Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Rogue Film School

I've been meaning to get around to writing about the excellent three-day Werner Herzog "Rogue Film School" seminar which I took back in January. Herzog has been a hero for me ever since the day I saw Aguirre, Wrath of God at sixteen, and my life changed entirely. It changed, I think, in the fundamental sense that I became a fully-fledged cinemaphile at that instant. I saw how completely exciting great film could be, and I understood, as a burgeoning poet, that great poetry need not only be verbal.

What follows is a little of my experience of the seminar, which took place in a nondescript hotel conference room near Koreatown in LA, with forty participants. The first thrill was the meet-and-greet on the Friday night. I had not particularly thought about what to expect, or what the other attendees might be like. But suddenly, my laminated Rogue Film School ID badge around my neck, chatting to clusters of fellow-attendees, I realized the glorious truth: we were dweeby, nerdy Herzog enthusiasts at the ultimate Herzog-nerd convention! Suddenly I could say, "you know the scene in La Soufrière where....?" and my new friends would know what I was talking about. Or someone would talk about the correspondence between the driverless truck turning circles in Even Dwarves Started Small and the driverless truck turning circles in Stroszek and....well, it was just nice to be among people who not only thought about these correspondences, but who could somewhat navigate the minutiae of Herzog's extensive body of work.

Day 1 began with Herzog, presumably somewhat tongue-in-cheek, talking not just about how lock-picking is a good skill for a budding film-maker - since you never know what you might need to break into - and not just telling us anecdotes about when such a skill was necessary in his own past, but passing around, for all of us to inspect, his own lock-picking kit. You have to assume it's not part of his carry-on luggage.

He spoke of length too of the benefits of forging shooting permits and other documents, when circumstances dictate. He told us an anecdote about Phillip Petit, the subject of the wonderful documentary Man on Wire: at a certain moment in his attempts to get his trapeze wire up to the top of the Twin Towers, Petit was about to be busted by security guards. Instead of freezing or fleeing, Petit started shouting at his offsider, like an angry employer: You're doing a lousy job! What's the matter with you! and so on. He marched towards the guards, livid with anger at the man, screaming near-incoherently at him. The security guards pressed up against the wall, to let the fighting men pass. "No one wants to interfere with people in the middle of a fight," explained Herzog.

What followed was largely three days of anecdote: of a man standing in front of forty people, pretty much just talking. There are probably few people in the world who can pull this off; Herzog is passionate enough, erudite enough, charming enough, captivating enough, to do it. He may at times seem a little crackpot in his driven-ness, but he's never not interesting, and beautiful turns of phrase pop up at the oddest moments: "...they found half the interior minister hanging in the cool room," is a quote in my notebook, from a long and florid tale about the Emperor of Cameroon.

Herzog spoke of being in prison (possibly in Cameroon?) and how the seemingly "completely insignificant" moments in a filthy prison cell crowded with forty other men were also the worst. There was a single bucket, and whenever anyone shitted, all the others crammed into the cell would shout and sing obscene songs. But when Herzog needed to shit, when he sat on the bucket, the whole place went silent. He thinks it's because he was the only white man in the cell. "I would fervently pray for them to shout or sing," said Herzog.

When he wasn't regaling us with anecdotes, he showed clips: sometimes our own clips that we had sent as part of the application process, at other times delightfully random clips whose sole reason for being included in the seminar, I suppose, was their weird beauty: Fred Astaire dancing, scratchy 35-mm anthropological film shot in Indonesia in the 1920s.

He told the oft-repeated tale about stealing a camera from the Munich Film School, an apparently staid place whose conservative trustees didn't much like the idea of the school's equipment being out on loan too often. "I simply enjoyed the camera in the work for which it was meant," said Herzog, explaining the "loan". "When you have a story to tell, by dint of destiny or God knows what divine providence, you gain the right to do such things."

He spoke of his discovery of the Petaluma chicken farm in California, the largest in the world. It also has Ralph, the world's largest chicken. (I don't have a fact checker; I'm just relaying the facts as Herzog spoke them.) Herzog's idea was was to film a midget, riding the world's smallest horse, being chased around the world's largest tree (in northern California), by Ralph, the world's largest chicken.

He didn't speak too highly of "this slavish adherence to some sort of demented school of screenwriting," to Robert McKee-style screenwriting courses or books, which ask, "'What is your motivation,' or some such insipid thing. Why do you do that? Because I love to do it, that's my answer; and it looks great!" (When Nicholas Cage asked for "motivations" - why exactly is his character so bad? - during the recent shooting of The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans, Herzog replied, "Nicholas, let's not discuss that. Let's just experience the bliss of evil.")

He likes the word "insipid". "By page 19, the hero must understand his mission," he said, again speaking of screenwriting courses. "What kind of insipid nonsense is that?" He described the entire plot of The Verdict, which starred Paul Newman, ending with a dramatic pause and a disdainful, "What kind of shit is that?"

"You should always feel free to do the wild stuff," he went on. "But prepare it, embed it. You must allow the audience to follow the safe ground of narrative progression. Then they follow you to the wild places." Of stylistic tricks he said: "You cannot do them on a whim and you cannot do them as circus gimmicks - the soil must first be planted in dialogue."

(Side track: I did the McKee seminar about eight years ago. There's good basic clear-headed information, and he is charismatic and captivating and wonderfully opinionated, albeit in a bit of a senior-white-male-bully kind of way; but there are two hilarious things, and I wonder if they are still part of his course, or if he's moved with the times. The first was, many of the films he held up as paragons of film virtue, that illustrated his theses, cluster around the mid-to-late seventies, as if he brought them up when he was first devising his seminar. Some are good, but many have simply not weathered the storms of time all that well. And that Japanese film he loved so much, In the Realm of the Senses, is just goddamned tedious, dumb and dated.

The other thing was, McKee was very belligerently "my way or the highway" - he had no time for narrative structures other than the classic three-acter. He was basically telling us that all other forms were bullshit. From memory Being John Malkovich was out around this time, and you could see it made him a little uneasy. God knows how he copes with the flood of multiple-strand narratives and so on that have arrived, and succeeded, since then. I'd love to know if he pays them heed, or if Kramer V Kramer is still the kind of film we should all be making.) (Oh, I'm not specifically picking on Kramer V Kramer. From memory it's a good film. I'm just specifically remembering how much McKee loved it.)

"Blind motifs," Herzog went on, "you can always put them in the film as long as you prepare the ground. And the ground is always the audience. How do you suck the audience in, and never release them?"

One of the most heartening and validating points Herzog made - and he made it again and again, over the course of three days - was about reading. "That's why I always say read, read, read, read if you want to be a film maker." More than that, he kept coming around to the point that reading poetry, in particular, was vital. (I remember the quote, though no longer the source of it, "Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of the divine in man," and it seems to me that great film does that too: connects us to the transcendent, which is really just time stripped of its flesh.)

So we read books, we read obsessively and urgently (as urgently as a man whose head is on fire would seek a body of water in which to dive, to paraphrase Campbell), and we learn, through that, what might make good films. Herzog also said he learns from bad films: that is to say, he learns what not to do. But "from good films I've never really learned much, because I'm mystified, for example, by how Kurosawa made such a perfectly balanced film as Rashomon.

He told us was reading poetry, Virgil's Georgics in the translation by David Ferry, on the way to Antarctica to shoot his absolutely beautiful, absolutely batty documentary Encounters at the End of the World. He had no idea what he was there to shoot, or how the film would turn out. "Virgil talks about the glory of the beehive and the glory of this and that and the world. 'Let's just do that with Antarctica,' I said to myself. 'Name the glory. Don't just desperately try make sense of what I see there.'"

But while, according to Herzog, addiction to books and poetry can never be problematic for a film maker, he thought addiction to films can be counterproductive, as in the case of Scorcese. His films, said Herzog, can become "overburdened with film knowledge." I love Scorcese, but I have to admit it's a good while since he has made a truly great film. The excellent Dylan documentary aside, you have to go back now to Goodfellas and Casino for good ones, and though I've not seen it yet, it sounds like Shutter Island is more than anything a compendium of film referencing from the film universe that is Scorcese's brain.

For Herzog, Tarantino's Asperger's-like addiction to films, too, has resulted in movie stylizations. The dialogue in Kill Bill, for instance, or the set-ups at the beginning, "could only come from someone who reads only comic books or who works in a video store for five or seven years."

In any case, I'm sure there's one thing all three could agree upon: "You are a storyteller. You are not a historian. You are not an accountant of events that took place."

"The storyboard is the instrument of true cowards," he said, "is the instrument of those who have no confidence on set in their own fantasies." I don't know that I would entirely agree with that point; personally I would consider a storyboard a pretty handy tool in certain situations. But Herzog insisted that with storyboarding, "every member of the crew becomes the marionette of an architectural design."

"Don't zoom; move close."

"The quickest pan is a cut." (Actually, Herzog didn't say this; it's what his early editor Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus told him once.)

The flow of the narrative: you must establish it in the shooting, not the editing. You can't create it in the edit room if it's not there in the first place. We all sense patch-up jobs. On the other hand, a good editor knows to "follow the surprises that come at you."

"Shoot each scene as if this scene will be edited and screened in public in half an hour. Take control in the shoot - post-production won't fix things. The emphasis today - on shooting so much coverage, for example, as a kind of safety net, means that film makers are delegating everything towards post-production."

"America is culturally claustrophobic," he said. It's very hard for example to get Americans to see, say, an Iranian film. (Close-up and Where Is the House of My Friend were mentioned as two must-see Iranian films. Oh, that reminds me, the wonderful Korean fellow rogue Ju-Young Yoon recommended two Korean documentaries as being excellent: Repatriation by Kim Dong-Won and Lineage of the Voice by Back Yuna. Must get hold.)

Herzog told about being at a documentary conference once. Someone in a panel was going on and on about "honesty" in documentary making. "We should be the fly on the wall," this person was saying. "No," screamed Herzog, grabbing the microphone. We should be the hornet! We should move in and sting!"

"Happy New Year, losers," he shouted, storming out of the auditorium.

He certainly likes to portray himself as "me against the world". How much of this is gilding the lily is hard to tell. There's an intensity and a seriousness, at times a kind of messianic passion, behind all he does. And on the other hand, one senses a great amount of mischief and humour, a twinkle in the eye, behind his public persona.

"The nature of the market is that it does not want you," he said.

"The financing of films has always been difficult," he said. "However, I'm not in the culture of complaint." (Coppola, whom Herzog seems to have great affection for, is always up there complaining from the vineyard.)

"If you have a story that is urgent and powerful to tell," he went on, "money will folow you in the street like the common cur with its tail between its legs. I start with a little bit of money, but other money always gathers towards it. The Bavarians have a saying, 'The Devil always shits on the pile already there.'"

"If the system doesn't accept what you are doing, create your own system," he said.

"Form rogue cells around you," he said. "If you don't, then it's really tough."

And yet, one of the fundamental truths about being an artist: "There will be quite a lot of solitude in it. But it doesn't really matter. You have to have the nerve to be alone."

Well. It's late, and I've realized that's all just my notes so far from Day 1. I'll continue with Day 2 and 3 as soon as I can.

No comments: