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."