Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Werner Herzog

My ten creative books #10: A Guide for the Perplexed

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Note: I’m counting down ten books that have influenced the way that I think about the creative process, in order of the publication dates of their first editions. It’s a very personal list that reflects my own tastes and idiosyncrasies, and I’m always looking for new recommendations. You can find the earlier installments here.

As regular readers know, I’m a Werner Herzog fan, but not a completist—I’ve seen maybe five of his features and three or four of his documentaries, which leaves a lot of unexplored territory, and I’m not ashamed to admit that Woyzeck put me to sleep. Yet Herzog himself is endlessly fascinating. Daniel Zalewski’s account of the making of Rescue Dawn is one of my five favorite articles ever to appear in The New Yorker, and if you’re looking for an introduction to his mystique, there’s no better place to start. For a deeper dive, you can turn to A Guide for the Perplexed, an expanded version of a collection of the director’s interviews with Paul Cronin, which was originally published more than a decade ago. As I’ve said here before, I regret the fact that I didn’t pick up the first edition when I had the chance, and I feel that my life would have been subtly different if I had. Not only is it the first book I’d recommend to anyone considering a career in filmmaking, it’s almost the first book I’d recommend to anyone considering a career in anything at all. It’s huge, but every paragraph explodes with insight, and you can open it to any page and find yourself immediately transfixed. Here’s one passage picked at random:

Learn to live with your mistakes. Study the law and scrutinize contracts. Expand your knowledge and understanding of music and literature, old and modern. Keep your eyes open. That roll of unexposed celluloid you have in your hand might be the last in existence, so do something impressive with it. There is never an excuse not to finish a film. Carry bolt cutters everywhere.

Or take Herzog’s description of his relationship with his cinematographer: “Peter Zeitlinger is always trying to sneak ‘beautiful’ shots into our films, and I’m forever preventing it…Things are more problematic when there is a spectacular sunset on the horizon and he scrambles to set up the camera to film it. I immediately turn the tripod 180 degrees in the other direction.”

And this doesn’t even touch on Herzog’s stories, which are inexhaustible. He provides his own point of view on many famous anecdotes, like the time he was shot on camera while being interviewed by the BBC—the bullet was stopped by a catalog in his jacket pocket, and he asked to keep going—or how he discouraged Klaus Kinski from abandoning the production of Aguirre: The Wrath of God. (“I told him I had a rifle…and that he would only make it as far as the next bend in the river before he had eight bullets in his head. The ninth would be for me.”) We see Herzog impersonating a veterinarian at the airport to rescue the monkeys that he needed for Aguirre; forging an impressive document over the signature of the president of Peru to gain access to locations for Fitzcarraldo; stealing his first camera; and shooting oil fires in Kuwait under such unforgiving conditions that the microphone began to melt. Herzog is his own best character, and he admits that he can sometimes become “a clown,” but his example is enough to sustain and nourish the rest of us. In On Directing Film, David Mamet writes:

But listen to the difference between the way people talk about films by Werner Herzog and the way they talk about films by Frank Capra, for example. One of them may or may not understand something or other, but the other understands what it is to tell a story, and he wants to tell a story, which is the nature of dramatic art—to tell a story. That’s all it’s good for.

Herzog, believe it or not, would agree, and he recommends Casablanca and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as examples of great storytelling. And the way in which Herzog and Capra’s reputations have diverged since Mamet wrote those words, over twenty years ago, is illuminating in itself. A Guide for the Perplexed may turn out to be as full of fabrications as Capra’s own memoirs, but they’re the kind of inventions, like the staged moments in Herzog’s “documentaries,” that get at a deeper truth. As Herzog says of another great dreamer: “The difference between me and Don Quixote is, I deliver.”

Lessons of darkness

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Yesterday night, while browsing through the movies available on Netflix, I stumbled across Werner Herzog’s documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. I’d never seen it, so I put it on, and I was immediately entranced—it’s one of the most fascinating films I’ve ever seen. By now, the story is a familiar one, both through Herzog’s initial treatment of the material and his return to it in the movie Rescue Dawn. Dieter Dengler was born in Germany in 1938, fell in love with the idea of flying, emigrated to the United States to join the Air Force, and was shot down on his first bombing run over Laos. After his capture, torture, and imprisonment, he made a bloody escape, survived a barefoot trek through the jungle and downriver, and was rescued six months after his disappearance. Herzog never forgot the news reports, and in the finished film, which consists almost entirely of Dengler recounting his memories to the camera, he sticks mostly to the facts. Occasionally, he indulges in a heightening touch, as in a scene when Dengler arrives at his house in the Bay Area. As Herzog reveals in his wonderful book A Guide for the Perplexed:

When he gets out of his car, Dieter repeatedly opens and closes the car door before walking to the front door, which he again opens and closes. Eventually he goes inside. This is a scene I created…“Open and close your front door a couple of times,” I said, “then talk about the door as a symbol of freedom.” He hesitated and said, “I’ll look weird to my buddies.” What finally convinced him was when I told him how charming the ladies would think it was.

There are a few other staged moments, and most of them draw attention to themselves, as when Dengler delivers a monologue on death while standing before an aquarium tank of glowing jellyfish. For the most part, he seems happy to indulge Herzog, and we only gradually become aware of the reservoir of emotion and endurance behind his air of guilelessness. We never see Herzog, who speaks only in voiceover, but the film slowly reveals itself as a dialogue with a subject for whom the director feels nothing but respect. Herzog has made a point of cultivating his own mythology, and he more than lives up to it in practice, most famously when he was shot while talking to the BBC and made a point of finishing the interview. But he’s the one who really seems obsessed with jails, locks, and doors. In A Guide to the Perplexed, he tells us: “There is nothing wrong with spending a night in a jail cell if it means getting the shot you need.” A few lines later, he follows it with perhaps my favorite piece of advice for all aspiring artists: “Carry bolt cutters everywhere.” We can only imagine his feelings when confronted with Dengler, who, even in civilian life, is the epitome of the competent man. In his youth, he trained as a tool-and-die maker and a blacksmith, rebuilt church clocks, and willed himself into his dream job as a pilot. (Robert A. Heinlein would have loved him.) In the film, he nonchalantly shows us how to make a fire using two tubes of bamboo and how to escape from handcuffs using a paper clip, noting casually that it’s a skill that might come in handy. When Dengler displays the drums of rice and honey that he keeps under the floor of his house, just in case he needs them, you can sense Herzog nodding in agreement behind the camera.

Yet the film is also a remarkable interrogation of the myth of competence, and the ways in which it seems inseparable from luck, good timing, and even destiny. After years of trying to become a pilot, Dengler was shot down forty minutes into his first mission. In his escape from the camp, seven other prisoners got away, and five were never heard from again. The man with whom he fled, Duane W. Martin, was beheaded by a villager, and Dengler only narrowly escaped. A few weeks later, on the verge of death, he was rescued by the purest chance, when an American pilot happened to see a flash of white at the bend in the river. Only an extraordinary personality would have survived at all, but Dengler had been placed in a situation in which training, intelligence, and endurance were necessary, but not sufficient. There are obvious parallels to the American experience in Vietnam, but Herzog resists them, presumably because he doesn’t find them all that interesting. What intrigues him is the idea of competence pressed to its limits, which Dengler was forced to experience, while Herzog has actively courted it for his entire life. In a profile in The New Yorker that I’ve never forgotten, published before the release of Rescue Dawn, Daniel Zalewski quotes Herzog’s first assistant director Josef Lieck:

I have formed this theory that Werner has, probably from midpuberty, been trying very hard to die a grand, poetic death. Whenever there is anything dangerous, you can be sure he’ll run out to do it first. But I think he will have his grand, poetic death in a different way. I think he will live to be a hundred and five. He’ll have tried all his life to get chopped to pieces or fall from a helicopter, and, in the end, he will die on his pillowcase.

It isn’t clear yet how Herzog will die, a prospect that fills me with more dread than that of any other celebrity. But we know a little about how Dengler passed away. In A Guide for the Perplexed, Herzog only says: “[Dieter] died some years ago of Lou Gehrig’s disease, and the first thing the illness took was his power of speech. How scandalous that in his final days he was bereft of words…He died…a few years after Little Dieter Needs to Fly was released, having battled the disease like a warrior.” In fact, he shot himself in front of a fire station, and you can read a lot into Herzog’s unusual reticence. Dengler, a fundamentally gentle man, was repeatedly confronted by the kind of physical and spiritual struggle that Herzog seeks out, and the comparison only makes the director seem more like “a clown,” as he once described himself, particularly in the way in which he drags along his collaborators. (My favorite moment in Zalewski’s profile comes when Herzog dismisses a safety issue in a scene involving Christian Bale, who erupts: “I am not going to feckin’ die for you, Werner!”) It’s been a quarter of a century since Little Dieter was released, but I’m glad that I saw it only now, at a point in my life when I can better understand Herzog’s awe toward his subject:

What I continue to find wondrous is that Dieter emerged from his experiences without so much as a hint of bitterness; he was forever able to bear the misery with great optimism. Dieter had such an impressive and jubilant attitude to life, able to brush his experiences aside and deal with them, never making a fuss. He has been a role model for me, and even today when I am in a complicated situation I ask myself, “What would Dieter do?”

Written by nevalalee

May 31, 2018 at 9:09 am

Tales from The Far Side

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"They're lighting their arrows!"

Note: I’m taking a few days off for the holidays, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 27, 2016.

Last year, when I finally saw The Revenant—it wasn’t a movie that my wife particularly wanted to see, so I had to wait for one of the rare weekends when she was out of town—it struck me as an exquisitely crafted film that was very hard to take seriously. Alejandro G. Iñárittu, despite his obvious visual gifts, may be the most pretentious and least self-aware director at work today—which is one reason why Birdman fell so flat in my eyes—and I would have liked The Revenant a lot more if it had allowed itself to smile a little at how absurd its story was. (Even the films of someone like Werner Herzog include flashes of dark humor, and I suspect that Herzog, who doesn’t lack for pretension, also actively seeks out such moments, even if he maintains his poker face throughout.) About five minutes after the movie began, I realized that I was fundamentally out of sync with it. It happened during the scene in which the fur trappers find themselves under attack by an Arikara war party, which announces itself, in classic fashion, with an unexpected arrow through a supporting character’s throat. A few seconds later, the camera pans up to show more arrows, now on fire, arcing through the trees overhead. It’s an eerie sight, and it’s given the usual glow by Emmanuel Lubezki’s luminous cinematography. But I’ll confess that when I first saw it, I said to myself: “Hey! They’re lighting their arrows! Can they do that?”

It’s a caption from a Far Side cartoon, of course, and it started me thinking about the ways in which the work of Gary Larson has imperceptibly shaped my inner life. I’ve spoken here before about how quotations from The Simpsons provide a complete metaphorical language for fans, like the one that Captain Picard learns in “Darmok.” You could do much the same thing with Larson’s captions, and there are a lot of fluent speakers out there. Peanuts is still the comic strip that has meant the most to me, and I count myself lucky that I grew up at a time when I could read most of Calvin and Hobbes in its original run. Yet both of these strips, like Bloom County, lived most vividly for me in the form of collections, and in the case of Peanuts, its best years were long behind it. The Far Side, by contrast, obsessed me on a daily basis, more than any other comic strip of its era. When I was eight years old, I spent a few months diligently cutting out all the panels from my local paper and pasting them into a scrapbook, which is an impulse that I haven’t felt since. Two decades later, I got a copy of The Complete Far Side for Christmas, which might still be my favorite present ever. Every three years so, I get bitten by the bug again, and I spend an evening or two with one of those huge volumes on my lap, going through the strip systematically from beginning to end. Its early years are a little rough, but they’re still wonderful, and it went out at its peak. And when I’m reading it in the right mood, there’s nothing else in the world that I’d rather be doing.

"Think there are any bears in this old cave?"

A gag panel might seem like the lowest form of comic, but The Far Side also had a weirdly novelistic quality that I’ve always admired as a writer. Larson’s style seemed easy to imitate—I think that every high school newspaper had a strip that verged on outright plagiarism—but his real gift was harder to pin down. It was the ability to take what seemed like an ongoing story, pause it, and offer it up to readers at a moment of defining absurdity. (Larson himself observes in The Prehistory of The Far Side: “Cartoons are, after all, little stories themselves, frozen at an interesting point in time.”) His ideas stick in the brain because we can’t help but wonder what happened before or afterward. Part of this because he cleverly employed all the usual tropes of the gag cartoon, which are fun precisely because of the imaginative fertility of the clichés they depict: the cowboys singing around a campfire, the explorers in pith helmets hacking their way through the jungle, the castaway on the desert island. But the snapshots in time that Larson captures are simultaneously so insane and so logical that the reader has no choice but to make up a story. The panel is never the inciting incident or the climax, but a ticklish moment somewhere in the middle. It can be the gigantic mailman knocking over buildings while a dog exhorts a crowd of his fellows: “Listen! The authorities are helpless! If the city’s to be saved, I’m afraid it’s up to us! This is our hour!” Or the duck hunter with a shotgun confronted by a row of apparitions in a hall of mirrors: “Ah, yes, Mr. Frischberg, I thought you’d come…but which of us is the real duck, Mr. Frischberg, and not just an illusion?”

In fact, you could easily go through a Far Side collection and use it as a series of writing prompts, like some demented version of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. I’ve occasionally thought about writing a story revolving around the sudden appearance of Professor DeArmond, “the epitome of evil among butterfly collectors,” or expanding on the incomparable caption: “Dwayne paused. As usual, the forest was full of happy little animals—but this time something seemed awry.” It’s hard to pick just one favorite, but the panel I’ve thought about the most is probably the one with the elephant in the trench coat, speaking in a low voice out of the darkness of the stairwell:

Remember me, Mr. Schneider? Kenya. 1947. If you’re going to shoot at an elephant, Mr. Schneider, you better be prepared to finish the job.

Years later, I spent an ungodly amount of time working on a novel, still unpublished, about an elephant hunt, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was inspired by this cartoon, I’m also not prepared to say that it wasn’t. I should also note Larson’s mastery of perfect proper names, which are harder to come up with than you might think: “Mr. Frischberg” and “Mr. Schneider” were both so nice that he said them twice. And it’s that inimitable mixture of the ridiculous and the specific that makes Larson such a model for storytellers. He made it to the far side thirty years ago, and we’re just catching up to him now.

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December 29, 2017 at 9:00 am

Broyles’s Law and the Ken Burns effect

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For most of my life as a moviegoer, I’ve followed a rule that has served me pretty well. Whenever the director of a documentary narrates the story in the first person, or, worse, appears on camera, I start to get suspicious. I’m not talking about movies like Roger and Me or even the loathsome Catfish, in which the filmmakers, for better or worse, are inherently part of the action, but about films in which the director inserts himself into the frame for no particular reason. Occasionally, I can forgive this, as I did with the brilliant The Cove, but usually, I feel a moment of doubt whenever the director’s voiceover begins. (In its worst form, it opens the movie with a redundant narration: “I first came across the story that you’re about to hear in the summer of 1990…”) But while I still think that this is a danger sign, I’ve recently concluded that I was wrong about why. I had always assumed that it was a sign of ego—that these directors were imposing themselves on a story that was really about other people, because they thought that it was all about them. In reality, it seems more likely that it’s a solution to a technical problem. What happens, I think, is that the director sits down to review his footage and discovers that it can’t be cut together as a coherent narrative. Perhaps there are are crucial scenes or beats missing, but the events that the movie depicts are long over, or there’s no budget to go back and shoot more. An interview might bridge the gaps, but maybe this isn’t logistically feasible. In the end, the director is left with just one person who is available to say all the right things on the soundtrack to provide the necessary transitions and clarifications. It’s himself. In a perfect world, if he had gotten the material that he needed, he wouldn’t have to be in his own movie at all, but he doesn’t have a choice. It isn’t a failure of character, but of technique, and the result ends up being much the same.

I got to thinking about this after reading a recent New Yorker profile by Ian Parker of the documentarian Ken Burns, whose upcoming series on the Vietnam War is poised to become a major cultural event. The article takes an irreverent tone toward Burns, whose cultural status encourages him to speechification in private: “His default conversational setting is Commencement Address, involving quotation from nineteenth-century heroes and from his own previous commentary, and moments of almost rhapsodic self-appreciation. He is readier than most people to regard his creative decisions as courageous.” But Parker also shares a fascinating anecdote about which I wish I knew more:

In the mid-eighties, Burns was working on a deft, entertaining documentary about Huey Long, the populist Louisiana politician. He asked two historians, William Leuchtenburg and Alan Brinkley, about a photograph he hoped to use, as a part of the account of Long’s assassination; it showed him protected by a phalanx of state troopers. Brinkley told him that the image might mislead; Long usually had plainclothes bodyguards. Burns felt thwarted. Then Leuchtenburg spoke. He’d just watched a football game in which Frank Broyles, the former University of Arkansas coach, was a commentator. When the game paused to allow a hurt player to be examined, Broyles explained that coaches tend to gauge the seriousness of an injury by asking a player his name or the time of day; if he can’t answer correctly, it’s serious. As Burns recalled it, Broyles went on, “But, of course, if the player is important to the game, we tell him what his name is, we tell him what time it is, and we send him back in.”

Hence Broyles’s Law: “If it’s super-important, if it’s working, you tell him what his name is, and you send him back into the game.” Burns decided to leave the photo in the movie. Parker continues:

Was this, perhaps, a terrible law? Burns laughed. “It’s a terrible law!” But, he went on, it didn’t let him off the hook, ethically. “This would be Werner Herzog’s ‘ecstatic truth’—‘I can do anything I want. I’ll pay the town drunk to crawl across the ice in the Russian village.’” He was referring to scenes in Herzog’s Bells from the Deep, which Herzog has been happy to describe, and defend, as stage-managed. “If he chooses to do that, that’s okay. And then there are other people who’d rather do reenactments than have a photograph that’s vague.” Instead, Burns said, “We do enough research that we can pretty much convince ourselves—in the best sense of the word—that we’ve done the honorable job.”

The reasoning in this paragraph is a little muddled, but Burns seems to be saying that he isn’t relying on “the ecstatic truth” of Herzog, who blurs the line between fiction and reality, or the reenactments favored by Errol Morris, who sometimes seems to be making a feature film interspersed with footage of talking heads. Instead, Burns is assembling a narrative solely out of primary sources, and if an image furthers the viewer’s intellectual understanding or emotional engagement, it can be included, even if it isn’t strictly accurate. These are the compromises that you make when you’re determined to use nothing but the visuals that you have available, and you trust in your understanding of the material to tell whether or not you’ve made the “honorable” choice.

On some level, this is basically what every author of nonfiction has to consider when assembling sources, which involves countless judgment calls about emphasis, order, and selection, as I’ve discussed here before. But I’m more interested in the point that this emerges from a technical issue inherent to the form of the documentary itself, in which the viewer always has to be looking at something. When the perfect image isn’t available, you have a few different options. You can ignore the problem; you can cut to an interview subject who tells the viewers about what they’re not seeing; or you can shoot a reenactment. (Recent documentaries seem to lean heavily on animation, presumably because it’s cheaper and easier to control in the studio.) Or, like Burns, you can make do with what you have, because that’s how you’ve defined the task for yourself. Burns wants to use nothing but interviews, narration, and archival materials, and the technical tricks that we’ve come to associate with his style—like the camera pan across photos that Apple actually calls the Ken Burns effect—arise directly out of those constraints. The result is often brilliant, in large part because Burns has no choice but to think hard about how to use the materials that he has. Broyles’s Law may be “terrible,” but it’s better than most of the alternatives. Burns has the luxury of big budgets, a huge staff, and a lot of time, which allows him to be fastidious about his solutions to such problems. But a desperate documentary filmmaker, faced with no money and a hole in the story to fill, may have no other recourse than to grab a microphone, sit down in the editing bay, and start to speak: “I first came across the story that you’re about to hear in the summer of 1990…”

Written by nevalalee

September 11, 2017 at 9:12 am

Blazing the trail

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When I’m looking for insights into writing, I often turn to the nonliterary arts, and the one that I’ve found the most consistently stimulating is film editing. This is partially because the basic problem that a movie editor confronts—the arrangement and distillation of a huge mass of unorganized material into a coherent shape—is roughly analogous to what a writer does, but at a larger scale and under conditions of greater scrutiny and pressure, which encourages the development of pragmatic technical solutions. This was especially true in the era before digital editing. As Walter Murch, my hero, has pointed out, one minute of film equals a pound of celluloid. A movie like Apocalypse Now generates something like seven tons of raw footage, so an editor, as Murch notes, needs “a strong back and arms.” At the same time, incredibly, he or she also has to keep track of the location of individual frames, which weigh just a few thousandths of an ounce. With such software tools as Final Cut Pro, this kind of bookkeeping becomes relatively easier, and I doubt that many professional editors are inclined to be sentimental about the old days. But there’s also a sense in which wrestling with celluloid required habits of mind and organization that are slowly being lost. In A Guide for the Perplexed, which I once described as the first book I’d recommend to anyone about almost anything, Werner Herzog writes:

I can edit almost as fast as I can think because I’m able to sink details of fifty hours of footage into my mind. This might have something to do with the fact that I started working on film, when there was so much celluloid about the place that you had to know where absolutely every frame was. But my memory of all this footage never lasts long, and within two days of finishing editing it becomes a blur in my mind.

On a more practical level, editing a movie means keeping good notes, and all editors eventually come up with their own system. Here’s how Herzog describes his method:

The way I work is to look through everything I have—very quickly, over a couple of days—and make notes. For all my films over the past decade I have kept a logbook in which I briefly describe, in longhand, the details of every shot and what people are saying. I know there’s a particularly wonderful moment at minute 4:13 on tape eight because I have marked the description of the action with an exclamation point. These days my editor Joe Bini and I just move from one exclamation point to the next; anything unmarked is almost always bypassed. When it comes to those invaluable clips with three exclamation marks, I tell Joe, “If these moments don’t appear in the finished film, I have lived in vain.”

What I like about Herzog’s approach to editing is its simplicity. Other editors, including Murch, keep detailed notes on each take, but Herzog knows that all he has to do is flag it and move on. When the time comes, he’ll remember why it seemed important, and he has implicit faith in the instincts of his past self, which he trusts to steer him in the right direction. It’s like blazing a trail through the woods. A few marks on a tree or a pile of stones, properly used, are all you need to indicate the path, but instead of trying to communicate with hikers who come after you, you’re sending a message to yourself in the future. As Herzog writes: “I feel safe in my skills of navigation.”

Reading Herzog’s description of his editorial notes, I realized that I do much the same thing with the books that I read for my work, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. Whenever I go back to revisit a source, I’ll often see underlinings or other marks that I left on a previous pass, and I naturally look at those sections more closely, in order to remind myself why it seemed to matter. (I’ve learned to mark passages with a single vertical line in the outer margin, which allows me to flip quickly through the book to scan for key sections.) The screenwriter William Goldman describes a similar method of signaling to himself in his great book Which Lie Did I Tell?, in which he talks about the process of adapting novels to the screen:

Here is how I adapt and it’s very simple: I read the text again. And I read it this time with a pen in my hand—let’s pick a color, blue. Armed with that, I go back to the book, slower this time than when I was a traveler. And as I go through the book word by word, page by page, every time I hit anything I think might be useful—dialogue line, sequence, description—I make a mark in the margin…Then maybe two weeks later, I read the book again, this time with a different color pen…And I repeat the same marking process—a line in the margin for anything I think might make the screenplay…When I am done with all my various color-marked readings—five or six of them—I should have the spine. I should know where the story starts, where it ends. The people should be in my head now.

Goldman doesn’t say this explicitly, but he implies that if a passage struck him on multiple passes, which he undertook at different times and states of mind, it’s likely to be more useful than one that caught his eye only once. Speaking of a page in Stephen King’s novel Misery that ended up with six lines in the margin—it’s the scene in which Annie cuts off Paul’s foot—Goldman writes: “It’s pretty obvious that whatever the spine of the piece was, I knew from the start it had to pass through this sequence.”

And a line or an exclamation point is sometimes all you need. Trying to keep more involved notes can even be a hindrance: not only do they slow you down, but they can distort your subsequent impressions. If a thought is worth having, it will probably occur to you each time you encounter the same passage. You often won’t know its true significance until later, and in the meantime, you should just keep going. (This is part of the reason why Walter Mosley recommends that writers put a red question mark next to any unresolved questions in the first draft, rather than trying to work them out then and there. Stopping to research something the first time around can easily turn into a form of procrastination, and when you go back, you may find that you didn’t need it at all.) Finally, it’s worth remembering that an exclamation point, a line in the margin, or a red question mark are subtly different on paper than on a computer screen. There are plenty of ways to flag sections in a text document, and I often use the search function in Microsoft Word that allows me to review everything I’ve underlined. But having a physical document that you periodically mark up in ink has benefits of its own. When you repeatedly go back to the same book, manuscript, or journal over the course of a project, you find that you’ve changed, but the pages have stayed the same. It starts to feel like a piece of yourself that you’ve externalized and put in a safe place. You’ll often be surprised by the clues that your past self has left behind, like a hobo leaving signs for others, or Leonard writing notes to himself in Memento, and it helps if the hints are a little opaque. Faced with that exclamation point, you ask yourself: “What was I thinking?” And there’s no better way to figure out what you’re thinking right now.

Written by nevalalee

April 20, 2017 at 9:08 am

The glory of being a clown

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Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus souvenir program

When I was younger, there was a period in which I seriously considered becoming a clown. To understand why, you need to know two things. The first is that a clown lives out of a trunk. I was probably about six years old when I saw the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for the first time—it was the year that featured the notorious “living unicorn”—and I don’t remember much about the show itself. What I recall most vividly is the souvenir program, which I brought home and read to pieces. It was packed with information about the performers and their lives, but the tidbit that made the greatest impression on me was the fact that they’re always on the road: they travel by train, and if you want to be a clown, you need to fit all your possessions into that trunk. As a kid, I was always fantasizing about running off to live with nothing, relying on luck and my wits, and this seemed like the ultimate example. It fascinated me for the same reason that I’ve always been intrigued by buskers, except that a clown doesn’t work alone: he’s part of a community of circus folk with their own language and traditions who have managed to survive while moving from one gig to the next. I’ve written here before of how ephemeral the career of a dancer can seem, but clowning takes it to another level. It lacks even the superficial glamor of dance, leaving you with nothing but the life of which Homer Simpson once lamented: “When I started this clown thing, I thought it would be nothing but glory. You know, the glory of being a clown?”

The other important thing about clowns is that they have a college. (Or at least they did when I was growing up, although the original Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College closed its doors nearly twenty years ago.) I first read about clown college in that souvenir program, and I don’t think I’ve ever gotten over the discovery that it existed. Even now, I can recite the description of the curriculum almost from memory. Tuition was free, but students had to pay for their own room, board, and grease paint. Subjects included costume and makeup design, tumbling, acrobatics, pantomime, juggling, stilt walking, and the history of comedy. The one catch is that if the circus offered you a contract at the end of the term, you were obliged to accept it for a year. Its graduates, I later learned, included Penn Gillette, Bill Irwin, and David Strathairn. But what stuck me the most was that this was a place where instructors and students could come together to discuss something as peculiar as the theory and practice of clowning. When I look back at it, it seems possible that it was my first exposure to the idea of college of any kind, and the basic appeal of it never changed, even when I traded my fantasies of Venice, Florida for Cambridge, Massachusetts. You could argue that learning how to become a clown is more practical than majoring in creative writing or film studies. And in each case, it allows an unlikely community to form around people who are otherwise persistently odd.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus souvenir program

It’s that sense of collective effort in the pursuit of strangeness, I think, that makes the circus so enticing. When we talk about running off to join the circus, what we’re actually saying is that we want to leave our responsibilities behind and join a troupe of likeminded individuals: free artists of themselves who require nothing but a vacant lot in order to put on a show. If I was saddened by the recent news that Ringling Bros. is closing after well over a century of operation, it’s because I feel a sense of loss at the end of the dream that it represented. There were aspects of the circus that deserved to be retired, and I wasn’t sorry when they finally put an end to their animal acts. But I never dreamed about being a lion tamer. I identified with the clowns, the trapeze artists, the acrobats, the contortionists, and all the others who symbolized the romance of devoting a life to a form of art that is inherently transient. To some extent, this is true of every artist, but what sets the circus apart is that its performers do it together, on the road, and for years on end. Directors like Fellini and Max Ophüls have been instinctively drawn to circus imagery, because it captures something fundamental about what they do for a living: they’re ringmasters with the ability to harness chaos for just long enough to make a movie. Yet this isn’t quite the same thing. A film, in theory, is something permanent, but a circus is over as soon as the show ends, and to make it last, you have to keep up the act forever.

And I’ve gradually come to realize that I did become a clown, at least in all the ways that count. (As Werner Herzog observes in Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe: “As you see [filmmaking] makes me into a clown. And that happens to everyone—just look at Orson Welles or look at even people like Truffaut. They have become clowns.”) I spent four years at college studying two dead languages that I haven’t used since graduation, which is either a cosmic joke in itself or an acknowledgment that the knowledge you acquire is less important than the fact that you’ve pursued it in the company of others. Later, I left my job to become a writer, an activity that I’ve since begun to understand is as ephemeral, in some respects, as that of a clown or ballet dancer: few of its fruits last for any longer than the time it takes to write them down, and you’re left with nothing but the process. Along the way, I’ve successively joined and departed from various communities of people who share the same goals. We’ve never traveled on a real train together, but we’re all bound for a common destination, and we’ve developed the same set of strategies to get there. The promise of the circus is that you can get paid for being a clown, if you’re willing to sacrifice every practical consideration and assume every indignity along the way, and that you’re not alone. In the end, the joke might be on you. But the joke is ultimately on all of us. And maybe the clowns are the only ones sane enough to understand this.

Written by nevalalee

January 16, 2017 at 9:32 am

Tales from The Far Side

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"They're lighting their arrows!"

Last week, I finally saw The Revenant. I know that I’m pretty late to the party here, but I don’t have a chance to watch a lot of movies for grownups in the theater these days, and it wasn’t a film that my wife particularly wanted to see, so I had to wait for one of the rare weekends when she was out of town. At this point, a full review probably isn’t of much interest to anyone, so I’ll confine myself to observing that it’s an exquisitely crafted movie that I found very hard to take seriously. Alejandro G. Iñárittu, despite his obvious visual gifts, may be the most pretentious and least self-aware director at work today—which is one reason why Birdman fell so flat for me—and I would have liked The Revenant a lot more if it had allowed itself to smile a little at how absurd it all was. (Even the films of someone like Werner Herzog include flashes of dark humor, and I suspect that Herzog actively seeks out these moments, even if he maintains a straight face.) And it took me about five minutes to realize that the movie and I were fundamentally out of sync. It happened during the scene in which the fur trappers find themselves under attack by an Arikara war party, which announces itself, in classic fashion, with a sudden arrow through a character’s throat. A few seconds later, the camera pans up to show more arrows, now on fire, arcing through the trees overhead. It’s an eerie sight, and it’s given the usual glow by Emmanuel Lubezki’s luminous cinematography. But I’ll confess that when I first saw it, I said to myself: “Hey! They’re lighting their arrows! Can they do that?”

It’s a caption from a Far Side cartoon, of course, and it started me thinking about the ways in which the work of Gary Larson has imperceptibly shaped my inner life. I’ve spoken here before about how quotations from The Simpsons provide a kind of complete metaphorical language for fans, like the one that Captain Picard learns in “Darmok.” You could do much the same thing with Larson’s captions, and there are probably more fluent speakers alive than you might think. Peanuts is still the comic strip that has meant the most to me, and I count myself lucky that I grew up at a time when I could read most of Calvin and Hobbes in its original run. Yet both of these strips, like Bloom County, lived most vividly for me in the form of collections, and in the case of Peanuts, its best years were long behind it. The Far Side, by contrast, obsessed me on a daily basis, more than any other comic strip of its era. When I was eight years old, I spent a few months diligently cutting out all the panels from my local paper and pasting them into a scrapbook, which is an impulse that I hadn’t felt before and haven’t felt since. Two decades later, I got a copy of The Complete Far Side for Christmas, which might still be my favorite present ever. Every three years so, I get bitten by the bug again, and I spend an evening or two with one of those huge volumes on my lap, going through the strip systematically from beginning to end. Its early years are rough and a little uncertain, but they’re still wonderful, and it went out when it was close to its peak. And when I’m reading it in the right mood, there’s nothing else in the world that I’d rather be doing.

"Think there are any bears in this old cave?"

A gag panel might seem like the lowest form of comic, but The Far Side also had a weirdly novelistic quality that I’ve always admired as a writer. Larson’s style seemed easy to imitate—I think that every high school newspaper had a strip that was either an homage or outright plagiarism—but his real gift was harder to pin down. It was the ability to take what feels like an ongoing story, pause it, and offer it up to readers at a moment of defining absurdity. (Larson himself says in The Prehistory of The Far Side: “Cartoons are, after all, little stories themselves, frozen at an interesting point in time.”) His ideas stuck in the brain because we couldn’t help but wonder what happened before or afterward. Part of this because he cleverly employed all the usual tropes of the gag cartoon, which are fun precisely because of the imaginative fertility of the clichés they depict: the cowboys singing around a campfire, the explorers in pith helmets hacking their way through the jungle, the castaway on the desert island. But the snapshots in time that Larson captures are both so insane and so logical that the reader has no choice but to make up a story. The panel is never the inciting incident or the climax, but a ticklish moment somewhere in the middle. It can be the gigantic mailman knocking over buildings while a dog exhorts a crowd of his fellows: “Listen! The authorities are helpless! If the city’s to be saved, I’m afraid it’s up to us! This is our hour!” Or the duck hunter with a shotgun confronted by a row of apparitions in a hall of mirrors: “Ah, yes, Mr. Frischberg, I thought you’d come…but which of us is the real duck, Mr. Frischberg, and not just an illusion?”

As a result, you could easily go through a Far Side collection and use it as a series of writing prompts, like a demented version of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. I’ve occasionally thought about writing a story revolving around the sudden appearance of Professor DeArmond, “the epitome of evil among butterfly collectors,” or expanding on the incomparable caption: “Dwayne paused. As usual, the forest was full of happy little animals—but this time something seemed awry.” It’s hard to pick just one favorite, but the panel I’ve thought about the most is probably the one with the elephant in the trench coat, speaking in a low voice out of the darkness of the stairwell:

Remember me, Mr. Schneider? Kenya. 1947. If you’re going to shoot at an elephant, Mr. Schneider, you better be prepared to finish the job.

Years later, I spent an ungodly amount of time working on a novel, still unpublished, about an elephant hunt, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was inspired by this cartoon, I’m also not prepared to say that it wasn’t. I should also note Larson’s mastery of perfect proper names, which are harder to come up with than you might think: “Mr. Frischberg” and “Mr. Schneider” were so nice that he said them twice. It’s that inimitable mixture of the ridiculous and the specific that makes Larson such a model for storytellers. He made it to the far side thirty years ago, and we’re just catching up to him now.

Written by nevalalee

September 27, 2016 at 8:58 am

The prankster principle

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Totoro in Toy Story 3

In an interview with McKinsey Quarterly, Ed Catmull of Pixar was recently asked: “How do you, as the leader of a company, simultaneously create a culture of doubt—of being open to careful, systematic introspection—and inspire confidence?” He replied:

The fundamental tension [at Pixar] is that people want clear leadership, but what we’re doing is inherently messy. We know, intellectually, that if we want to do something new, there will be some unpredictable problems. But if it gets too messy, it actually does fall apart. And adhering to the pure, original plan falls apart, too, because it doesn’t represent reality. So you are always in this balance between clear leadership and chaos; in fact that’s where you’re supposed to be. Rather than thinking, “Okay, my job is to prevent or avoid all the messes,” I just try to say, “well, let’s make sure it doesn’t get too messy.”

Which sounds a lot like the observation from the scientist Max Delbrück that I never tire of quoting: “If you’re too sloppy, then you never get reproducible results, and then you never can draw any conclusions; but if you are just a little sloppy, then when you see something startling, you [can] nail it down…I called it the ‘Principle of Limited Sloppiness.’”

Most artists are aware that creativity requires a certain degree of controlled messiness, and scientists—or artists who work in fields where science and technology play a central role, as they do at Pixar—seem to be particularly conscious of this. As the zoologist John Zachary Young said:

Each individual uses the store of randomness, with which he was born, to build during his life rules which are useful and can be passed on…We might therefore take as our general picture of the universe a system of continuity in which there are two elements, randomness and organization, disorder and order, if you like, alternating with one another in such a fashion as to maintain continuity.

I suspect that scientists feel compelled to articulate this point so explicitly because there are so many other factors that discourage it in the pursuit of ordinary research. Order, cleanliness, and control are regarded as scientific virtues, and for good reason, which makes it all the more important to introduce a few elements of disorder in a systematic way. Or, failing that, to acknowledge the usefulness of disorder and to tolerate it to a certain extent.

Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe

When you’re working by yourself, you find that both your headspace and your workspace tend to arrive at whatever level of messiness works best for you. On any given day, the degree of clutter in my office is more or less the same, with occasional deviations toward greater or lesser neatness: it’s a nest that I’ve feathered into a comfortable setting for productivity—or inactivity, which often amounts to the same thing. It’s tricker when different personalities have to work together. What sets Pixar apart is its ability to preserve that healthy alternation between order and disorder, while still releasing a blockbuster movie every year. It does this, in part, by limiting the number of feature films that it has in production at any one time, and by building in systems for feedback and deconstruction, with an environment that encourages artists to start again from scratch. There’s also a tradition of prankishness that the company has tried to preserve. As Catmull says:

For example, when we were building Pixar, the people at the time played a lot of practical jokes on each other, and they loved that. They think it’s awesome when there are practical jokes and people do things that are wild and crazy…Without intending to, the culture slowly shifts. How do you keep the shift from happening? I can’t go out and say, “Okay, we’re going to organize some wild and crazy activities.” Top-down organizing of spontaneous activities isn’t a good idea.

It’s hard to scale up a culture of practical jokes, and Pixar has faced the same challenges here as elsewhere. The mixed outcomes of Brave and, to some extent, The Good Dinosaur show that the studio isn’t infallible, and a creative process that depends on a movie sucking for three out of four years can run into trouble when you shift that timeline. But the fact that Pixar places so much importance on this kind of prankishness is revealing in itself. It arises in large part from its roots in the movies, which have been faced with the problem of maintaining messiness in the face of big industrial pressures almost from the beginning. (Orson Welles spoke of “the orderly disorder” that emerges from the need to make quick decisions while moving large amounts of people and equipment, and Stanley Kubrick was constantly on the lookout for collaborators like Ken Adam who would allow him to be similarly spontaneous.) There’s a long tradition of pranks on movie sets, shading imperceptibly from the gags we associate with the likes of George Clooney to the borderline insane tactics that Werner Herzog uses to keep that sense of danger alive. The danger, as Herzog is careful to assure us, is more apparent than real, and it’s more a way of fruitfully disordering what might otherwise become safe and predictable. But just by the right amount. As the artist Frank Stella has said of his own work: “I disorder it a little bit or, I should say, I reorder it. I wouldn’t be so presumptuous to claim that I had the ability to disorder it. I wish I did.”

Forever and ever

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The cover of David Bowie's Hours

I knew this day would come, but I allowed myself to hope that it never would. When I first became aware of David Bowie, it happened to be at a point in his career when it seemed as if he had been around forever, and he was everywhere you looked. My dad, a longtime fan, had bought Let’s Dance just like everyone else—he and my mom even saw Bowie perform on the Serious Moonlight tour—and my parents still talk about watching me sing along as a toddler to “Modern Love.” Later, of course, there was Labyrinth, along with so much else that is so deeply embedded in my subconscious that I can’t imagine a world without it. But it took me a long time to realize that I was encountering Bowie at a moment that was a clear outlier in the larger story of his life. The massive success of Let’s Dance, which had originally been intended as a one-off detour, transformed him into a mainstream pop superstar for the first time, and he followed it with a string of commercially minded albums that most critics, along with Bowie himself, rank low in his body of work. But I still love what Sasha Frere-Jones has called “the blocky drums and sports-bar guitars” of this period. It’s richer, weirder stuff than it initially seems, and it’s the first version that comes to mind whenever I think about David Bowie. Which is an awful lot. In fact, as the years pass, I find that I’ve spent most of my life thinking about Bowie pretty much all the time.

When an artist has such a long, productive career and you tune in halfway through, you tend to see his or her music in two parallel chronologies. There’s the true chronology, which you start to piece together as you work backward and forward through the discography and listen to the songs in the order in which they were written and recorded. And there’s the autobiographical chronology, in which the albums assume positions in your memory based on when you listened to them the most. This doesn’t have much to do with their proper release dates: the songs situate themselves in your life wherever they can fit, like enzymes locking onto substrates, and they end up spelling out a new message. If the Bowie of the eighties takes me back to my childhood, I can’t listen to Scary Monsters without being plunged right away into my senior year of high school, in which I listened to it endlessly on a Discman and headphones while riding the train up to Berkeley. My arrival in New York after college was scored to Hours, an album often seen as forgettable, but which contains a handful of Bowie’s loveliest songs, especially “Thursday’s Child” and “Survive.” “Modern Love” played at my wedding. And it’s hard to think of a chapter in my life when he wasn’t important. He was such a given, in fact, that it took me a long time to get a sense of the shape of his career as a whole, in the same way that there are enormous swaths in the lives of your parents that you’ve never bothered to ask about because they’ve always been there.

David Bowie

I saw Bowie perform live twice. The first was the Outside tour with Nine Inch Nails as his opening act, and it was my first rock concert ever: Bowie came onstage to the sound of “Subterraneans” and intoned the lyrics to “Scary Monsters” as a spoken-word piece, an unforgettable moment that I was recently delighted to find online. Much later, I saw him in New York with my brother, with whom I’d also caught a retrospective at the Museum of Television and Radio—this was in the years before YouTube—that collected many of his old videos and performance clips, playing continuously on a screen in a tiny darkened room. By then, Bowie was an institution. He was so established that he had issued bonds secured by royalties from his back catalog, and going back over pictures and footage from his early days was like looking at snapshots of your father and marveling at how long his hair used to be. And occasionally it occurred to me that Bowie would have to die one day, much as I still think the same about Francis Coppola or Werner Herzog. It seemed inconceivable, although hints of mortality are woven throughout his catalog. (As I wrote on this blog once: “And the skull grins through even his most unabashedly mainstream moments. If you listen carefully to ‘Let’s Dance,’ you can hear something rattling in the background, alongside the slick horns and synthetic percussion. It’s the sound of Bowie’s false teeth.”) If David Bowie can die, it means that none of us are safe.

After reading the news, the first song I played was “Starman.” I don’t think I’m alone. But the way that song came back into my life is revealing in itself. I’d always been vaguely aware of it, from The Life Aquatic if nothing else—which links Bowie indelibly in my mind with Bill Murray, another celebrity whose departure I anticipate with dread. But I didn’t listen to it closely until I got a copy of his recent greatest hits album Nothing Has Changed. (It was a Christmas present from my brother, which is just another reminder of how entwined Bowie has been in the story of my family.) It’s an eclectic collection of songs on two chunky vinyl discs, with different track listings depending on the format, and it both reminded me of some old favorites and reintroduced me to songs that, for whatever reason, had never been integrated into my internal playlist. The best part was playing it for my two-year-old daughter, who has since been known to ask for Bowie by name. She can sing along to “Changes,” as she did unprompted when I pulled out the album this morning, and to “Heroes,” with her little voice sounding strong and clear: “We can beat dem / Forevah and evah…” It makes me feel like I’m maintaining some kind of continuity. And the phrase “forever and ever” has become a regular part of her vocabulary. She’ll ask: “Am I going to be three forever and ever?” And when it’s time to turn off the lights, and I sit on the edge of her bed, she asks: “Will you stay with me forever and ever?” I want to say yes, but of course I can’t. And neither could David Bowie.

The certainty of salvation

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Lotte Eisner and Werner Herzog

We German filmmakers were still a fragile group in 1974, so when a friend called me from Paris to say that Lotte [Eisner] had suffered a massive stroke and I should get on the next airplane, I started looking for flights, before realizing it wasn’t the correct way to proceed. I was unable to accept that Lotte might die, and though it was the start of the onslaught of an early winter, I decided to walk from Munich to Paris. My pilgrimage was a million steps in rebellion against her death.

I stuffed a bundle of clothes and a map into a duffel bag, then set off in the straightest line possible, sleeping under bridges, in farms and abandoned houses. I made only one detour—to the town of Troyes, where I marveled at the cathedral—and ended up walking across the Vosges mountains for about twenty miles…I’m not superstitious, but did feel that coming by foot would prevent Lotte’s death. The Catholic Church has a wonderful term for this: Heilsgewissheit, the certainty of salvation.

I moved with the faith of a pilgrim, convinced that Lotte would be alive when I got to Paris four weeks later. When I arrived in town I stopped at a friend’s place to take shelter from the rain and sat in his office, steam coming off my clothes, utterly exhausted after having walked the last fifty miles without a break. I gave him my compass, which I no longer needed, and walked to Lotte’s home. She was very surprised, but happy to see me.

Years later, bedridden and nearly blind, unable to read or see films, Lotte wrote to me, asking if I would visit her. I went to Paris, where she told me, “Werner, there is still some spell cast that prevents me from dying. But I can barely walk. I am saturated with life [lebenssatt]. It would be a good time for me now.” Jokingly, I said, “Lotte, I hereby lift the spell.” Two weeks later she died. It was the right moment for her.

Werner Herzog, A Guide for the Perplexed

Written by nevalalee

January 1, 2016 at 6:34 am

Trading places

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John Updike

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What famous person’s life would you want to assume?”

“Celebrity,” John Updike once wrote, “is a mask that eats into the face.” And Updike would have known, having been one of the most famous—and the most envied—literary novelists of his generation, with a career that seemed to consist of nothing but the serene annual production of poems, stories, essays, and hardcovers that, with their dust jackets removed, turned out to have been bound and designed as a uniform edition. From the very beginning, Updike was already thinking about how his complete works would look on library shelves. That remarkable equanimity made an impression on the writer Nicholson Baker, who wrote in his book U & I:

I compared my awkward self-promotion too with a documentary about Updike that I saw in 1983, I believe, on public TV, in which, in one scene, as the camera follows his climb up a ladder at his mother’s house to put up or take down some storm windows, in the midst of this tricky physical act, he tosses down to us some startlingly lucid little felicity, something about “These small yearly duties which blah blah blah,” and I was stunned to recognize that in Updike we were dealing with a man so naturally verbal that he could write his fucking memoirs on a ladder!

Plenty of writers, young or old, might have wanted to switch places with Updike, although the first rule of inhabiting someone else’s life is that you don’t want to be a writer. (The Updike we see in Adam Begley’s recent biography comes across as more unruffled than most, but all those extramarital affairs in Ipswich must have been exhausting.) Writing might seem like an attractive kind of celebrity: you can inspire fierce devotion in a small community of fans while remaining safely anonymous in a restaurant or airport. You don’t even need to go as far as Thomas Pynchon: how many of us could really pick Michael Chabon or Don DeLillo or Cormac McCarthy out of a crowd? Yet that kind of seclusion carries a psychological toll as well, and I suspect that the daily life of any author, no matter how rich or acclaimed, looks much the same as any other. If you want to know what it’s like to be old, Malcolm Cowley wrote: “Put cotton in your ears and pebbles in your shoes. Pull on rubber gloves. Smear Vaseline over your glasses, and there you have it: instant old age.” And if you want to know what it’s like to be a novelist, you can fill a room with books and papers, go inside, close the door, and stay there for as long as possible while doing absolutely nothing that an outside observer would find interesting. Ninety percent of a writer’s working life looks more or less like that.

Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe

What kind of celebrity, then, do you really want to be? If celebrity is a mask, as Updike says, it might be best to make it explicit. Being a member of Daft Punk, say, would allow you to bask in the adulation of a stadium show, then remove your helmet and take the bus back to your hotel without any risk of being recognized. The mask doesn’t need to be literal, either: I have a feeling that Lady Gaga could dress down in a hoodie and ponytail and order a latte at any Starbucks in the country without being mobbed. The trouble, of course, with taking on the identity of a total unknown—Banksy, for instance—is that you’re buying the equivalent of a pig in a poke: you just don’t know what you’re getting. Ideally, you’d switch places with a celebrity whose life has been exhaustively chronicled, either by himself or others, so that there aren’t any unpleasant surprises. It’s probably best to also go with someone slightly advanced in years: as Solon says in Herodotus, you don’t really know how happy someone’s life is until it’s over, and the next best thing would be a person whose legacy seems more or less fixed. (There are dangers there, too, as Bill Cosby knows.) And maybe you want someone with a rich trove of memories of a life spent courting risk and uncertainty, but who has since mellowed into something slightly more stable, with the aura of those past accomplishments still intact.

You also want someone with the kind of career that attracts devoted collaborators, which is the only kind of artistic wealth that really counts. But you don’t want too much fame or power, both of which can become traps in themselves. In many respects, then, what you’d want is something close to the life of half and half that Lin Yutang described so beautifully: “A man living in half-fame and semi-obscurity.” Take it too far, though, and you start to inch away from whatever we call celebrity these days. (Only in today’s world can an otherwise thoughtful profile of Brie Larson talk about her “relative anonymity.”) And there are times when a touch of recognition in public can be a welcome boost to your ego, like for Sally Field in Soapdish, as long as you’re accosted by people with the same basic mindset, rather than those who just recognize you from Istagram. You want, in short, to be someone who can do pretty much what he likes, but less because of material resources than because of a personality that makes the impossible happen. You want to be someone who can tell an interviewer: “Throughout my life I have been able to do what I truly love, which is more valuable than any cash you could throw at me…So long as I have a roof over my head, something to read and something to eat, all is fine…What makes me so rich is that I am welcomed almost everywhere.” You want to be Werner Herzog.

Disquiet on the set

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Touch of Evil

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What movie scene would you have wanted to be on set for?

“The most exciting day of your life may well be your first day on a movie set,” William Goldman writes in Adventures in the Screen Trade, “and the dullest days will be all those that follow.” Which isn’t to say that filmmaking is more boring than any other kind of creative work. Vladimir Mayakovsky once compared the act of writing poetry to mining for radium—”The output an ounce, the labor a year”—and that’s more or less true of every art form. Moments of genuine excitement are few and far between; the bulk of an artist’s time is spent laying pipe and fixing the small, tedious, occasionally absorbing problems that arise from an hour of manic inspiration that occurred weeks or months before. What sets the movies apart is that their tedium is shared and very expensive, which makes it even less bearable. If star directors have an annoying habit of comparing themselves to generals, perhaps it’s because war and moviemaking have exactly one thing in common: they consist of hours of utter boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. (You could argue that the strange career of Werner Herzog can be explained by his determination to drive that boredom away, or at least to elevate the terror level as much as possible while still remaining insurable.)

In general, there are excellent reasons for members of the creative team who aren’t directly involved in the production process to keep away. Screenwriters don’t like being around the filming because it’s all to easy to get caught up in disputes between the actors and director, or to be asked to work for free. Editors like Walter Murch make a point of never visiting the set, because they need to view the resulting footage as objectively as possible: each piece has to be judged on its own terms, and it’s hard to cut something when you know how hard it was to get the shot. And while a serious film critic might benefit from firsthand knowledge of how movies are made, for most viewers, it’s unclear if that experience would add more than it detracts. The recent proliferation of special features on home video has been a mixed blessing: it can be fascinating to observe filmmakers at work, especially in departments like editing or sound that rarely receive much attention, but it can also detach us from the result. I’ve watched the featurettes on my copy of the Lord of the Rings trilogy so many times that I’ve started to think of the movies themselves almost as appendages to the process of their own making, which I’m sure isn’t what Peter Jackson would have wanted.

Touch of Evil

And a thrilling movie doesn’t necessarily make for a thrilling set, any more than a fun shoot is likely to result in anything better than Ocean’s 13. Contrary to what movies like Hitchcock or The Girl might have us think, I imagine that for most of the cast and crew, working on Psycho or The Birds must have been a little dull: Hitchcock famously thought that the creative work was essentially done once the screenplay was finished, and the act of shooting was just a way of translating the script and storyboards into something an audience would pay to see. (So much of Hitchcock’s own personality—the drollery, the black humor, the pranks—seems to have emerged as a way of leavening the coldly mechanical approach his philosophy as a director demanded.) Godard says that every cut is a lie, but it’s also a sigh: a moment of resignation as the action halts for the next setup, with each splice concealing hours of laborious work. The popularity of long tracking shots is partially a response to the development of digital video and the Steadicam, but it’s also a way of bringing filmmaking closer to the excitement of theater. I didn’t much care for Birdman, but I can imagine that it must have been an exceptionally interesting shoot: extended takes create a consciousness of risk, along with a host of technical problems that need to be solved, that doesn’t exist when film runs through the camera for only a few seconds at a time.

Filmmaking is most interesting as a spectator sport when that level of risk, which is always present as an undertone, rises in a moment of shared awareness, with everyone from the cinematographer to the best boy silently holding his or her breath. There’s more of this risk when movies are shot on celluloid, since the cost of a mistake can be calculated by the foot: Greta Gerwig, in the documentary Side by Side, talks about how seriously everyone takes it when there’s physical film, rather than video, rolling through the camera. There’s more risk on location than in the studio. And the risk is greatest of all when the scene in question is a crucial one, rather than a throwaway. Given all that, I can’t imagine a more riveting night on the set than the shooting of the opening of Touch of Evil: shot on celluloid, on location, using a crane and a camera the size of a motorcycle, with manual focusing, on a modest budget, and built around a technical challenge that can’t be separated from the ticking bomb of the narrative itself. The story goes that it took all night to get right, mostly because one actor kept blowing his lines, and the the shot we see in the movie was the last take of all, captured just as the sun was rising. It all seems blessedly right, but it must have been charged with tension—which is exactly the effect it has on the rest of the movie. And you don’t need to have been there to appreciate it.

The Gospel According to Herzog

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Werner Herzog on the set of Fitzcarraldo

When you’re a voracious reader with a large library, you sometimes get the feeling that there aren’t any books left to discover. There are certainly books left to be read, both old and new, but you’d like to think that you have a decent idea of the territory. Yet it’s always possible to be surprised and astonished by a book you didn’t know existed, which is exactly what happened to me last week. The book is A Guide for the Perplexed by the German director Werner Herzog, which I received as a belated holiday gift from my parents. I’m a Herzog fan, but not a completist: I’ve seen maybe five of his features and three or four of his documentaries, which leaves a lot of unexplored material, and I’m not ashamed to admit that Woyzeck put me to sleep. But I’m stunned by this book. It’s a revised and expanded version of Herzog on Herzog, a collection of his conversations with Paul Cronin that was originally published more than a decade ago, and I’m filled with regret at the fact that I didn’t pick up the first edition when I had the chance—I feel that my life would have been subtly different if I had. Not only is it the first book I’d recommend to anyone considering a career in filmmaking, it’s almost the first book I’d recommend to anyone considering a career in anything at all.

Over the last few days, A Guide for the Perplexed has practically been attached to my hand, and I’ve already devoured hundreds of pages, browsing in it at random. It’s a huge book, but every paragraph explodes with insight. Even if you don’t have any interest in Herzog, you should pick up a copy just to read for your own pleasure: you can open it to any page and find yourself immediately arrested. Here are a few lines picked almost at random:

Learn to live with your mistakes. Study the law and scrutinize contracts. Expand your knowledge and understanding of music and literature, old and modern. Keep your eyes open. That roll of unexposed celluloid you have in your hand might be the last in existence, so do something impressive with it. There is never an excuse not to finish a film. Carry bolt cutters everywhere.

Peter Zeitlinger [Herzog’s cinematographer] is always trying to sneak “beautiful” shots into our films, and I’m forever preventing it…Things are more problematic when there is a spectacular sunset on the horizon and he scrambles to set up the camera to film it. I immediately turn the tripod 180 degrees in the other direction.

Those who read own the world. Those who watch television lose it.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

And this doesn’t even touch on Herzog’s own stories, which are seemingly inexhaustible. He provides his own perspective on many famous anecdotes, like the time he was shot on camera while being interviewed by the BBC—the bullet was stopped by his jacket and a catalog in his pocket, and he wanted to keep going—or the threat that kept Klaus Kinski from abandoning the production of Aguirre: The Wrath of God. (“I told him I had a rifle…and that he would only make it as far as the next bend in the river before he had eight bullets in his head. The ninth would be for me.”) But there are countless relatively unknown stories that jump off the page: Herzog posing as a veterinarian at the airport to rescue the monkeys he needed for Aguirre, forging an impressive document over the signature of the president of Peru to gain access to locations for Fitzcarraldo, stealing his first camera, shooting oil fires in Kuwait under such unforgiving conditions that the microphone began to melt. We hear about the unexpected targets of Herzog’s disdain, from David Bowie (“The man is a neon light bulb”) to legendary firefighter Red Adair (“He was extremely meticulous, cowardly, and overly bureaucratic”), as well as his contempt for cinéma vérité, a panel discussion on which he concluded by saying: “I’m no fly on the wall. I am the hornet that stings. Happy New Year, losers.”

Yet little of this would matter, aside from its enormous entertainment value, if we weren’t also treated to a dazzling array of insights on screenwriting, cinematography, sound, financing, documentary filmmaking, editing, and storytelling of all kinds. Herzog is his own best character, and he admits that he can sometimes become “a clown,” but his example sustains and nourishes the rest of us. In On Directing Film—the other essential book I’d recommend to any aspiring filmmaker—David Mamet writes:

But listen to the difference between the way people talk about films by Werner Herzog and the way they talk about films by Frank Capra, for example. One of them may or may not understand something or other, but the other understands what it is to tell a story, and he wants to tell a story, which is the nature of dramatic art—to tell a story. That’s all it’s good for.

Herzog, believe it or not, would agree, and he even tells attendees at his Rogue Film School to watch Casablanca and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as illustrations of great storytelling. And the way in which Herzog and Capra’s reputations have diverged since Mamet wrote those words, over twenty years ago, is illuminating in itself. A Guide for the Perplexed may turn out to be as full of fabrications as Capra’s own memoirs, but they’re the kind of inventions, like the staged moments in Herzog’s “documentaries,” that get at a deeper truth. As Herzog himself says of another great dreamer: “The difference between me and Don Quixote is, I deliver.”

Written by nevalalee

February 3, 2015 at 9:44 am

Werner Herzog on editing

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Werner Herzog on the set of Rescue Dawn

I have always been very specific about what I film, and never shoot endless amounts of footage. Every second of celluloid costs money, so the impetus when shooting on film is to expose as little raw stock as possible. Even today, when I make a film on video I never end up with a lot of footage. If you let the tape run and run, you’ll have three hundred hours of mediocrity. Some filmmakers wear the fact they have so much material as a badge of honor, but attempting to be encyclopedic is a misguided strategy, practiced only by accountants. Most filmmakers with that much footage don’t know what they’re doing; I know I’m talking to a spendthrift when I meet a director who tells me they worked for years editing a film…

I can identify the strongest material at great speed, and rarely change my mind once I make a decision. Usually we can piece together a first assembly of what the final film will be in less than a fortnight. We never look at what we edited the previous day; every morning we start from the point where we finished the day before. Once we have worked through the entire film, we work backwards; this keeps the material fresh and ensures that only footage of the highest caliber remains. It isn’t that I have a particularly slovenly attitude to the editing process; I’m just ruthless with the decisions I make. I feel safe in my skills of navigation and never try out twenty different versions of the same sequence.

Werner Herzog, A Guide for the Perplexed

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January 31, 2015 at 8:50 am

Quote of the Day

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Werner Herzog on the set of Fitzcarraldo

Everyone who makes films has to be an athlete to a certain degree because cinema does not come from abstract academic thinking; it comes from your knees and thighs.

Werner Herzog

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May 22, 2014 at 7:30 am

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You are not the story

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As I see it, two lessons can be drawn from the Mike Daisey fiasco: 1. If a story seems too good to be true, it probably is. 2. A “journalist” who makes himself the star of his own story is automatically suspect. This last point is especially worth considering. I’ve spoken before about the importance of detachment toward one’s own work, primarily as a practical matter: the more objective you are, the more likely you are to produce something that will be of interest to others. But there’s an ethical component here as well. Every writer, by definition, has a tendency toward self-centeredness: if we didn’t believe that our own thoughts and feelings, or at least our modes of expression, were exceptionally meaningful, we wouldn’t feel compelled to share them. When properly managed, this need to impose our personalities on the world is what results in most works of art. Left unchecked, it can lead to arrogance, solipsism, and a troubling tendency to insert ourselves into the spotlight. This isn’t just an artistic shortcoming, but a moral one. John Gardner called it frigidity: an inability to see what really counts. And frigidity paired with egotism is a dangerous combination.

Simply put, whenever an author, especially of a supposed work of nonfiction, makes himself the star of a story where he obviously doesn’t belong, it’s a warning sign. This isn’t just because it reveals a lack of perspective—a refusal to subordinate oneself to the real source of interest, which is almost never the author himself—but because it implies that other compromises have been made. Mike Daisey is far from the worst such offender. Consider the case of Greg Mortenson, who put himself at the center of Three Cups of Tea in the most self-flattering way imaginable, and was later revealed not only to have fabricated elements of his story, but to have misused the funds his charity raised as a result. At first glance, the two transgressions might not seem to have much in common, but the root cause is the same: a tendency to place the author’s self and personality above all other considerations. On one level, it led to self-aggrandizing falsehood in a supposed memoir; on another, to a charity that spent much of its money, instead of building schools, on Mortenson’s speaking tours and advertisements for his books.

It’s true that some works of nonfiction benefit from the artist’s presence: I wouldn’t want to take Werner Herzog out of Grizzly Man or Claude Lanzmann out of Shoah. But for the most part, documentaries that place the filmmaker at the center of the action should raise our doubts as viewers. Sometimes it leads to a blurring of the message, as when Michael Moore’s ego overwhelms the valid points he makes. Occasionally, it results in a film like Catfish, in which the blatant self-interest of the filmmakers taints the entire movie. And it’s especially problematic in films that try to tackle complex social issues. (It took me a long time to see past the director’s presence in The Cove, for instance, to accept it as the very good movie it really is. But it would have been even better without the director’s face onscreen.)

One could argue, of course, that all forms of journalism, no matter how objective, are implicitly written in the first person, and that every documentary is shaped by an invisible process of selection and arrangement. Which is true enough. But a real artist expresses himself in his choice of details in the editing room, not by inserting himself distractingly into the frame. We rarely, if ever, see Errol Morris in his own movies, while David Simon—who manifestly does not suffer from a lack of ego—appears in Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets only in the last couple of pages. These are men with real personalities and sensibilities who express themselves unforgettably in the depiction of other strong personalities in their movies and books. In the end, we care about Morris and Simon because they’ve made us care about other people. They’ve earned the right to interest us in their opinions through the painstaking application of craft, not, like Mortenson or Daisey, with self-promoting fabrication. There will always be exceptions, but in most cases, an artist’s best approach lies in invisibility and detachment. Because in the end, you’re only as interesting as the facts you present.

Written by nevalalee

March 21, 2012 at 10:47 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

February 16, 2012 at 7:50 am

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Von Trier’s obstructions

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As you see [filmmaking] makes me into a clown. And that happens to everyone—just look at Orson Welles or look at even people like Truffaut. They have become clowns.

—Werner Herzog, in Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe

The news that Lars Von Trier has been expelled from Cannes for his decidedly ill-advised remarks is depressing in more ways than one, although I can’t fault the festival for its decision. I don’t think that von Trier is really a Nazi sympathizer; I think he’s a provocateur who picked the wrong time and place to make a string of increasingly terrible jokes. But the fact that he ended up in such a situation in the first place raises questions of its own about the limitations of the provocateur’s life. Von Trier, who used to be something of a hero of mine, has always been testing his audiences, but there’s a difference between a director who pushes the bounds of taste out of some inner compulsion, and one who is simply going through the motions. Von Trier, it seems, has gradually become the latter.

There was a time when I thought that von Trier was one of the major directors of the decade, along with Wong Kar-Wai, and I don’t think I was entirely wrong. Dancer in the Dark is still the last great movie musical, a remarkable instance of a star and director putting their soul and sanity on the line for the sake of a film, and a rebuke to directors who subject their audiences to an emotional ordeal without demanding the same of themselves. Just as impressive was The Five Obstructions, von Trier’s oddly lovable experiment with the director Jørgen Leth, which remains the best cinematic essay available on the power of constraints. (Von Trier had recently announced a remake with Martin Scorsese as the test subject, a prospect that made me almost giddy with joy. I’d be curious to see if this is still happening, in light of von Trier’s recent troubles.)

But the cracks soon began to show. I greatly admired Dogville, which was a major work of art by any definition, but it lacked the crucial sense that von Trier was staking his own soul on the outcome: he was outside the movie, indifferent, paring his nails, and everything was as neat as mathematics. At the time, I thought it might be the only movie of its year that I would still remember a decade later, but now I can barely recall anything about it, and don’t have much inclination to watch it again. I tried very hard to get through Manderlay and gave up halfway through—Bryce Dallas Howard’s performance, through no fault of her own, might be the most annoying I’ve ever seen. And I still haven’t watched Antichrist, less out of indifference than because my wife has no interest in seeing it. (One of these days, I’ll rent it while she’s out of town, which will be a fun weekend.)

And now we have the Cannes imbroglio, which only serves as a reminder that every director—indeed, every artist—ultimately becomes a caricature of himself, in ways that only reveal what was already there. That was true of Orson Welles, who in his old age fully became the gracious ham and confidence trickster he had always been, except more so, in ways that enhance our understanding of him as a young man. The same will be true, I’m afraid, of von Trier. The spectacle that he presented is even less flattering when we try to imagine the same words being said by Herzog, or even someone like Michael Haneke—men who are provocateurs, yes, but only as an expression of their deepest feelings about the world, something that is no longer true of von Trier, if it ever was. Von Trier, clearly, was just joking. But he revealed much more about himself than if he were trying to be serious.

Berkeley on my mind

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I was born in Castro Valley, California, a pleasant but nondescript part of the Bay Area whose greatest attraction to me, at least in my teenage years, was that it was only a forty minute BART ride away from downtown Berkeley. Growing up, I assumed that I would attend college there, and although my education took me a bit farther afield, I still spent many of the weekend and summer afternoons of my adolescence exploring the areas around Telegraph and Shattuck. And though I haven’t lived in the Bay Area for more than a decade now, I’ve been shaped by Berkeley in ways I’m only now beginning to realize, not so much the Berkeley of my own childhood as a version in my imagination, which reached its ideal shape—at least in the story that I like to tell myself—in the ten years or so before I was born.

The landmark that connected my imaginary Berkeley with the one I explored as a teenager was the old UC Theater. This was the theater where Werner Herzog ate his shoe, where an ongoing festival of Hong Kong movies ran every Thursday for years, and where The Rocky Horror Picture Show played at midnight (never seen, alas, by me). It’s also where I had many of my favorite movie memories: I saw the complete Indiana Jones trilogy here, and Judy Garland in A Star is Born, and Lawrence of Arabia, and Spike & Mike’s Sick & Twisted Festival. I can remember John Waters’s anti-smoking announcement nearly word for word. And the theater’s closing ten years ago remains one of the small, indelible tragedies of my life. If Berkeley can’t sustain a place like this, I asked myself, then how are art house revival theaters supposed to survive anywhere? (The similar struggles of the Brattle in Cambridge have only increased my pessimism.)

So what else resides in the Berkeley of my imagination? There’s Chez Panisse, of course, where Alice Waters helped Herzog cook his shoe (slowly, in garlic and duck fat). There’s the Whole Earth Catalog, which was rooted in Sausalito but whose heart belongs in Berkeley. There’s the epic Plan of St. Gall project of Walter Horn and Ernest Born, which evolved concurrently with Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language—the best, most essential book of the last fifty years, and one utterly saturated by its time and place. There’s Robert Anton Wilson, in his house in the hills above the Berkeley campus. And, not incidentally, there are also my parents, who would have been around my own age—or even somewhat younger—at the time I’m talking about.

Like I said, I haven’t lived in the Bay Area in a long time. And the Berkeley I’m describing may never have existed, except in my own mind. But as I look back at my life, which has taken me to some extraordinary places—Harvard, New York, Chicago, and beyond—I feel as if my philosophy, such as it is, was really shaped here. Calling it a “philosophy” might be taking it too far: it’s really nothing more than an interest in whole systems, an inclination toward voluntary simplicity (in life, not in thought), and a nose for the weird, esoteric, and neglected. It’s an instinct that sends me regularly to used bookstores, always trying to recreate my first experience of Moe’s. And whatever it is, it has outlasted all kinds of other, passing infatuations, so that I still carry a bit of Berkeley with me wherever I go.

Werner Herzog’s forgotten dreams

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But listen to the difference between the way people talk about films by Werner Herzog and the way they talk about films by Frank Capra, for example. One of them may or may not understand something or other, but the other understands what it is to tell a story, and he wants to tell a story, which is the nature of dramatic art—to tell a story. That’s all it’s good for.

—David Mamet, On Directing Film

It’s amazing how an artist’s reputation can evolve over two decades. When Mamet published the comment above, it was 1991, and Werner Herzog was best known as the director of several strange, brilliant, often impenetrable films staring the German actor Klaus Kinski. And as much as I love Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, and Nosferatu, I can see Mamet’s point: moving beyond the core works of Herzog’s filmography can be pretty taxing. (I tried watching Woyzeck on video a few years back, and fell asleep within twenty minutes.) So it was hard to imagine, twenty years ago, that Herzog would ever become anything resembling a beloved cultural figure.

But incredibly enough, that’s what happened. Part of it might be due to the mainstream breakthrough of Grizzly Man, and Herzog’s unforgettable narration. (“I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.”) Part of it might be the landmark New Yorker profile of Herzog on the set of Rescue Dawn, which gave us my favorite Christian Bale quote of all time: “I am not going to feckin’ die for you, Werner!” Part of it might even be Herzog’s recent weird proposal for a rogue film school. But whatever the reason, Herzog, while not quite our greatest living filmmaker or documentarian, has become something more: our greatest living exemplar of the artist’s life.

At first glance, it might seem that his example is a hard one to follow: Herzog has simply seen more, risked more, and imagined more than most ordinary mortals, which is reflected in his extraordinary face. (Age alone has turned him into the sort of sage that he always showed promise of becoming.) But in a way, this misses the point. Herzog’s vision of art isn’t meant to be inaccessible to the rest of us: it’s about stealing a camera, going on foot instead of driving, doing whatever it takes to bring great images to a starving world. In Herzog’s case, this restless intensity, and willingness to keep his own promises, has taken him from the Amazon to Antarctica, from the abyss of Klaus Kinski to that of Nicolas Cage, but his fearlessness should be an example to all of us. He’s the sanest man in the world, which in many cases is indistinguishable from insanity.

His latest film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, might be his most significant adventure to date: a 3D exploration of the Chauvet Cave in France, which contains the earliest known cave paintings in the world. It’s a work of undeniable cultural interest, the kind destined to be shown in high school history classes, but it’s also, wonderfully, a Herzog film. Some have called the movie too slow, or overlong at ninety minutes, but as with much of Herzog’s work, the deliberate pace is intentional, and ultimately hypnotic. It’s full of surprising beauty and odd, beguiling moments, like its climatic encounter with an albino alligator—the natural successor to the chicken of Kaspar Hauser and the iguana of Bad Lieutenant. And it’s such a singular work of art that I can’t help believing that these paintings survived 32,000 years mostly just so that Herzog could film them, one artist reaching out to another across the expanse of time.

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