Thursday, October 25, 2007

Encounters with Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog's latest film, Encounters at the End of the World, screened at a few film festivals over the past few months and likely won't see a release for quite some time. But a couple of nights ago, I had the unique opportunity to see the film. It was part of a series running all of this week organized by the University of Pennsylvania's Cinema Studies Program. The focus of the series is Werner Herzog, who is on hand here in Philadelphia and is partaking in conversations with various cinema professors through tonight. Last night, he spoke about 21st Century technology (which I did not attend), and tonight he'll be talking about ecstatic truth and how it connects to his thoughts on documenting, narrative, and filmmaking in a conversation with Karen Backman, the chair of Penn's Cinema Studies program.

As much as I'd enjoy going to an event where Werner Herzog discusses his work (as I am pretty sure I won't have the chance again in the future), I am not yet certain whether I will be able to attend the conversation this evening. I'd imagine it will probably be along the lines of topics he's been talking about at film forums and festivals lately, that being ecstatic truth, narrative, and lived experience in our contemporary technological culture. These are all topics of great interest to me -- much of my current study focuses on them. Which is why Herzog's films resonate so strongly with me. His documentaries in particular, guided by his softly relaxed voice and keen perspectives, function as deeply reflexive ruminations on narrative, communication, nature, perception, and technology.

A couple of months ago, when Herzog was in New York screening bits of Encounters at the End of the World (which was not yet complete), The Reeler featured an extensive article on Herzog, the film, and his preoccupation with ecstatic truth. Among the article's treasures is a section at the end featuring Herzog's quotes on various things. On ecstatic truth, he had this to say:

"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."

It all of course seems vague, but is rather deceptively articulate. The last line says it all: "I can't explain it much further". It seems that film journalists and critics everywhere have been trying to grasp ecstatic truth on the level of language. This, Herzog says in so few words, is not really possible. Ecstatic truth cannot be defined because that would impose a singularity on the concept; a singularity whose bounds are drawn by the structures of language. And while language is all that we have to comprehend our sensory perceptions and engagement in lived experience, Herzog insists on a deeper level of abstraction that transcends language, code, or fact; one made possible by cinema. That is the project of body of work; be they fiction, non-fiction, narrative, documentary, or whatever term you'd like to use. Herzog wants to break down the artificial barriers that constitute a very real understanding of lived experience. While we have structured it to be that way, cinema does not break down into narrative and documentary, fiction or nonfiction. It is more nuanced than that, but it only embodies that level of abstraction when filmmakers and viewers are willing to abandon these loose terms. This is Herzog's approach not just to cinema, but to lived experience as well. His greater project is probe the connections between cinema and life, by exploring the tropes, styles, and conventions of filmmaking and life in his inquiries into various events, figures, cultures, and pockets of existence.

Interestingly, the following quote in the article is Herzog's comments on the nature of reality, which, again, speaks to this larger notion of ecstatic truth that drives his work and his questions:

"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."

What he seems to be describing is convergence, wherein various media and technologies are intersecting in new and unforseen ways, contributing to our collective memory, psyche, and experience. Most of these media do not displace older media, but instead exist with them, as Henry Jenkins explains in his essential book, Convergence Culture. And so we have these many technologies and media colliding in millions of ways to constitute our existence, as they always have; extensions of ourselves. But now, with mechanical reproduction enabling an age of digital reproduction, we cannot even begin to understand a core identity or even launch a simple inquiry into human existence with science or mathematics. It's much more complicated; too complicated to explicate in structured thoughts.

These questions and observations underlie all of Herzog's films in different ways. In Encounters at the End of the World, he travels to the most remote location of this planet to observe the people who inhabit it. The film is comprised of a series of interviews with various scientisits, divers, and "dreamers", as Herzog calls them. He is not merely attempting to observe and gain insight into the desolate ice world and the planet, but also to understand what motivates the people who have elected to live there and study it. Herzog seems to believe that while human beings and nature cannot connect or live together in harmony, they constantly intersect, inevitably so, even in the the most far-off land, where people require the best of minds and technological access to survive at all. This tense relationship fueled his last documentary, Grizzly Man (2005), and while he isn't exploring life and death and the harsh collision of humans and nature, Herzog is nonetheless searching for something in his probing of the Antartic culture, wildlife, aquatic life, and the glaciers that move about the ice-cold waters.

By observing the idiosyncrasies and odditities of the continent's residents, Herzog captures both the beauty and absurdity of what they do. He uses voiceover to frame his questions and thoughts, some of which are practical and humorous, others more subliminal. Regarding Antartica and its residents, Herzog wants to understand their unique motivations, as he paints them as dreamers (as I mentioned above). But he also uses the voiceover to interject his own very estranged thoughts (i.e., distanced from their thoughts and thought-processes) in the form of hilarious observations such as "Her story goes on forever", which typically cut off the person talking. However, these hilarious moments are often times genuine, whether they're honest feelings of his or simply elongated takes of a given individual after she or he is finished talking; It's esepcially interesting to see how uncomfortable people become when they've said what they wanted to say but the camera keeps rolling, as if its stalking them. But these bits of humorous discomfort are never outwardly mocking of the interviewees. In fact, Herzog often finds real humanity in all of persons with whom he speaks in the most mundane or comedic of times. Whether he's enamored, bored, or "searching for something to talk about", Herzog often finds life in the simplest of ways.

He juxtaposes his encounters with the people of Antartica with some of the most awesome cinematic sequences of underwater footage. Throughout the film's 99 minutes, there are several long sequences underwater in which the camera follows divers down to explore the chilly depths underneath the ice. There is nothing overtly flashy about the images, yet they exude a real sense of discovery, as if the viewer is among the privelaged few to be able to see that which rests underneath the ice, which is a whole other world. We can observe this world, shoot it on film, and try to explain it with science, math, or language, but such attempts ultimately fail. Sometimes sounds and images stand for themselves. As is typical of Herzog's films, Encounters at the End of the World finds sublimity in the most seemingly mundane of ways; in patches of air traveling between the ocean and the ice that sits on top of it, in lone penguins who "walk to certain death", and in the ramblings of its many interviewees. The most outwardly poetic moments are those underwater, where the sea life seems almost alien in that it resembles nothing we have categorized into a species or form of life. Underneath the ice in Antartica, life eludes the human capacity to understand it. And in these sequences, whether underwater or in ice caves, Herzog rarely interjects with his own voice, except when observing peoples' strange ways of trying to connect with it. (Buried in a tunnel of ice is a frozen fish and strings of popcorn!)

With all his wanderings about this world "off the map" with no real understanding it, Herzog finds great clarity in balancing "Profound Moments" with seemingly pointless ones. He is utterly fascinated by everything, prompting him to contribute his own thoughts about it. After seeing the film and reflecting on its rather free-flowing tendencies and sensibilities, think I now understand a bit more why Herzog enjoys making documentaries, even though he keeps the term "documentary" at a distance. There are things so wonderfully strange and strangely wonderful about this film, which is more an exploration of a foreign land and culture. No "narrative" film or talking heads" documentary" could ever broach the eccentricities of the people interviewed and observed in this people, and no amount of creative framing or special effects could yield the kind of strange, almot too gloroius for words images of the lost world underneath the glaciers. With this style of documentary, Herzog can frame his own narrative and present this world as he sees it. He is the true master of this cinematic universe, and I must admit that it's a universe I love to lose myself in. In this universe, Herzog dives into different places of our shared world --or collective unconscious-- to observe how each of us interpret the very same matter and sensory perceptions differently, crafting our own worlds in the process.

Encounters at the End of the World is yet another attempt to explore ecstatic truth in one of the endless amounts of ways one can. It reminds of the true elusiveness that is cinema, which itself is a tool for experiencing ecstatic truth. It is a medium rich with possibility. Only with cinema can a filmmaker foster such a world in such a unique way so as to offer insight into how humans construct their own narratives and fancy their own worlds. It is a medium of many media, itself the true convergence of technologies and artistic perspectives developed and progressed over thousands of years to shape our consciousness, individually and collectively.

If I do happen to miss tonight's conversation with Herzog, I won't feel like I've missed on on something once in a lifetime. I say that because watching his films is itself a sort of personal experience with the filmmaker, like a conversation wherein I am constantly engaged in his thoughts and observations, which in turn provoke my own, which may thus inspire me to approach the film in a different or unique way. I find some version of this pattern occuring each time I watch a Herzog film, whether that's a narrative film or a documentary. But the greatness of his body of work is in the way in which he makes films collapses these broad frameworks that turn the cinematic experience into a process of structuring and categorizing.


Ed Howard said...

Sounds fascinating, thanks! A new Herzog documentary is always an important event for me, and if there's ever been a topic that seems absolutely tailor-made for Herzog's concerns and aesthetic, this is definitely it. Can't wait till I have a chance to see it as well!

Ted Pigeon said...

I have to admit I was surprised that the film wasn't more overtly about nature. That it balanced its ruminations on nature on the planet with encounters with the people of the continent is what made it such a strangely good movie. There's much more going on in it than you realize upon first seeing it, at which time it's more easy to just take in its easy going sensibilities. But just two days later, images and concepts from the film are haunting me.