Saturday, April 17, 2010

Rogue Film School - Day Three

"If you misjudge something, fine: accept the imperfections of the frame."

The three-day seminar was intense, and exhausting, but somehow it - or rather, Herzog - always held your interest. On regular occasions it blossomed from the "simply" interesting to the suddenly exhilarating. It was regularly inspiring. By the Monday, Day Three, everybody was tired; it takes physical effort to sit straight-backed in a chair for eight hours a day, but Herzog demanded a mind on High Alert too. God knows some of it must have felt like a hallucination for some of the other attendees, who had flown in for the three days from all over the world, from places like Colombia, Korea, Canada, England, Iran, Greece, and who must have been experiencing some serious jetlag.

Herzog spoke of America's propensity for a kind of narrow world-view that can border on a national narcissism. "Three million Americans say they've been abducted by aliens, 300,000 women that they've been gang-raped by them," he pronounced. "In Ethiopia, not one woman has been gang-raped by aliens."

He called such beliefs a "manifestation of collective psychosis"; such beliefs, he said, are in a category with, say, conspiracy theories surrounding the Kennedy assassination.

He told us the entire plot of a movie he wants to make, loosely based of twin sisters in England who were not quite right in the head, and spoke in unison. As soon as he finds the right actors to play the twins, he said, he will start shooting the film.

I've not as much to report about Day 3, since most of the afternoon was spent looking at our short films and extracts, with Herzog giving specific feedback and criticism at times. Through it all, of course, his quotable quotes kept on coming. "I make you familiar with an image that has been dormant inside of you," he said. "As a film maker, I'm the one that can articulate it."

What was lovely about the weekend was how left-of-field everything was. The seminar, I suppose, was ultimately about the mind: about cinema as an artifact, a by-product, of the mind at its most exciting. Elsewhere Herzog has said that the Rogue Film School is not about technical film-making advice; for that, you should go to a traditional film school. No, what it was really about, in a sense, was attitude. What attitude might get films made? What attitude might make good films? At some other level, too, there was always this sense of what attitude, what set of attitudes, might best enable one to live a good life, engaged to its limits?

(For what it's worth, here's the only couple of moments of specific technical advice Herzog gave that I can find in my notes. He insists on very little sound on his set; he wants his crews to be quiet and focused. He insists that no one is ever in the sight-lines of his actors. "The climate on the set translates into the climate of what you see in the film.")

A couple of random quotes or notes from my notebook:

"The axioms of our emotions: that is what you find in opera."

On Brigitte Bardot, when he met her 40 years ago: "The only thing that radiated from her was high-decibel stupidity." (She was, he said, like a little grey mouse in real life.)

On persistence: "Beyond raving and ranting, there's something like prudent aggression."

On his strange film Wild Blue Yonder: "I was fascinated by found materials, and I just forced it into the narrative." (But it shows! The film is weirdly forced, and a kind of one-beat repeat trick. Rarely, for a Herzog film, it gets boring quickly.)

He praised The Ascent, a film by the Ukrainian film maker Larisa Shapitko, who died in a car crash in 1979, aged 41. (Criterion have released this film, and I've ordered it and look forward to seeing it.)

Of his role playing himself in the odd but funny Zack Penn documentary (mockumentary, really) Incident at Loch Ness: "I think it does good once in a while to exhibit some self-irony."

Of his bizarre, hypnotic but beautiful Lessons of Darkness, a film in response to which people's complaints at the Berlin Film Festival included the very visceral complaint of spitting at him, he said that he felt they were probably simply objecting to his particular version of the "aestheticization of horror." It made me think that, yes, there's an accepted aestheticization all around us, but that what Herzog did in Lessons of Darkness was different: people felt that its subject matter, the surreal aftermath of the first Gulf War in the Iraqi oil fields, demanded some kind of verité treatment, so that when Herzog created his deleriously bent mytho-poetic voice-over running over the extraordinary images, he had somehow stepped outside the bounds of polite political discourse.

What makes Herzog such a fine rogue and rebel is his willingness to step outside all sorts of boundaries. We were asked to write some kind of brief testimonial for possible inclusion in the Rogue website. This is the full text of what I wrote:

"Many things make Herzog great, and anyone applying for this seminar already has their own personal concepts of what some of those things are. But here's what stands out about the seminar itself: the apparent vastness of his mind, his curiosity and hunger, his ability to link together wildly disparate trains of thought, from wildly disparate fields, and make them both exciting and inspiring. His aversion to cookie-cutter simplifications of art reminds us of our own duty, as artists and in our lives, to strive to separate the essential from the inessential, the primary from the inane. He's funny and generous. He gives good guest. There are very few people in the world who can just talk for three days and hold your attention; Herzog is one of them."

If it's not already obvious: I'd recommend contact with this big-hearted, courageous, free-thinking man.

If you're reading this and don't know much, or anything, about him, here's a brief Herzog primer I'd recommend. (And remember: he has a big body of work, and there are some notable fails in there. Yet he's never done anything that's without interest. Also remember: many people talk about Fitzcarraldo. Sure it's good, but it's not nearly as good as his masterpiece Aguirre.)

Anyway, the primer. (And remember: this is only my opinion. Other Herzog enthusiasts would recommend entirely other films.)

First, watch the sublime Aguirre, Wrath of God, the great megalomaniacal masterpiece, which may be as good a fable as any about madness, power, imperialism and entropy (i.e., "history").

Secondly, watch the heartbreakingly beautiful Stroszek. Yes, possibly the best Great American Dream film might made by an outsider, a German. Afterwards, read this article about Bruno Schleinstein, who starred in the 1977 Herzog film (as Bruno S):

Watch the video in the article of Bruno singing his song "Mamatschi". When I read this last year, I remember there was a link to a translation of the "Mamatschi" lyrics, but I couldn't find it this time.

For dessert, I was tossing up between Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World, but I'm going to plump with Encounters. One of those lovely, joyful, poetic Herzog experiences about which the less said before you watch it, the better. Watch and enjoy. Here's a still from it:

Happy Herzogging, everybody. For you film makers, budding or otherwise, here's a final Werner quote from the seminar:

"You will never be independent, because independent cinema only exists in your home movies. But try to be self-reliant."


Andrea. M. Schnitzler said...

Dear Luke,
Must be a fascinating experience! Fitzcaraldo was one of those immortal films, the images seem to linger on and on in my brain. I met you Luke, in Paris with Laurent Elmaleh a number of years ago. He was a very very old and dear friend. It is so hard to reconcile sometimes when a person is gone. I'm quite sure you don't remember me but in any case, I have enjoyed greatly your writing over the years starting of course with Candy. I think only us X's can truly laugh at the sickness and absurdity.
.....keep the flames of creativity burning....essential to this life... Be well and much love. Andrea Schnitzler (I'm on facebook}

Totem said...

Hi Andrea,

I still feel the loss of Laurent so sharply. I went out to his grave last year. I miss him, and what he might have become again. (Healthy? Happy?) I was in Paris again in February, and planned to go out there again, but time got the better of me. The last time I ever saw him I think I pushed too many buttons/it brought up too many memories for him: he ran out of the restaurant, crying, and I sat there shocked while onlookers looked across. It was like a very sudden meltdown. We spoke on the phone later that day; he said he couldn't cope with the sense of shame and loss, and since I saw him so rarely, it somehow brought it up. I remember the summer of 96, gliding all over Paris on the back of his motorbike. He took me under his wing. He was the perfect gentleman, and a great host.

Las Vegas Film said...

This is a great experience! Thanks for sharing. :)

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The Little Guy said...

Dear Luke,

I really enjoyed your piece in the SMH today. It conveyed the almost religious devotion some people have to Herge and Tintin. Although I never corresponded with Herge, Tintin has been a great influence on my life. In a way people like you and I were lucky to grow up when we did. So many things were so difficult to get a hold of. My collection of Tintin books was built up slowly, mainly through birthdays and Christmases. The tantalising back covers of the books would be pored over endlessly. A friend and I would spend hours drawing every day, fantasising about one day producing Tintin-like books of our own.

The adolescent parodies in Honi Soit are embarrassing to recall now, but their viciousness never diminished my love of Tintin. I remember being very surprised when you lent me the drawings and letters. In the offhand way of teenagers I put them in one of the newspaper’s filing cabinets and forgot about them.

After we finished our term as editors we just left everything in the filing cabinets. About a week later I remembered your Tintin stuff and went back to retrieve it, only to find that someone had completely emptied the contents of both cabinets. I never found out who that was (although later suspected it was the subsequent editors, with whom we had poor relations) and just assumed that your precious drawings and letters had ended up at the tip.
I have never lost my Tintin obsession. Every few years I have vivid dreams where I suddenly come across hitherto unknown and unpublished Tintin books. I have managed to complete a couple of graphic novels, adaptions of Shakespeare somewhat influenced by Tintin.

The strange thing about your piece in the Herald appearing today was that just a few weeks ago, for reasons I can’t remember, I was telling my wife and two sons (both of whom love Tintin) about the greatest regret in my life, which was, of course, losing your Tintin artifacts. I was telling them how unbelievably stupid I was to have left them there and how sad it was that they had probably long ago been destroyed.

Naturally when I saw the Spectrum cover I went straight to your story and immediately noticed my name. I was alarmed about your recollection of leaving them with me because at first it implied that I might have kept them for myself (making me Rastapopoulos to your Tintin). So I was greatly relieved to continue reading and find out about your amazing reunification with the precious artifacts.
It’s funny how things turn out. If I had returned them to you at the time, who knows what would have happened to them during your using days? Anyway, I’m glad it all worked out for you and that you got them back.

Best regards,


PS There is a mistake in this paragraph:

What had happened was, a couple of years after I'd given the packet to David Messer the cartoonist, a new Honi Soit editor had been clearing out old junk ... some point, when her daughter was eight or nine, Messer had noticed that she liked Tintin and had given her my cards and letters as a gift.

In the last sentence, ‘Messer’ is incorrect. It should read ‘the new Honi Soit editor had noticed’. My explanation for what probably happened was that because the new editors viewed my co-editors and myself with great animosity (mainly because in the election for editor my friend Rex Butler changed his named by deed poll to Tintin and got more votes than they did), the moment our editorship ended they went straight into the office and cleared out all our stuff. Certainly when they found the Tintin stuff they would have assumed it was mine and made a decision not to return it to me.

Also, this may be of interest:

Totem said...

David - what a joy and pleasant surprise you read the SMH piece and left your comment here. Great to hear from you. It's funny, I never thought to ask your own memories of those events: somehow I imagined you wouldn't have remembered my giving you the letters. Can you pinpoint the year? I am curious. I think that's a great point you make - if I had somehow remembered the letters, if they had somehow come back to me, what would have happened to them? I know exactly what would have happened to them: in the middle of addiction, I would have sold them to some bookseller for $100. Maybe $200! What's bizarre is how the giving of the letters to you (I'm guessing mid-to-late 1983?) and the retrieving of them in those extraordinarily coincidental circumstances (late January 1990) defines this very precise period -- I scraped through my BA Hons, finished my thesis end of '83; there were no restraints after that; out-of-control freebasing was making way for the more "narrow" heroin focus that would devour the next 6+ years....It's as if the entire period is one great swathe of memory loss. I guess you could define addiction as a form of forgetting. I must have thought of the letters during those years, but to be honest I have no memory of ever thinking, "damn, where could they be?" The moment of the woman pulling them out of the box was a profound shock. I'm sorry you felt guilty! I don't remember ever thinking, "Damn David Messer and his unreliability/negligence!" Never had anything but the fonndest thoughts of you, and am so glad you found me here. I actually googled you when writing the article, so was made up-to-date and aware of what you're doing. Though in any case, scattered over the 25 years I had always taken pleasure in those times I saw your cartoons appear in various mags etc. I bumped into Cathy Duloy about 4 years ago -- was it her brother that you were friends with/drawing buddies with? I seem to remember he did this kind of fantasy stuff which was almost aspergers-like in its detail and minutiae?? Or maybe that was you!! I'll email this too. But I get few blog comments, and I like the public nature of blog comment discussions. I'd better post the link to the relevant piece up here too....Luke
PS ah -- I'm so annoyed with the edit that changed the meaning. Too late to do anything about it in the print version, but hopefully they'll be able to change it in the online version. In the final edit I was sent for final checks, the paragraph read: "What had happened was, a couple of years after I’d given the packet to David Messer the cartoonist, a new Honi Soit editor had been clearing out old junk from the newspaper offices, and had come across the cards. He thought they were an interesting curio, and held on to them. As it turned out, this fellow was a friend of the woman I stayed with that fateful weekend, and at some point, when her daughter was eight or nine, he’d noticed that she liked Tintin, and had given her my cards and letters as a gift." The only way I can see that being changed is that a subeditor read the par too quickly, and misunderstood. I thought the "this fellow" should have been a clear differentiation from "David Messer the cartoonist." Ah well.