the oceans must be sheer hell. A vast, merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger. So much of a hell that during evolution some species - including man - crawled, fled onto some small continents of solid land, where the Lessons of Darkness continue.