I’ve spent the last three nights at the Film Forum downtown hypnotized by the work of Werner Herzog. The FF is doing a comprehensive retro of Herzog’s documentaries, providing the East Coast U.S. premieres (I’m not certain if these films have ever played the U.S. at all, but I’m certain several of them have never played NY and the surrounding environs before). Herzog may be best known for his crazed collaborations with Klaus Kinski, but his documentaries have taken up the bulk of his filmmaking career, and have kept him perpetually busy for the last four decades.
He has perfected his own specific style of non-fiction filmmaking in the last few years, providing his own English-language narration, to the effect that all of the individuals in his films, if they do not speak English to begin with, speak Werner-speak, a richly energetic and wonderfully inflected brand of our native language (think of it as the ultimate auteur statement, the kind of thing that Welles did when he would dub the bit actors in his later films).
His best-remembered films are all concerned with a journey, and eroding sanity in one form or another. I’ve seen films that are not “Herzogian” in any blatant fashion — tonight’s Jag Mandir was a straightforward chronicle of a very large performing arts celebration in India, that carried the filmmaker’s signature only in the duration of the shots and the rather idiosyncratic framing (medium shots for images of complicated physical action that would be best viewed in a very wide longshot). These hypnotic Herzog works are absolutely sublime, but the ones that the viewer will best able to recall and gab on about at some future time are those that deal with this notion of journey/erosion of sanity.
A TV-funded portrait, Death for Five Voices, offers the perfect Herzog protagonist, long-dead Carlo Gesualdo, a Prince who moonlighted as a classical music composer and committed a wholly Shakespearean murder (offed his wife and threw her on a monk’s stairs), had a perfectly amazing obsession (a briefly mentioned bit about a prehistoric disc containing a code — still unbroken to this day — that gave --- terminal insomnia, as he spent all hours of the late night trying to break the cipher), and just enough juicy details (did he die of the infected wounds caused by the nightly beatings he demanded from his servants?) to make the film unforgettable. All this sublime debauchery Herzog depicts with utter seriousness, punctuating the proceedings with Gesualdo’s gorgeous and centuries-ahead-of-their-times compositions, performed by classical quintets.
Herzog is the very last of a dying breed of cinematic adventurer. He curiously fuses F.W. Murnau and Frank Buck, at times has displayed the pugnacious genius of Norman Mailer and at others has betrayed a tremendously fragile and wistfully nostalgic view of civilization. To pay tribute to him, I offer a few minutes from the Les Blank short “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe,” the documenting of the peculiar incident in which Herzog made good on a bet he made with Errol Morris: if Morris actually finished his first feature, Gates of Heaven, Herzog stated he would eat his shoe (Morris was known for not completing his projects to that point). The film is a record of a stunt, but a stunt that Herzog was fully in control of — he uses the situation to make some very pointed remarks about American visual culture, the “clownish” lengths to which a filmmaker must go to promote his work (citing the great Orson as an example; this would be around the time of those Dean Martin roasts….), and praising Morris’ perfectly timeless Gates as a decisive work on “late capitalism” in America (the film is indeed one of the best-ever depictions of the American Dream in practice, and in a shambles).
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