Archive for Werner Herzog

Steal from the Best

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 15, 2018 by dcairns

Really enjoyed James Gray’s THE LOST CITY OF Z — I’m not sure how much it amounts to, but as an impressively classical, slow-moving adventure and as a bold departure from his usual genre, it deserves praise.

Three swipes.

An abandoned boat calls to mind AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD, though Gray doesn’t go so far to have it wedged in the branches of a tree, hovering above the waterline. That would be too much.A WWI battlefield sports a damaged statue of Christ on the cross — clearly a nod to the opening scenes of Sam Fuller’s THE BIG RED ONE, though this figure isn’t minus an arm. Again, that would be going too far. And, when Charlie Hunnam leaves on his final mission to the jungles of Bolivia, he leans from the train window and Gray cuts to shots filmed as if from his POV, tracking rapidly through the bedrooms of his wife and children. A blatant borrowing from the ending of Fellini’s I VITELLONI, a favourite scene of mine. I’m sufficiently impressed by the cheek shown, the obscurity of the reference, and its aptness, that I’ll allow this. Though I think Fellini’s decision to use train noise throughout his sequence is superior to Gray’s choice to score the scene orchestrally.


Every Speliologist for Himself and God Against All

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Painting, Science with tags , , , , , on September 14, 2017 by dcairns

I tweeted that Werner Herzog’s CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS was maybe the best 3D movie ever, but maybe I should have said “best USE of 3D”?

I watched this movie with a colossal grin. Almost every shot did something delightful to my brain.

I’ve been waiting years to see it in 3D. Edinburgh Filmhouse took awhile to install a 3D system, and in the end went for a weird one where you need your glasses to be charged with electricity — I think this had something to do with them not wanting to install a 3D screen which would have compromised the picture quality of every flat film shown. And I think the Cameo installed such a screen.

Anyhow, when the Filmhouse installed 3D I was looking forward to finally being able to see Herzog’s film as it was meant to be seen. I’d avoided seeing it flat. But then Filmhouse decided “Our audience doesn’t like 3D” and never showed it. Anyhow, happy ending, they finally did, and got a pretty good-sized audience. Imagine if they’d shown it when the film was new.

But the Filmhouse system has drawbacks. You can’t be sure the glasses are working until the film starts. Fiona’s didn’t, and she had to run and change them. Mine conked out ten minutes before the end and I spent a chunk of the film’s climax running around the whole outside of the auditorium looking for a staff member to open the shutters and release a fresh pair… However, in spite of all that, this was still maybe my favourite 3D experience.

We weren’t totally uncritical of the movie. Fiona pointed out that Herzog kind of distorted what one of his interviewees was saying in order to justify his title. We don’t know that the Chauvet cave paintings have anything to do with dreams. Sure, the nameless cro-magnons who painted the paintings probably dreamed about ibex and horses, but probably the reason they painted them is that they SAW them regularly. Herzog also goes off on a mad spree to a nearby nuclear power station where the water from the coolers has produced a microclimate in which, we are told, albino crocodiles have arisen.

Herzog, of course, can’t help seeing this as some kind of allegory for something. But Herzogian allegories, like albino crocodiles, are strange, mutant beasts. Britta in the TV show Community helpfully defines an allegory as “a thought wearing another thought’s hat” (which is lovely because her definition is itself a kind of allegory) but Herzog’s thoughts always seem to mistake their wives for hats. Like the dwarfs who started small or the man who pulled a ship up a mountain, they never quite translate one thing into another without a lot of leftover bits sticking out. Still, I was grateful for the opportunity to see the pallid reptiles, and stereoscopically too.

Also: our friend Donald was particularly scornful of the way, when a scientist suggests simply listening to the sound of the cave, Herzog can’t resist almost immediately fading up a heartbeat and music. A relatively rare failure of the poetic imagination from the maker of KASPAR HAUSER.

The 3D is gorgeous. I even found it enhanced by the low-quality video from Herzog’s recce. As has often been remarked, the film focusses on flat line drawings, but drawn on the contours of curving walls, so a lot of the movie is looking at fairly subtle spacial gradations — a nice, tasteful use of the medium. But Herzog also had a guy demonstrating cro-magnon weaponry, who sticks a spear right in our faces. Subtlety is most effective when contrasted with its opposite. Ask Ken Russell.

And those cave walls are sometimes very curvy indeed. One daubing of a woman with possibly an animal head encircles a chubby stalactite so Herzog has to stick his camera on a pole to see around it — he’s not allowed off a walkway in the cave — like the time travelers in Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder. Leaving the path could disturb the past.

Herzog even has fun with the superimposed titles which identify his interviewees. I was amused by the floating subtitles in AVATAR (I guess the filmmaker has to choose a specific depth for them, they simple CAN’T be flat, but it was funny when, in an O.S. shot the foreground shoulder was closer than the subtitle. Don’t move left, Neytiri, we won’t be able to read what Eytukan is saying! When Herzog arrays two interviews at different distances, he does the same with their titles. he’s a puckish fellow, is Werner.

We also get drone shots of the surrounding countryside, but the handheld traversing of narrow paths is even better. Everything about the Cro-magnon lifestyle and environment, it seems, is perfectly suited to 3D, or else to Werner’s eye. I’ve noticed that filmmakers tend to get better at 3D on their second try — I hope we get another in-depth outing from Herzog.

Fitz and Starts

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 24, 2017 by dcairns

I got lucky and blundered upon a copy of Werner Herzog’s Conquest of the Useless in a charity shop. £2. Possibly £2 wasted, since I bought his earlier book Of Walking in Ice and never read it properly. In that one, Herzog walks from, I think Paris to Berlin, or something like that. curiously enough, he apparently doesn’t meet anyone along the way, so has plenty of time to think. Conquest of the Useless seems more interesting, though.

I didn’t know the book existed and yet I’d SEEN it. Let me explain, lest I be suspected of indulgence in symbolism. In MY BEST FIEND, the movie Herzog made about his (dysfunctional) working relationship with Klaus Kinski, he mentions a memoir he wrote while shooting FITZCARRALDO (or, as my film school tutor called it, MAD KLAUS GOES UP THE RIVER AGAIN). We are shown the book, and it’s tiny, with little crabbed runic writing injected into it, the kind of script used for writing the Lord’s Prayer on a grain of rice. “You had that published, didn’t you?” asks Claudia Cardinale. “No. Afterwards I was afraid to read it,” says Werner, mournfully.


But apparently a few years back, Werner got over his decades of fear and the book WAS published, and now I stood in a charity shop holding a far heftier version of it than the one I’d seen onscreen. I weigh the book, and my options. £2 isn’t very much, but it would be £2 wasted if I’m never going to read it. Which Herzog am I going to get?

The Herzog we meet in BURDEN OF DREAMS, the FITZCARRALDO making-of doc by the late Les Blank, is a man I don’t care for too much. Told that the mechanism for dragging a boat up a hill is prone to failure, and if it fails it might kill a lot of workers, he proceeds anyway. His laments about the jungle, “Even the birds, I don’t think they sing, I think they shriek in terror,” strike me as adolescent. This man, I feel, might have saved himself the trouble of towing a ship up a hill, at risk of human life, and merely painted his bedroom black.

To be fair, the guy does look like he’s suffering whatever they call Post-Traumatic Stress when the trauma’s not actually over yet.

But the Herzog we meet in MY BEST FIEND is a revelation — the film is hilarious. It’s not obvious whether Werner is in on the joke, but that’s a film I can quote long stretches from, in my shaky but recognisable Herzog imitation (go sibilant, extend your Fs and Ss, and do weird things with vowels: if in doubt, use the OW sound anywhere you like). This film is like my SPINAL TAP. “He screamed and ranted in the bathroom for six hours straight. The sink and toilet were smashed up so fine you could strain them through a tennis racket. The police came… but they left him in peace.”

Then Herzog appeared in Zack Penn’s INCIDENT AT LOCH NESS, a mockumentary, and a good one (also the only good Loch Ness Monster unless you count THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES) and it seemed he did indeed know he was being funny. He had discovered his comic persona, the way Harold Lloyd did when he put on glasses or Chaplin did when he assembled the tramp costume or Ricky Gervaise did when some helpful fellow told him he was a c*nt.

I open Conquest of the Useless at Random and read ~

Across from the wretched Pucallpa airport is a bar with a beautiful monkey, black, with limbs that go on forever. He looks very intelligent and would make the ideal companion for Fitz. A drunk spat at the monkey and almost hit him from behind. The monkey inspected and sniffed with great interest at this globule from the depths of an unhealthy lung, as it lay on the ground, greenish-yellow and steaming. It looked as though the monkey wanted to eat the spit, or at least taste it. I said silently to him, Leave it, leave it alone, and he let it be.

The police came, but they left him in peace. Laughing delightedly, I buy the book, though I remain worried about that monkey, remembering the poor little chap from the end of AGUIRRE (and the poor little Indians nearly killed hauling that ship up an incline).

Monkey has typical reaction to co-starring with Mad Klaus.