Saturday, March 7, 2009

Herzog 2

We watched Encounters at the End of the World last Sunday, and then Burden of Dreams, the documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo, last night. Werner Herzog brings about no end of amusement. One of my favorite things was the full speech by Herzog about the Amazonian jungle, excerpted in My Best Fiend but in full in Burden of Dreams. I had to get up and write down the bit about the murders. In addition to talkind about the obsenity (as opposed to the Romantic notion of eroticism) of the jungle, he says that it has a certain harmony, but it is "the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder." He goes on to describe chaos everywhere, "exphyxiation, choking," even the stars have no order but are a giant "mess." The background of this documentary tells you the enormous obstacles and risks he's taken even to get this far-- the set is all but closed down by tribal conflict and skirmishes on the Peru/Ecuador border, then it is shut down when original actor Jason Robards gets some aomebic parasite and is forbidden by doctors in New York to return (at which point Mick Jagger pulls out to make Tattoo You and go on tour-- ultimately, clearly a fortuitous change in casting). Then there's the problem of procuring and managing the ship(s) in record low water (the schedule so thrown off they miss the rainy season), more problems with native peoples, the engineer deciding the system to pull the boat is too dangerous (a 70% chance of people being killed-- dozens of people-- if it breaks), then record rains that leave the site literally knee-deep in mud, and on andon. By the time he is railing about the jungle he has lived there with natives and his surly actors and crew for more than 6 months, literally 500-1500 miles of jungle in every direction. You can imagine the challenges of bringing in food and dealing with sanitation, let alone bringing in 150 gallons of petrol a day for the bulldozer that most of the time is broken down or mired in mud.

When he says he'll make the film or die, he means it.

We'd really hoped for some insight into what drives Herzog, into his core question, from Encounters at the End of the World, an exploration of the lives of researchers and workers in Antarctica. So we perked up when he talked about his "proposal" to the National Science Foundation for why he wanted to do the movie. But his questions were totally bizarre. One sticks with me clearly: "Why don't chimpanzees subdue large dogs and put saddles on them and ride them?" It might be the same question that makes Jon Stewart continuously show that footage of a monkey bathing a cat in a sink, but I'm not sure. Why do humans subdue nature and use nature as they do, and what do they hope to discover by studying it? And what is the actual "nature" of nature?

He proceeds to do things like interview a scientist who is studying penguins and ask him, "Do penguins ever go insane?" The man doesn't know the answer, and thinks not, has a more biological than psychological framework, and says they do sometimes become disoriented. But Herzog finds a poor stray penguin that is racing as fast as it can inland, away from open water, and it's hard not to believe from watching it with his calm, German-inflected voice-over, that this penguin is truly deranged.

But mostly Herzog finds his kindred spirit in a diver who has a dire, pessmistic view of nature below the sea. He says some of the same things Herzog observed about the jungle-- sea creatures simply devour each other, from the single-celled organism he's studying in all its diversity to the larger, prehistoric-looking creatures. The landscape is indeed science-fiction-esque, and this scientist spends his evenings showing 1950s doomsday sci-fi movies to fellow researchers. He speaks with the same calm as Herzog, that make it hard to acknowledge the dim view, the discussion of unrelenting violence and death, that he's unspooling. This man is making his last dives before retiring, and one wonders what will become of him above sea level.

We are now of course being compelled to watch more Herzog-- there's a film with a cast of dwarves, Even Dwarves Started Small, that I suspect is somewhat unwatchable but is free through our Roku box (Netflix on demand) so we will give it a shot. (One story Herzog tells is that one of the dwarves was both thrown from and run over by a car during filming and then later caught on fire-- Herzog through himself on him and extinguished the flames). Burden of Dreams came with a nice "extra," a short film by the same filmmakers called Herzog Eats His Shoe in which Herzog cooks (at Chez Panisse) his chuka boots and eats one of them, cut into small pieces, right down to the sole, on stage at the showing of Errol Morris's Gates of Heaven. It's an answer to a pledge that if Morris made a full-length feature (Morris was famous for not finishing things-- which I think must have driven Herzog crazy given his singlemindedness) Herzog would eat his shoe. And he is a man of his word. In between bites he encourages the audience to make films because the world needs images the way it needs food and water and air.

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