Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Rogue Film School, Day 2

"I've never consciously gone after aesthetics," Herzog said. "Aesthetics creeps in by itself. Aesthetics is like your handwriting - when you write a passionate love letter or a beautiful, compelling letter, the aesthetics is your handwriting, your longhand. But it is not the central issue."

Day Two was off and running. We were told to expect visitors. We began the day with the Fred Astaire clip I mentioned in the previous post. "No one has a more insipid face than Astaire," said Herzog. "The dialogues are beyond stupid. But I just love his films. Nothing is simpler: light, shadow, movement."

Herzog believes the lifespan of film makers is not often more than fifteen years. (Obviously he considers himself an exception.) He spoke of his own artistic origins: a moment of epiphany at thirteen, seeing a book in a shop window about the cave paintings at Lascaux, working furiously as a ball-boy at a tennis court for six months in order to buy this talismanic book. I related on two levels: firstly, that archaeology had been my passion and obsession from a young age, perhaps around eight or nine. Secondly, that my own first great epiphany - the second was the Aguirre, Wrath of God moment at sixteen - came at thirteen, when I discovered Cannery Row in the school library shelves, and "entered" the universe of real writing, a kind of infinite palace the rooms of which I feel I have been exploring ever since. So the notion of your head suddenly becoming aflame with passion for a world both revealed and hinted at resonated strongly with me. It happened at that instant - the first page of Cannery Row - and it's been with me ever since. Similarly, Herzog spoke of "this deep turmoil in my heart [which is] still reverberating in me. It's like a distant echo still out there."

Herzog talked about his dislike for the cinema verité documentary style; it posits that "facts" constitute "truth", he says, but this is simply not the case. "We should depart from the postulates of cinema verité. Cinema verité is the axiom of the 1960s. It is fifty years later."

He doesn't feel obligated to explain when he does fabricate things in his documentaries, because then "the charm of fabrication is gone." ("I have absolutely no problem with being a magician who doesn't explain to the kids how he does every one of his tricks.")

Nonetheless he was happy to reveal to us a couple of his "tricks". In his beautifully bizarre "documentary" Bells From the Deep, about religion and superstition in Russia and Siberia, there is recounted the legend of the lost city of Kitezh, from which the bells at the bottom of the lake are said to ring out. The footage shows two men, one dragging himself along on the frozen lake, stopping to pray every ten feet or so; the other laid out prostrate, as if in deep prayer. But in fact, the two men are not real religious "pilgrims". Rather, they are two drunk guys Herzog found in the local inn who were willing, for money, to drag themselves around on the ice for a while.

During the day Herzog brought in the composer Klaus Badelt, who talked largely about the "trade-off" between creating "emotional space" (whether through minimal music, or sound design, or silence) and deciding when and where to put the grander music in. In the opening scenes of Rescue Dawn, for instance, with the archival footage of the napalm bombing, the beauty of the music obviously plays off against the violence, so that "you create a layer of abstraction."

Herzog spoke about music as following or leading, depending on circumstances. "Sometimes a person with their gaze pulls the music in. Sometimes the music pulls the image in." Nonetheless, a guiding rule is that you can't let music "emotionalize" something whose emotion is not rendered in the actual scene in the first place.

Herzog commented that sometimes a scene is better as naked as it can be, if the drama is strong enough. He played a Tim Roth scene from his film Invincible, first a version with music, then the music-less version he went with once he realized how much better it was. The musical version was all a bit busy. The naked scene was powerful. The two were markedly different.

Badelt said that as a composer, one must "always think in big arcs." He spoke of how simple and repetitive melodies "create a big arc and create unity and coherence within the big arc. Study for example Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, and how very early on, Wagner establishes the Tristan motif, which has a strange kind of dissonance."

Herzog said that, just as he would never talk to an actor about "motivation", so he would never talk to a composer about "music"; rather, he tries always to talk in terms of space and emotion. Nor, he says, would he talk to the cinematographer about very specific styles and angles - though he might answer a cinematographer's questions about "styles" and "stylistic aims" by giving him a piece of music and saying, "It should look like this."

Badelt said, "What I don't like is massaging the audience about how they're meant to feel. Or telegraphing everything." He's right about how telegraphing is basically the Hollywood disease - I just saw Clash of the Titans the other day, an extraordinarily bad film in pretty much every conceivable way - but I must say, I thought Badelt himself was guilty of this very thing in the closing scenes of Rescue Dawn, which felt in all its rah-rah-with-a-hint-of-bombast as if the film had suddenly been hi-jacked by Top Gun.

One comment gave me pause for thought, since in my first short film Air I had done exactly what he suggested not to do: "If you know you're not going to record with a real orchestra, don't try and imitate a real sound, such as the violin in an orchestra."

An interesting fact from Bardelt: there is twice as much music, on average, in an American film as in a European film (60-90 minutes on average in an American film versus 30-40 minutes on average in a European film). "There's way too much music in American films. It lessens the impact. It waters it down. Believe in the scene."

It was heartening to learn, since I have my own bad-TV guilty pleasures, that Herzog watches shows like Forensic Files and Wrestlemania (with its "strange barbaric drama") to wind down sometimes.

In the afternoon we were visited by the theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, who wrote the book Hiding in the Mirror: The Quest for Alternate Realities, from Plato to String Theory (by way of Alice in Wonderland, Einstein and the Twilight Zone). An affable-looking little guy who seemed filled with joy and wonder, all channeled through this permanent big grin, he reminded me of my friend the Israeli writer and film maker Etgar Keret, who I've always thought is the only real genius I actually know as a friend, or perhaps have ever met. Maybe that big smile, a kind of curiosity mixed with joy, is the smile of genius.

Krauss couldn't stay long, but watching the chat that unfolded between him and Herzog, one couldn't help but be struck by the deep affection the two shared for each other. They spoke of all sorts of matters, including but not limited to Klein bottles (see image below; look carefully), four dimensional space, and the elasticization of time.

"I suspect every one of you has had a moment where an instant seemed like forever," said Krauss. I had indeed, and so had Yeats:

My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table top.

While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessèd and could bless.

Herzog, meanwhile, would throw out with great regularity those beautiful, lilting sentences that after a day and a half we were all now beginning to soak up like a sponge. Most of the time I was just listening, rapt, but every so often I'd remember to write one down. "I've always been fascinated," he said to Krauss, "by the algebraization of unthinkable curves and spaces." Krauss had a good stab at trying to explain how to imagine four-dimensional space: each face of a four-dimensional cube is a three-dimensional cube, for example. Admittedly, this was a little easier to imagine conceptually than visually.

Herzog talked about his idea to create a three-dimensional chess set. "You would need more players," he said, "because with only sixteen, you could evade ad infinitum in three dimensions."

In a digression that moved into yet another dimension, Herzog spoke about how he had once hypnotized an audience and screened for them Aguirre, Wrath of God. People claimed afterwards that they had travelled around - as in a mini-helicopter - the back of Klaus Kinski's head, and seen the characters he was talking to off-screen.

Another Krauss/Herzog moment:

Herzog: How many ropes would you need in order to fix yourself in an absolute fixed space in the universe?
Krauss: [pause; grin] But there is no fixed space.

Then Krauss left, and the Herzogologue turned to other matters. He spoke of the circumstances - the psychic circumstances, really - behind his walking from Munich to Paris in 1974 to visit the ailing film critic (and archivist at the French Cinémathèque) Lotte Eisner, a walk which he recorded in his "diary/narration" Walking On Ice. Eisner had had a stroke; it was said she had not long to live. Herzog set off, ill-prepared, riding that fine line between whim and compulsion. "I'm not a superstitious person," he said, "but walking to Paris was - I put out a force. I thought I would push her out of hospital if I walked to Paris. She was out of hospital, in fact, by the time I arrived, and she lived another eight or nine years. Eventually she said, 'Take the spell off me now; I want to die.' I said, 'Okay, the spell is lifted.' She died two weeks later." That mixture of maniacal glint and mischievous twinkle in his eye again, behind a poker face.

Someone asked a question about persistence, about the creative compromises one might make in order to get things done. "My advice is contradictory," said Herzog: "Follow your dreams no matter what; abandon you dreams if you are smart enough in some situations to see that it is not do-able."

He has always been used to making good films leanly. He was dismayed at the layers of middlemen that became involved as his films started becaming bigger. During the Rescue Dawn negotiations and deliberations, he'd suddenly had enough, he claims. He asked all the attorneys and all the agents to step out of the room. He wanted to speak only to the producers, "man to man."

The agents and attorneys left. He said to the producers: "I will ask you a very high price now, but I guarantee you I will be worth it. I guarantee you I will deliver on budget as I have fifty-eight times before. Only five times have I not delivered on budget - and those five times, I came in under budget. Never have I gone over budget."

To do this, though, he asked for daily access to the finances, to keep an eye on everything.

During the shoot, one day the completion bond guarantor came to set, as they do, for their friendly check-in. To the completion guarantor, he announced, "Hello and welcome, but you are a parasitical presence here. You charge half a million to guarantee this film will be completed, and it is completely unnecessary." He tapped his chest proudly as he recounted the story. "I am the guarantee."

"This overabundance of contracts you are facing," said Herzog, of film-making in general these days, "is an abomination and an outrage."

The subject of final cut approval came up. Herzog said that very few people in Hollywood have it, and that he was a director with neither the power nor the desire to demand final cut. And it doesn't bother him in the slightest; he's happy to listen to what the opinion of the masses. (Not that I can imagine him having anything other than de facto final cut on his earlier films; I assumed he was talking of his recent, "Hollywood" efforts such as Rescue Dawn and The Bad Lieutenant, and I assumed that meant he has been willing to undergo test screenings.)

"Final cut belongs not to the director, not to the producers, not to the attorneys, but to the audience," he said.

Nonetheless: "I try to be a good soldier of cinema. I hold the ground. I try to hold the terrain that has largely been abandoned."

That was it for Day 2; I'll get back to Day 3 as soon as I can.

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