Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Herzog The Awesome

Any discussion of adventure in the service of art must include the films/mishaps/glories of Werner Herzog. In fact, perhaps no other living artist in any genre has capitalized so much on the notion of Adventure Research in the service of truth. In literature, the only contemporary parallel I can think of is William T. Vollmann.

So yes Herzog. The other night, after eagerly anticipating how much I would love it, I finally watched My Best Fiend, Herzog's moving and hilarious portrayal of his more-than-volatile working relationship with the German madman actor Klaus Kinski. I had already seen three out of the five movies that Herzog and Kinski worked together on, Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre, the Wrath Of God and Woyzeck, all of which I appreciate greatly but I had to say Fitzcarraldo is my favorite. It is a classic in the genre of chimerical, whimsical and downright impossible undertakings. I'm looking forward to watching the documentary about the hair-raising, appallingly difficult making of Fitzcarraldo, Burden Of Dreams.

As a late-comer to the works of Herzog--I saw Fitzcarraldo for the first time less than a year ago-- I am struck by his insistently iconoclastic views on verite and veracity, views that seem to dovetail with a largely untheorized idea I have called decoverite. It sort of aims at getting at truth through fraudulent, mythological means. I'm encouraged by his bold and transcendent film experiments to think more about some non-fiction pieces I want to do in the future. It is interesting how different arts can cross-fertilize each other; how fecundity in one medium has a lively resonance in another. Painting, music, film, sports, travel, etc. all in the service of hopefully insightful and invigorating writing.

I was inspired then to discover the following declaration by Herzog on his homepage:

Minnesota declaration: truth and fact in documentary cinema "LESSONS OF DARKNESS"

1. By dint of declaration the so-called Cinema Verité is devoid of verité. It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants.

2. One well-known representative of Cinema Verité declared publicly that truth can be easily found by taking a camera and trying to be honest. He resembles the night watchman at the Supreme Court who resents the amount of written law and legal procedures. "For me," he says, "there should be only one single law: the bad guys should go to jail."Unfortunately, he is part right, for most of the many, much of the time.

3. Cinema Verité confounds fact and truth, and thus plows only stones. And yet, facts sometimes have a strange and bizarre power that makes their inherent truth seem unbelievable.

4. Fact creates norms, and truth illumination.

5. There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.

6. Filmmakers of Cinema Verité resemble tourists who take pictures amid ancient ruins of facts.

7. Tourism is sin, and travel on foot virtue.

8. Each year at springtime scores of people on snowmobiles crash through the melting ice on the lakes of Minnesota and drown. Pressure is mounting on the new governor to pass a protective law. He, the former wrestler and bodyguard, has the only sage answer to this: "You can´t legislate stupidity."

9. The gauntlet is hereby thrown down.

10. The moon is dull. Mother Nature doesn´t call, doesn´t speak to you, although a glacier eventually farts. And don´t you listen to the Song of Life.

11. We ought to be grateful that the Universe out there knows no smile.

12. Life in the oceans must be sheer hell. A vast, merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger. So much of a hell that during evolution some species - including man - crawled, fled onto some small continents of solid land, where the Lessons of Darkness continue.

Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota April 30, 1999Werner Herzog


  1. I think the most poignant thing from that "manifesto," at least re his documentary work is the statement "and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization." Having experienced, (somewhat) first hand, his documentary process, this is definitely true. I was originally critical because of what seemed to me to be forced and arranged scenarios, but later realized that that was his definition of what he calls "ecstatic truth." P.S. Those twelve points are much more humorous if you read them aloud in a fake Herzog voice.

  2. I'm trying to defeat your comment malfunction conspiracy. Just watched Kaspar Hauser recently, good stuff. I love that Herzog quotes Jesse Ventura.