Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Werner Herzog at Stanford

Last week Trev and I fulfilled a dream we did not know we had, which was seeing Werner Herzog live in conversation. We've watched many of his films on DVD and listened to the commentary, so we already knew his basic philosophy--"Nature is hostile"--and the more famous stories about trying to film Klaus Kinski and drag a ship over a hill in the jungle at the same time. So what did we learn? First, that Grizzly Man is possibly the most brilliant film ever made. Seeing it on the big screen (before the interview with Herzog) was stunning. I kept seeing parallels with To the Lighthouse, which I happened to be teaching last week. I doubt Herzog, the most macho of filmmakers, would appreciate the comparison; I'm also not sure my students bought it. But I tried to make a connection between the way Herzog "brackets" the audio recording of bears mauling Timothy Treadwell and Amy Huguenard to death with the bracketed sentence describing Mrs. Ramsay's death in TTL. "[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]" In the film, we find out that Treadwell's camera was rolling, but the lens cap was on, when he was killed. Herzog refuses to play the recording for us, the audience. Instead, he listens to it through headphones, and we see him from behind while Jewel Palovak, Treadwell's friend, watches Herzog's face and reacts. Here's a still, after he has just asked her to turn off the tape. In both cases there's a kind of privacy for the dying, and death becomes present through stumbling or wincing by the living. (For more about grief and the sense of a "phantom limb," see "Doubtful Arms and Phantom Limbs: Literary Portrayals of Embodied Grief" by James Krasner (PMLA 119:2, March 2004).)

What else did we learn? We did not love Rescue Dawn, the film screened on Tuesday night. Despite Herzog's protestations, it really did seem like a straight-on adventure (he hates the word "adventure") with no attention to moral complexities or the curious meanderings of his other films. It seems like he was too close to the subject, Dieter Dengler, and wanted to memorialize him as an ingenious hero; Dengler was dying while the film was being made. Also the actors playing prisoners, especially Jeremy Davies, lost way, way too much weight for their roles. Really, I am willing to suspend disbelief. Put some dirt on the guys' faces, give them some baggy clothes, and I'll happily believe they are prisoners. I'm not interested in weight loss as extreme film-making stunt.

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