May 22, 2007

Close Encounters of the Werner Kind

A sneak peek at unfinished doc reveals filmmaker's "ecstatic truth" about Antarctica (among other things)

By S.T. VanAirsdale

"I can't explain it much further": Werner Herzog speaking May 19 at the Goethe-Institut (Photo: STV)

Werner Herzog closed out his long weekend of lectures, presentations, Q&A's and general auteurist mayhem Monday night at Film Forum, where he chatted about one of many double features in the theater's ongoing Herzog [Non]Fiction series. They weren't even his films -- Herzog co-curated a sidebar of influential documentaries including Chris Marker's Sans Soleil and Jean Rouch's Les MaƮtres Fous to screen with his own titles -- but as companion pieces to four decades of nonfiction filmmaking, you could choose a lot worse.

The real story, however, may have occurred Saturday: As an offshoot of the retrospective and a celebration of Magnum Photos' 60th anniversary, Herzog visited the Goethe-Institut to screen excerpts from his work-in-progress Discovery Channel doc Encounters at the End of the World. Inspired by underwater footage overseen by accident during the scoring of Grizzly Man, Herzog traveled with a cinematographer to McMurdo Station, a sprawling US research outpost roughly 800 miles from the South Pole. There, his interludes with a community comprising everyone from scientists to cafeteria workers interlace with typically inquisitive treks though nature to view polar ice tunnels and colonies of seals whose calls could pass for prog-rock psychedelia.

"I have a recording of these seals," Herzog told a standing-room-only crowd, sharing a few secrets from the production. "I filmed with the scientists out there and went back to McMurdo. All of the sudden it dawned on me I missed something really big: I wanted them to listen to the ice. So I returned on the snowmobile -- about 15 or 20 miles out there -- and I told them I wanted to stage something. The sequence in which they are going down to the ground, and the one who is resting on his hands and listening to it, the positions and the timing and everything? It's utterly staged. They would never do anything like that, nor could they hear anything. Not any seal calls. I repeated it a couple of times and asked them to hold on and hold on until the ear of this lady was frozen to the ice. I had to apologize."

The tactic reflects Herzog's long-standing antipathy toward cinema verite in favor of the more abstract philosophy of "ecstatic truth." Acknowledging in his narration that he vowed not to return home with another "film about penguins," Encounters revisits the theme of man's relationship with nature -- particularly, the allure of Antarctica, a once-cruel continent boasting its own human society (even an ATM!) a century after the "Heroic Age" of explorers like Amundsen, Shackleton and Scott. "Who were these people I was going to meet in Antarctica at the end of the world?" Herzog asks during the long flight south. "What were their dreams?"

Among the dreamers: An Antarctic bus driver; a welder of royal Aztec lineage; a researcher captivated by the ice moving beneath his feet. Herzog attributes McMurdo's principal appeal to its culture -- "a natural selection for people with an urge to jump off the margins of the map," the filmmaker says. Indeed, Encounters depicts an ultimately unknowable continent symbolizing an evolutionary fringe, though that symbolism's full context was difficult to determine in the excerpts; there's an awfully frustrating impossibility in slides like "Drawing Missing: A chimp rides a goat into a sunset."

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At any rate, the results should be arrive on the Discovery Channel this fall, not too long after Herzog's new narrative feature, Rescue Dawn, lands in theaters. He had plenty else to say as well about both his work and current events -- from the definition of "ecstatic truth" to his loathing of meditation and the significance of... Anna Nicole Smith?

ON THE PURSUIT OF ECSTATIC TRUTH: " I think it's in all of us that we are trying to understand out human condition, and that we are here on this planet, in this life, for something that has more meaning than being part of a consumer society and then perish. Of course, that happens to all of us, and that's OK. But I've always had an almost religious sense of something deeper within creation. Something deep within our human condition. And something deeper within images per se, and the grammar of telling stories in terms of images. Ecstatic truth is not just an isolated thing I'm after; it's a much larger context of things that has engaged my mind throughout my working life. I can't explain it much further."

"We have a momentous and massive onslaught of new media -- new tools, new instruments -- an onslaught on our sense of reality. ... I cannot recall another period in history when we had such an enormous challenge. It reminds me of the medieval knights; they would do combat with sword and shield on horseback, and they had done that for centuries and centuries. Human combat used the be the same for millennia. And all of the sudden the medieval knight finds himself confronted with firearms and cannons -- cannon fire against him. And the entire attitude and the entire idea and practicality of warfare had to change almost overnight. The onslaught on reality that we realize nowadays has the same magnitude. And that's why I think the context of all the nonfiction films that I've made -- and those I've nominated by other filmmakers -- give a very good idea about what we are trying to be after."

"I knew there was something very momentous about her. I even forced a man who would normally never watch anything like that -- Roger Ebert. I told him, 'You must watch this. A poet must not avert his eyes.' So he finally watched it. Only from the moment on that she died did it (occur to) everyone: It was a very big cultural phenomenon, somehow -- some kind of collective dream not only in the United States. You find the same sort of adhering to her show in Argentina, or you'd probably find it in Asia or wherever you go. I always understood it as something very, very big. In a way I wish I could have done a film with her. But it's not possible anymore."

ON TELLING JEWEL PALOVAK TO DESTROY THE TREADWELL DEATH TAPE IN GRIZZLY MAN: "Well, that was an impulse of the moment. Her apartment was very narrow, and (the tape) was always sitting on the shelf. Wherever she moved in this little room, she could literally reach it by hand. So in the spontaneous shock, I said to her, 'You should never listen to it; you should rather destroy it.' That was stupid, but I left it in the film as it was. She has not destroyed it; she actually put it in a safety deposit box so it's not lingering around anymore."

ON MEDITATION: "I do not like people who meditate. When these monks in Tibet are sitting in a monastery, they meditate. Fine, yes, but if you see a Californian housewife meditating and doing yoga, it's an abomination. It doesn't feel right. I like people to come up with a clear train of thought and an argument. That's what I like. I'm not into any form of ambiguity, either in speech or in filmmaking. And yet I know filmmaking itself reaches far beyond a clear train of thought and the logic of computation and a formal system and references of things."

ON AN AUDIENCE MEMBER'S REQUEST TO BE HYPNOTIZED: "I could do it, but I would do it only if there was a higher reason. I would not do it as a gimmick for an audience. ... I had one case where an elderly refused to be woken up for two-and-a-half hours. In such moments it becomes a great responsibility, and you do not do it as a circus gimmick. I've actually hypnotized whole audience and showed films to them, trying to understand vision -- how vision functions within us. (There were) very astonishing reactions: I showed Aguirre: The Wrath of God, and one of the men who saw the film was in a helicopter constantly (flying) around Aguirre. He could see him from behind when he was looking at us onscreen; he could evade his gaze. But I gave it up very quickly when I started studying more about hypnotism. I'm not a dilettante, but you have to do it appropriately. So my answer stays no."

Film Forum's Herzog [Non]Fiction series continues through June 10; read Reeler and New York Press contributor Eric Kohn's recent Herzog feature for a great discussion of the work showcased in the program.

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