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The Conversations: Werner Herzog

Herzog’s world is harsh and cruel, dominated by a violent natural order in which humanity’s place is precarious at best.

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The Conversations: Werner Herzog

Ed Howard: In the introduction to Herzog On Herzog, a book of interviews conducted with German director Werner Herzog, the interviewer Paul Cronin writes about the curious weaving of mythology, exaggeration and legend surrounding his subject: the “astonishing” variety of “false rumours and downright lies disseminated about the man and his films.” It’s true; there are few directors who have gathered such an outlandish body of stories and wild myths around themselves. It’s not at all clear, however, why this is so, because there are few directors less in need of such legends than Herzog. In his case, the truth is strange enough, big enough, that there is no need to print the legend. So while Herzog may not have, as the story goes, directed the notoriously psychotic Klaus Kinski at gunpoint, he did threaten to shoot the actor if he tried to leave the set, and cheerfully admits that he once plotted to blow up Kinski’s house. He also made a potentially fatal trip to an island where a live volcano was on the verge of exploding, just to make a film (La Soufriére) about the nearly deserted and dangerous locale. This is a man who has had an entire steamship hauled up the side of a mountain in the middle of the Amazon rain forest (for Fitzcarraldo, of course). This is a man who was shot, on camera, in the middle of a BBC interview, and barely flinched. This is a man who made his first films with stolen cameras and stock, who has been jailed in several African countries, who cooked and ate his own shoe to satisfy a bet with the young documentary filmmaker Errol Morris.

Obviously, there is no need for exaggeration here, no need for legends. The unvarnished reality of Werner Herzog is already the stuff of myth, and it’s this outsized persona, this raw physicality, that runs like raging rapids through his prolific, sprawling filmography. His films are not the work of a daredevil or a madman, as is sometimes said, but they indubitably reflect his unique sensibility, his skewed way of looking at the world. He is drawn, again and again, to similar kinds of stories, to similar kinds of heroes, whether he finds them in the real world or creates them entirely in his fertile imagination. Indeed, there are few directors who have transitioned so fluidly back and forth between fiction features and documentaries: the two forms as essentially the same for Herzog, who never creates fiction wholly devoid of fact or a documentary wholly devoid of fiction. The Herzogian hero might be based on a historical figure, or might be wholly imaginary, or might be a real person subtly guided and shaped by Herzog’s aesthetic, but it’s fairly certain that he (it is almost always a “he”) will be at odds with the world, driven by mysterious and powerful inner motivations, possessed by strange ideas, and living outside of ordinary human society.

Herzog’s world is harsh and cruel, dominated by a violent natural order in which humanity’s place is precarious at best. His films are thus characterized by instability, by extreme emotions and actions, by desperation and suffering. There are few filmmakers who have nourished such a consistent oeuvre while tackling such a broad range of subjects and styles. Whatever Herzog’s subject, whatever the story he’s telling, it’s his sensibility that’s always at the center. During the course of this conversation, we’ll be exploring that sensibility in some depth, but for now I’ll just ask you: what do you see as the salient characteristics of Herzog’s cinema?

Jason Bellamy: I’m tempted to answer that question by saying, “What you said,” because you have started off this conversation with a thorough and succinct appraisal of Herzog the man, the myth and the moviemaker. Indeed, Herzog is drawn to extremes, to oddities and, in some respects, to chaos. He is fascinated by dreams and death, sometimes appearing unable to talk at length about any subject without using those words. He is captivated by people who live on the edge of human capacity—those who dare to control their lives in uncontrollable situations. He romanticizes nature and regards with awe (and sometimes just contempt) humans who challenge it (even though he’s been known to challenge nature himself). These themes are present in almost all of Herzog’s films, and yet to some degree the characteristics I just mentioned are irrelevant. Accidental. Because, as you suggested, the most dominant characteristic of Herzog’s cinema is Herzog himself.

There’s no way we get through this discussion without mentioning Roger Ebert, who absolutely adores Herzog, and whom Herzog admires in return. (Encounters at the End of the World is dedicated to Ebert.) So let me go no further without quoting this recent summation of Herzog from Ebert’s blog: “Every one of his films is in some sense autobiographical: It is about what consumed him at that moment. The form of the film might be fiction, might be fact, might be a hybrid. The material dictates the form, and often his presence in the film dictates the material: It would not exist if he were not there.”

That last part really nails it. More than almost any other filmmaker, Herzog is a slave to nothing except his own obsessions. Someone could watch one Herzog documentary or maybe two of his fictional films and remain unaware of the director’s overwhelming control over his pictures, of the way his subjects reflect his personality and interests. But to spend any more time in the Herzog oeuvre is to realize just how consistently his films act as windows to his soul, mirrors of his psyche. To get Herzog on Herzog, we don’t need a collection of interviews by Paul Cronin. For better or worse, we need only a Herzog film.

Werner Herzog

EH: That Ebert quote is interesting, because it gets at what, precisely, makes Herzog’s films autobiographical: his level of engagement with the filmmaking process itself. I want to qualify the assertion that Herzog’s films are actually about himself, because in the most literal sense they aren’t; his only true autobiographical films are Portrait Werner Herzog and My Best Fiend, his film about his relationship with Klaus Kinski. He doesn’t seem to have the kind of analytical mind that is driven towards introspection, and in interviews he pointedly avoids discussing the meanings of his own work, preferring to talk about the circumstances of their creation. He’s also a natural (and very entertaining) storyteller, and even when he’s dealing with factual material he’s always concerned with crafting whatever’s in front of him into a narrative. The films become autobiographical mainly because Herzog pours himself into his work with such physicality and dedication. Herzog views filmmaking as a craft rather than an art, and he considers his work a physical process rather than an intellectual or cerebral activity. In the Cronin book, he says:

“Everyone who makes films has to be an athlete to a certain degree because cinema does not come from abstract academic thinking; it comes from your knees and thighs… I have often said that I like to carry prints of my films. They weigh 45 pounds when tied together with a rope. It is not altogether pleasant to carry such bulky objects, but I love to pick them out of a car and take them into the projection room. What a relief to first feel the weight and then let the heaviness drop away; it is the final stage of the very physical act of filmmaking… I will continue to make films only as long as I am physically whole. I would rather lose an eye than a leg. Truly, if I were to lose a leg tomorrow, I would stop filmmaking.”

As Herzog would have it, then, his films are an expression not of his mind and sensibility, but of his body. He speaks elsewhere of guiding his cinematographers, maintaining close bodily contact with them so that each shot is an expression of two bodies directing the camera’s eye. The most obvious example of Herzog’s physicality is Fitzcarraldo, in which the titular protagonist (played by Kinski) is an opera buff who decides to push a steamship up a mountain between two Amazonian tributaries as part of an elaborate moneymaking scheme to fund a jungle opera house. In filming this spectacle, Herzog refused to resort to any special effects and really did haul a boat up a mountain by assembling a system of pulleys and hiring native extras to do the work. In other words, Fitzcarraldo was not autobiographical until Herzog started to make it, at which point his identification with his protagonist placed him in the same position as the drama that appears onscreen. As he made the film, he lived it. This, and not any straightforward autobiographical impulse, is at the heart of Herzog’s undeniable presence in his films.

Werner Herzog

JB: True. Sort of. I agree that his initial intent isn’t autobiographical, but Herzog so fervently obeys his instincts—rather than commercial or critical trends—that his projects have a tendency to become very autobiographical very quickly. No, they aren’t “about” him, but the vast majority of Herzog’s films come to us through him, and that’s pretty much the same thing.

As for the physicality of his filmmaking, Herzog strikes me as the director version of Daniel Day-Lewis, a Method actor who immerses himself into a role until he truly becomes his character, sometimes continuing to behave as that character even when the cameras aren’t rolling. On this point, I’m conflicted. On the one hand, I respect Herzog’s willingness to give himself over to his endeavor—whether that’s making a film, walking around Germany’s perimeter or eating a shoe. On the other hand, I think his filmmaker-as-athlete romanticism is a load of crap. Just like Day-Lewis’ off-camera antics are ultimately immaterial to his captured performance, Herzog’s methods are equally irrelevant. At least, they should be. Oh, sure, Herzog finds comfort in immersion, and so on that level his process is significant. But when anyone analyzes Herzog’s films, they should analyze the finished product itself, not the degree of difficulty that went into their creation, especially when that difficulty is self-imposed.

Herzog perplexes me. He has real-world modesty, and he’s genuinely interested in his subjects (factual or otherwise), and yet he’s drawn to his own spotlight like a moth to the flame. For all his strong-jawed confidence, it’s as if he’s too insecure to let his filmmaking speak for itself. There are exceptions to this, of course; there are instances when Herzog’s films and characters don’t fit the molds we’ve described to this point. But even considering Herzog’s undeniable skill as a storyteller, and even considering his (mostly) warm-hearted fascination with the odd and the overlooked among us, I sometimes find myself wondering: If Herzog’s films weren’t by Herzog, would he still enjoy them? In other words, if he encountered one of his films as an emotional outsider, would it resonate with him? When he edits one of his films, does he see the product itself, or is the product just a scrapbook of memories appealing to his nostalgia for the process that created them? What do you think?

EH: I think that’s all fairly off-base, actually. I’m particularly puzzled that you’re hung up on the fact that “the vast majority of Herzog’s films come to us through him.” Well, yes, but isn’t that true of every director who has a personal sensibility, who isn’t just a mainstream hack pumping out product? Maybe it was a mistake to introduce this conversation with so much talk about the myths and tall tales surrounding Herzog, although they’re admittedly hard to avoid when talking about him. Herzog’s persona can be a distraction from his films, which is partly his own fault just for being himself, and partly the fault of sensationalist journalists who can’t resist a good story—I can’t resist it either, obviously.

At the same time, I don’t think it’s fair to say that Herzog doesn’t let his films speak for themselves. His films are impossible to ignore no matter how much excess baggage piles up around them in the form of wild making-of stories. There’s a certain inherent sensationalism in his life, in the things he’s done, but I don’t think he’s self-aggrandizing by any means, and I don’t think the things he says and does are anything other than a genuine expression of his worldview. In this sense, his public persona is an extension of his films, which emerge from that same worldview. You could take pretty much any random Herzog quote from an interview and imagine it inserted into one of his films intact. That’s just the way he talks, the way he thinks about the world. There’s such consistency between his films and his life outside them that I can only conclude this is the real Herzog, and you can either take it or leave it.

Personally, I have nothing but respect for Herzog as a filmmaker. I don’t love every film he’s made (though I’ve seen most of them), and I have certain reservations (which I’m sure we’ll get into later) about specific strains within his oeuvre. But overall I’d rank him among the few greatest living filmmakers, and his work consistently impresses me with its originality, its emotional depth, and its all-enveloping compassion for the weird wonders, both human and otherwise, of our shared world. The circumstances of production, as interesting as they often are in their own right, are immaterial to the sheer ingenuity and beauty of the films themselves. That’s why I don’t agree that Herzog’s films are only about himself, or only about the nostalgia he feels for the process of filmmaking. Herzog makes films not about himself, but about his perception of the world. It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one; the former is solipsism, the latter art.

Herzog has a very specific, and unique, way of looking at the world. One can read a quote by him in isolation and instantly know who said it. But he applies this worldview to a broad range of subjects, and he approaches each film with a humanist perspective, even when—as in Grizzly Man—he’s somewhat critical of his subject. I always get the sense that, as much as Herzog uses his characters and stories to express his own ideas, he also respects their separate experiences, allows their voices and their perspectives into his films, and attempts to convey alien perspectives. If he approaches each film as a new opportunity to explore his signature concerns, he is also undoubtedly open to whatever else he may find in the process. He frequently talks about the happy accidents of filmmaking, and in this sense his process is important to the finished product, because it’s this openness and generosity, this willingness to incorporate the world around him into his films, that makes his work so vital and potent.

Werner Herzog

JB: I agree with you that Herzog is hardly alone in bringing his personality or outlook to his projects. Indeed, innumerable filmmaking legends do this, and there’s nothing wrong with it. That’s why a Spielberg film feels like a Spielberg film, a Tarantino film feels like a Tarantino film, a Malick film feels like a Malick film, and on and on. If I were criticizing Herzog for having a passion for his story and telling that story from his heart, that would be unfair and ridiculous. (I’m reminded of Matt Zoller Seitz’s “Friendship Theory of Movies,” which effectively argues that we should appreciate directors for what they are and quit obsessively criticizing them for everything they aren’t.) But I don’t think I’m doing that. What I’m suggesting is that Herzog, more than most filmmakers, has a need to put his hands on everything—to touch it, smell it, shake it. And for me, all those resulting fingerprints can be distracting. Sometimes I wish he’d simply observe. Even more often, I wish he’d shut up and let me observe. (More on this later, I’m sure.)

In the same way that great actors can convey emotion from within and great screenwriters can convey a character’s thoughts without voice-over narration, great filmmakers can express themselves through their films without actually expressing themselves within their films. No question, Herzog can do this, too. Aguirre, The Wrath of God is an example of a film in which Herzog is essentially hands-off. But then there’s a film like Bells From the Deep in which Herzog finds it necessary to narrate the translated dialogue, rather than using subtitles, in order to remind us that he’s there, in order to ensure that his subjects’ thoughts sound to us like they do in his own head. Is this some crime against cinema or a raging ego out of control? Absolutely not. But I hope you’d admit that there’s a hell of a lot of ground between the omnipotence of Herzog and being “just a mainstream hack pumping out product.”

The only thing I want to make clear as we move forward is that my opinion of Herzog is shaped by his filmmaking voice (spoken or not), not his off-camera myths. Sure, I’ve heard some of the stories, but I’ve never been fascinated by them. Even the most notorious rumors about Herzog don’t pique my interest. That said, I do think there are those who romanticize his films in part because they admire his full immersion into his process, as if his degree of commitment makes his art more legitimate. I don’t buy that. Not with Herzog, not with anyone; not with filmmaking, not with anything. (To use a personal example, if I slave away on a troublesome review for three hours, that doesn’t make it better, richer or more heartfelt than something Ebert cranks out without pausing in 30 minutes.) So, yeah, when Herzog says he’d stop making films if he lost a leg but not an eye, I call bullshit. But I don’t consider that when I’m watching his films, I really don’t. I believe his on-film persona, whether you find it engaging or annoying, is entirely genuine. I just think there’s often too much Herzog in many of Herzog’s films, though I recognize how absurd that criticism seems at face value.

Werner Herzog

EH: I understand what you’re getting at here. It’s just that you’re complaining about some of the things that I appreciate the most about Herzog’s cinema. I love that tendency of his to get involved in the film, to insert his own perspective, often (in his documentaries, anyway) through the omnipresence of his distinctive voiceover. Watching something like Bells From the Deep is a bit like sitting down to watch a film with Herzog himself sitting next to you, providing a running commentary with his melodious voice, pointing out the things he’s interested in. It’s true that he has never been and never will be a conventional documentary filmmaker. He’s rarely interested in simply setting up a camera and observing things, though he does have films that largely do just that: Ballad of the Little Soldier, Jag Mandir, Wheel of Time, Huie’s Sermon, God and the Burdened, Wodaabe: Herdsmen of the Sun. There are films where he is content simply to watch, to document: most frequently these are straight “ethnographic” films made in Africa, India and South America. (For what it’s worth, I think these are mostly lesser works; I want more Herzog in my Herzog films!)

Most of the time, however, he’s too restless, too engaged by his material and eager to get across his own point of view on what he’s seeing. I don’t see this as a failing. Bells From the Deep is a particularly good example of a movie with Herzog’s “fingerprints” all over the place. I couldn’t swear to it, but I’m not even convinced that his voiceover is actually translating the people onscreen at all times. There are a few scenes where I get the impression that Herzog is speaking over them in order to tell his own stories rather than translating even loosely. Maybe I’m wrong, but if not it certainly wouldn’t be the only invention in the film. On the surface this film might be mistaken for an objective account of Russian spirituality and mysticism, but actually Herzog exaggerates and twists things, and at one point hired a pair of drunks from a nearby village to pose as penitents looking for the city beneath the ice. He makes no secret of such devices, and even within the framework of the film his artifice breaks down completely when a little old lady who is apparently worshipping a tree stump turns to the camera and says, according to Herzog’s voiceover translation, “Now I’ll crawl around some more, OK?” It becomes obvious here that he’s putting us on, that he’s telling this woman what to do, and that this is probably not genuine religious worship. Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices is even more playful and liberal in its treatment of factual material, often verging into outright fictions.

I understand why these intrusions and inventions annoy some people, especially when they’re presented with this deadpan, mock-serious objectivity. The mingling of fiction and documentary creates an uncomfortable middle ground that can be difficult to navigate. But I don’t think Herzog does it because of his ego, and I don’t think he wants to fool anyone, either, mainly because it is always so obvious to me that the “facts” of his films should not be taken at face value. So I admit I’m puzzled by the IMDb reviews that take Bells From the Deep utterly seriously. One commenter calls it “completely neutral” and says that Herzog “shows the people as they are and lets them speak for themselves,” which is pretty much exactly the opposite of what he’s doing here. Herzog gives his audience credit—maybe too much credit—by assuming that they’ll be able to untangle his interweaving of fact and fiction for themselves.

Werner Herzog

JB: I guess I’m obliged to say that he gives his audience too much credit in that case, because I’m a skeptical observer who knows enough to be particularly skeptical of Herzog, and yet it never occurred to me that the guys sliding around on the ice were the town drunks. (Not that I’m surprised.) As for the woman who seeks permission to crawl around on the ground, I took that moment to be an indictment of her faith—less a sign that she was operating under orders from Herzog than that she realized that when she behaved the fool, Herzog and his camera were interested.

I haven’t seen as many Herzog films as you have, but I’ve seen enough to feel comfortable noting that his “handsy” nature has increased with age. Whether this reveals an increase in confidence, determination, impatience, laziness or something else, is up for debate. Herzog’s 1971 documentary about a deaf-blind woman (and all her deaf-blind friends), Land of Silence and Darkness, is a terrific example of a time Herzog resigned himself to the background to beneficial results. On a few occasions in that film, Herzog provides some factual (or so I presume) commentary as context, but he never editorializes. Instead, he just observes, and for me the result is far more powerful.

Late in that film there’s a moment when Herzog’s subject, Fini Straubinger, visits with a 22-year-old who was deaf-blind from birth and has never outgrown infancy: he can’t walk, chew his food, dress himself or communicate in any way. The contrast between these two deaf-blind people is mind-blowing. If at the beginning of the film you might have been distracted by Straubinger’s limitations—she receives communication by having someone tap code into her open hand—her visit with the 22-year-old is enough to make us forget that she’s handicapped; it’s as if she goes from being Helen Keller to being Anne Sullivan. This transformation of audience perception is extraordinary, and one of the reasons it’s so successful is because Herzog leaves us to the silence. Adding voice-over to that unforgettable encounter would be like having a magician explain his illusion as he’s performing his trick. Yet I have no doubt that if Herzog made the film today, he’d babble away. Thus, it’s only fair to wonder how many times Herzog has spoiled the silence by speaking when we should listen. In those moments, Herzog doesn’t trust his audience enough.

Werner Herzog

EH: You’re right that Herzog’s intervention in his documentaries has increased over time. But it’s funny that you use Land of Silence and Darkness as your example, since Herzog himself cites it as the moment, early in his career, when he realized that he didn’t necessarily have to remain entirely true to the facts in order to be truthful to his subject in a larger sense: he could convey the “ecstatic truth” rather than “the accountant’s truth,” as he likes to say. There are moments scattered throughout the film in which Herzog resorted to invention and fiction: notably, the quote about World War III that opens the film was written by him, not Fini, and the speech she gives about ski-flying was also clearly Herzog’s words (he’d later explore that particular obsession further in The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner). More generally, so many of the incidents in the film (besides Fini’s visits to her friends) are obviously not part of her normal routine, but must have been special trips planned by Herzog in order to capture his subject experiencing different things. He takes her up for her first trip in an airplane, to a petting zoo, to a greenhouse, almost as though experimenting, exposing her to new tactile sensations. So although the film is deceptively straightforward in many ways, especially compared to Herzog’s later documentaries, it can hardly be said that Herzog simply sits back and passively observes what happens in front of him.

That said, your larger point still stands. Herzog realized around the time of Land of Silence and Darkness that he enjoyed (and could get away with) playing with the fact and fiction, and he has been doing it more and more ever since. At the same time, he’s never really abandoned the more restrained aesthetic that you rightly praise in that devastating scene between Fini and Vladimir Kokol, the 22-year-old deaf-blind man. Even as recently as a few years ago he’s made quiet, simple films like Wheel of Time that are largely observational. Fact and fiction have always coexisted in Herzog’s work, but the relative proportions fluctuate between projects. Films like Gesualdo and Bells From the Deep are at one extreme of a continuum in Herzog’s career between straight documentary and fiction, along with some of his strange sci-fi collages like Lessons of Darkness or The Wild Blue Yonder.

It’s also true that even in his more hands-on movies, Herzog hasn’t really abandoned the more observational style you seem to prefer. There’s a lengthy sequence in Bells From the Deep where Herzog observes Yuri Tarassov, a “sorcerer” and “exorcist” who first appears in a creepy closeup with candles casting an orange glow on his taut, skeletal face. As Tarassov stalks around a stage, approaching women who seem to be going into fits of demonic possession, screaming and crying, Herzog remains entirely silent, never intruding, never making his own feelings known. At the end of the scene, there’s an interesting, enigmatic moment where, as Tarassov concludes an exorcism, Herzog pulls in for a closeup and captures a strange expression on the sorcerer’s face, which might be religious ecstasy or might be a con man rolling his eyes. The whole scene is deliberately ambiguous and presented without commentary. It’s not as powerful as the scene from Land of Silence and Darkness—but then, what is?—but it proves that Herzog still knows when he can intrude and when to step back, when to shut up and just let his images speak for themselves. Bells From the Deep is a film where it’s easy, in retrospect, to overestimate just how much Herzog speaks, and to forget all the times when he steps back and just watches something (like the long and wonderful opening shots of those throat singers by the riverside).

Werner Herzog

JB: That’s all very well said, and I don’t disagree. And yet there’s a pattern to his selective silence that isn’t so flattering. If there’s one thing that can get Herzog to shut up, it’s a freak show: the exorcist in Bells From the Deep, the dramatically mad Klaus Kinski in Aguirre or Fitzcarraldo, the spiritual Herzog twin Dieter Dengler in Little Dieter Needs to Fly, or the lip-trumpeting Kokol in Land of Silence and Darkness. I could go on, but you get the point. In those cases, Herzog realizes that he can’t possibly embellish the image itself with his own words—unless he resorts to writing his subjects’ words for them, which he sometimes does—and so he lets his camera ogle.

I used to read this ogling as genuine fascination. I used to interpret Herzog’s silence as respect. But recent documentaries have me questioning the whole lot. In his latest film, Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog allows several of his interviewees to speak just long enough to establish their wackiness before he cuts them off with voiceover, often ridiculing them in the process. (“Her story goes on forever,” he says with disdain as one of his interviewees recounts her around-the-world exploits. “Your stories do, too,” I thought.) In the same film, Herzog digs up dated footage of a man trying to enter the Guinness Book of World Records in a number of less than dignified ways and compares him to anyone who might be misguided enough to believe that adventuring in Antarctica still provides genuine adventure. Such instances make me wonder whether ecstatic truth is just an artsy name for reality TV. In the otherwise terrific Lessons of Darkness, Herzog laughably suggests that the workers seen reigniting an oil fire are “consumed by madness,” asking if “life without fire has become unbearable for them.” That narration somehow ignores that Herzog himself is fueled by that madness. When there are fires of perversity, Herzog observes. When there aren’t, he starts a fire.

Werner Herzog

EH: See, I think Herzog is respectful of and fascinated by his subjects. In Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog sees these people as kindred spirits, people like him who have traveled the world and done unusual things simply because they wanted to. When he says about that one woman, “her story goes on forever,” I don’t read it as contempt—she’d just been chronicling a long list of terrible things that had happened to her, and Herzog’s voiceover underlines the fact that she’d suffered a great deal. He feels sympathy for her, especially since he’d suffered similar trials and mishaps during his own travels in Africa. Herzog mocks the faux-adventurism of breaking world records for Guinness, but he does it not to say that his interviewees are equally “misguided,” but to contrast their genuine adventures, their genuine pursuit of their own internal drives, against the (from Herzog’s perspective) silly and meaningless breaking of records.

Herzog seeks out interesting and unique people, but he never treats them like exhibits in a freak show, mainly because he tends to recognize himself in people like this. So he admires the way they forge their own place within the harsh extremes of nature, and he admires their engagement with highly specialized and eccentric fields of study, like the researcher who gets giddily excited about ice, or the physicist who views neutrinos in spiritual terms, or the penguin observer who, in the company of birds, seems to have lost his taste for human social interaction. Herzog doesn’t trot out these people to make fun of them. He doesn’t share their obsessions, and maybe he thinks some of them are a bit silly, but he certainly respects the fact that they have these obsessions and that they’ve doggedly pursued them no matter what the cost. He even manages to find a penguin analog for his fictional heroes like Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, a penguin who detours off from the accepted migration patterns of his species and waddles off towards the mountains on a doomed but iconoclastic quest. Herzog admires anyone who distinguishes themselves as an individual, even if they do so through folly or self-endangerment.

As for Lessons of Darkness, that’s one of Herzog’s least conventional documentaries, so much so that it almost ceases to be a documentary at all. It falls within a certain small class of films within his oeuvre, a class shared with Fata Morgana and The Wild Blue Yonder, where he crafts documentary footage into a loose science fiction narrative rather than treating it as realistic imagery. In this case, he acts as though he is part of an expedition that has just stumbled onto an alien planet for the first time and is attempting to interpret the sights he sees and the people he encounters. He pretends that the burning oil fields of Kuwait represent the entirety of a wasted planet.

This is clearly a case where approaching the film too literally will only be damaging to the experience. I mean, obviously there’s a good reason for what the workers do when they reignite those fires, and anyone watching it will know that the workers are not “mad.” But in the context of the sci-fi story Herzog is telling, it’s another example of just how strange and inexplicable the things we do as a species might be to an outside observer unaware of the reasons behind our actions. Herzog got a lot of flak for this film because he didn’t couch it in specific political terms about Saddam Hussein and the first Gulf War, but it’s actually much broader than any single conflict. The narration tries to step back from the specificity of these images, to view them from an outside perspective as evidence of a planet on the verge of destroying itself, of a species at war with nature.

Werner Herzog

JB: It’s funny: I think Lessons of Darkness is one of Herzog’s purest documentaries because the “sci-fi story” is so insignificant, and the narration so scarce, that I find it easy to ignore altogether. What we’re left with are these breathtaking images that are rarely what Herzog claims them to be, but that are awe-inspiring just the same. We see oil fires spitting majestically toward the heavens; oil lakes crisscrossed by white-sand roads; workers extinguishing an oil fire with a dynamite-powered explosion; men toiling away in an oil storm; oil lakes bubbling at the surface as if pelted by hail. Oh, sure, even at 50 minutes, Herzog overstays his welcome in a few places, as he is prone to do, but the raw power of his cinematography makes this one of his greatest pictures, in my opinion.

See, what you must understand is that one of the reasons that I grow so frustrated by Herzog’s uncontrollable tongue is because I admire his visual sensibilities. For example, his 1968 dramatic film Signs of Life, about a man who goes insane due to idleness (a Herzogian theme in every sense), has that fantastic scene in which the crazed Stroszek (Peter Brogle) ignites fireworks from the fortress. It begins with two German officers talking to one another, and when they move to the window at the sound of the first explosions, the camera tracks past them and looks through another window at the fireworks blasting toward the sky and out over the water, as Stavros Xarhakos’ score gently underlines the vision’s beauty. This all unfolds in black-and-white, remember, and yet I can’t think of a more striking use of fireworks in cinema.

Then there’s a film like Aguirre, which begins with the magnificent image of Pizarro’s soldiers marching single-file through the mountains of Peru, carrying a cannon and sedan-chairs and dragging llamas behind them, all while “dressed for a court pageant,” as Ebert puts it in his Great Movies essay. The film ends with the haunting image of Aguirre stomping about on his raft, alone except for dozens of chattering monkeys. In between we are treated to shots of Aguirre sneering beneath his helmet, drifting about with that lopsided stagger that Johnny Depp brought out of mothballs for his portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. In these instances, what the camera tells us is infinitely more interesting and more memorable than anything the characters or Herzog says, which is a compliment in one sense and an insult in another.

Werner Herzog

EH: I can’t really separate Herzog’s visual sensibility from his narrative sense in the same way, but I agree with you about Signs of Life and Aguirre. These are stunning films, and Signs of Life is doubly stunning for being a debut feature. Herzog had previously made a few tentative shorts and then wandered the globe for a few years, and he had no formal knowledge of film whatsoever. And yet Signs of Life is so assured, so perfectly paced and conceived. The film moves with the slow, lazy rhythms of life in an empty fort on the Greek isle of Crete, as Stroszek, his wife Nora (Athina Zacharopoulou) and two other soldiers sit around with nothing to do. They finish their work within a few days and then simply lounge around in the dry heat, bored and disaffected. Herzog documents everything with a patient eye: the dinners put together with simple ingredients, the turtles they find and name, the ingenious homemade trap for cockroaches.

Despite the poetic realism of Herzog’s imagery, there is also a subtle surreal streak running through the film, a sensibility that uncovers the bizarre and hallucinatory qualities in the prosaic. There’s that great moment where Stroszek, in the midst of a routine patrol, suddenly stumbles across a field full of windmills strewn across the landscape, humming in the wind. Herzog finds these incredible images that look fake, and yet are undeniably real as well.

Once Stroszek loses his grip on his sanity, chasing his wife and compatriots out of the fort at gunpoint, the film pulls back: he is never seen up close again, only from a distance, and he only speaks once more, delivering a crazed speech from atop the fort’s wall. From that point on, Herzog films him from afar, so that Stroszek is a speck darting around the fort’s central courtyard, scurrying across the wasted terrain. Herzog gives his hero a respectful isolation, allowing him to enact his mad rebellion in privacy. Only the effects, abstracted from Stroszek’s actions, are present in the film. The two lovely fireworks displays, one during the day and the second at night, are the most visible remainders of Stroszek in the film’s last act, as he makes fireworks from the shells in the fort’s ammo depot, transforming weaponry into an aesthetic expression. It’s through this intermediary that he expresses his rage and frustration: at the town, at his superiors in the army, at his wife and friends.

It’s interesting that despite the World War II setting, everything in this film is personal and introspective. Herzog is perhaps the most apolitical of directors, and this film more or less proves it: it’s hard to imagine another director, let alone a German director, who could make a film about German soldiers during WWII and not make it about Nazism or the Holocaust in the least. These are, technically speaking, Nazi soldiers, but they’re just ordinary guys on the fringes of the war, in a place that seems preternaturally calm and untouched by the war’s devastation. Stroszek’s insanity is not a political statement, it’s an expression of existential anguish.

Werner Herzog

JB: If I wanted to be a dick about it, I’d say, “Of course Herzog tells his WWII story apolitically; he’s German.” But that wouldn’t be fair, because, as you noted, it’s not as if Signs of Life marks the only occasion in which Herzog is drawn to the existential over the political. Indeed, this is yet another sign of how personal Herzog’s films can be. He’s interested in precisely what he’s interested in and nothing more. Herzog doesn’t strike me as an intentional maverick so much as an accidental nonconformist. It’s as if he’s blissfully unaware of The Norm. To use another example from Signs of Life, how many directors would allow Stroszek to fade into the background precisely at the point when he becomes most interesting? Not many. And yet I don’t get the feeling that Herzog had a grand plan to sequester the crazed Stroszek or to work against the grain. Instead, I think Herzog, who willingly admits that he largely makes up his films as he goes along, shot according to his whims, probably never realizing until the editing process that Stroszek is without a final ranting closeup. Heck, maybe Herzog was oblivious even then; there’s no arguing that he marches to his own drumbeat.

That said, Herzog’s drumbeat doesn’t always move me. Ebert says that Herzog’s films “vibrate,” but I’m rarely so overpowered. This is curious to me because Herzog has an eye for nature that reminds me of Terrence Malick, whose films I adore. So how is it that Malick makes me vibrate while Herzog often leaves me listless? I’m not entirely sure. Part of it has to do with Herzog’s penchant for talking over his cinematography, which we’ve discussed. Another factor might be that Herzog is so interested in the general human condition that he often ignores (overlooks?) the personal emotions of his central characters, which for me can be an obstacle. And then there’s Herzog’s aforementioned habit of holding a shot beyond its usefulness. I never tired of the fireworks displays of Signs of Life, but I could have done with less of watching the waves licking the shoreline, for example. In his documentaries, Herzog’s favorite gimmick is to hold the camera on his subject long after they’ve finished talking, regarding them like zoo animals on display. Sometimes this is effective. Other times, as I suggested earlier, I wonder if these images represent something deeper to Herzog that never comes through to his audience.

To this point, you’ve talked a lot about Herzog’s strengths. I’m curious to know what you think his weaknesses are, and to learn whether you think his films possess enough emotion to be considered attempts at “ecstatic” truth. In short, do Herzog’s films move you, or do they merely interest you? Or is that the same thing?

EH: As is probably more than obvious by now, I love Herzog’s films, so it should come as no surprise that I find them moving. Maybe I’m just attuned to Herzog’s personal vision, because as we’ve both noted, he does tend to follow his own inner drumbeat with little concern for things that don’t fall into his areas of interest. I’m not sure what it says about me that I’m so willing to enter Herzog’s world again and again, but I’m frequently moved and rarely bored by his films (other than some of his recent fiction features, at least, as I’m sure we’ll get to later).

That said, I do have reservations about his work. For one thing, the lack of political engagement, which I consider a strength in films like Lessons of Darkness or Signs of Life, can bother me when a particular moment demands a more political perspective on his subject. It doesn’t happen often, but there are times in Encounters at the End of the World, when some of his interviewees are talking about environmental protection and things like that, where Herzog’s objectivity and refusal to go into it further irritates me a little. I mean, he’s making a film that’s partly about the splendor of nature, and yet he more or less ignores the environmental implications of melting ice caps and climate change even when the people he meets explicitly bring these subjects into the film. That’s an outgrowth of a certain pessimistic, apocalyptic strain in his thinking: if the world’s on the brink of ending anyway, why bother re-arranging the deck chairs? Of course, he has also made a handful of what might be called “message films,” movies like Ballad of the Little Soldier and Where the Green Ants Dream, that advocate for a specific political idea, so maybe like everything else it’s just a question of what interests him personally from film to film.

Herzog’s penchant for reshaping reality also brings up problematic questions, questions that are not always easy to answer. There are some uncomfortable moments in his documentaries, moments where I’m not sure whether what Herzog’s doing crosses the boundaries of good taste or not. One of these is the sequence in Little Dieter Needs to Fly where Herzog reenacts Dieter’s captivity by hiring a handful of Laotians to act as guards with machine guns, then tying Dieter’s hands behind his back and marching him through the jungle. As the march starts, Dieter looks up at the camera, his brow furrowed, and says quietly, “This is a little too close to home.” It’s an effective scene, but it certainly raises questions about the ethics of Herzog’s interactions with his subjects. There are similar scenes in Wings of Hope, a kind of sister film to Dieter’s story, about a young woman’s survival in the South American jungle after a plane crash that killed her whole family. Just as he had with Dieter, Herzog brings this woman back to the scene of the accident and has her confront her fears and memories; on the flight there, he even has her sit in the same seat she was in when she crashed. You mentioned reality TV earlier, but to me this kind of stuff brings to mind one of those “investigative journalist” shows where the interviewer is always trying to get the subject to confess some deep, dark secret.

But I’m conflicted about these devices, because, for one thing, by all appearances Dieter is going along with these recreations willingly, and indeed he remained close friends with Herzog until he died in 2001. Moreover, Herzog’s methods really do get at something deeper, something that perhaps wouldn’t be as affecting if not for his manipulations. That film’s climax is a meditative, melancholy shot of Dieter sitting beneath the bridge into Thailand that he and his fellow escapee Duane were trying to reach but never did. As he sits cross-legged beneath this bridge, the water and the gray sky looming above him, describing Duane’s death, there is a subtle and deeply moving sadness to the image that, one senses, Herzog was able to get at because he and Dieter were both so fully immersed in this place, in the jungle, in the very locations where Dieter and Duane spent the hard days of their escape. A scene like this is to me the essence of Herzog’s “ecstatic truth,” and at times like that my reservations about his politics and his ethics simply melt away.

Werner Herzog

JB: Well, here’s the problem with ecstatic truth: That shot of Dieter sitting beneath the bridge? I don’t trust it. I don’t trust it because Dieter and Herzog sit there long enough for the sun to set, which would have seemed forced in any documentary and certainly seems calculated with Herzog behind the camera. I don’t trust it because earlier there’s a scene in which Dieter stands in front of a tank of jellyfish and compares their lethal beauty to his image of death—a poetic image that in fact was whispered into his ear by Herzog. I don’t trust it because Dieter’s “habit” of opening and closing doors numerous times, to ensure that they are unlocked and he is free, also strikes me as a Herzogian flourish.

I don’t need an “accountant’s truth” from any film. Nevertheless we can’t overlook that realism is part of the documentary genre’s allure, even for Herzog. Little Dieter Needs to Fly is essentially a long interview with the subject that enthralls not just because the story is interesting but because the story is presumed to be true (or at least mostly true). What is sacrificed in artistry (Dieter talking into the camera) is made up for with legitimacy (we believe the things he’s saying). I’ve always felt it hypocritical that Herzog wants us to overlook or otherwise accept his embellishments when the very reason for those embellishments is to deceive the audience. As a director, it’s one thing to take Fini Straubinger out of her daily routine to show her in interesting situations. It’s something else to artificially enhance your subject’s character because they aren’t quite as interesting, or poetic, or expressive as you want them to be. Entering into a Herzog documentary is like beginning a relationship with a serial cheater: the naïve get taken advantage of without even knowing it; the savvy go on such heightened alert that they never get comfortable.

The ecstatic truth debate isn’t the limit of Herzog’s hypocrisy, of course. For example, his initial premise for Encounters at the End of the World is that it won’t be another movie about penguins—obviously taking a shot at the stunning March of the Penguins, which is apparently guilty of being uplifting. Of course, Herzog throws this rule right out the window as soon as he finds a penguin willing to go on a death march. Sure enough, his footage of a penguin randomly diverging from the colony and heading inland toward certain doom makes for arguably the most memorable moment in the entire film. So, to recap, crazy penguins that satisfy Herzog’s world outlook are okay. Meanwhile, penguins that further the survival of their species against seemingly impossible odds are, what? Too typical?

My biggest ethical beef with Herzog, though, is tied to that shameful moment in Grizzly Man when he sits across from Timothy Treadwell’s ex-girlfriend, Jewel Palovak, and listens to the tape of Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, being mauled to death by a grizzly bear. Listening to the audio through headphones, Herzog grimaces. He moans. He conveys to the audience the tape’s horrifying gruesomeness, clearly attempting to stir Palovak’s emotions in the process. Then he warns Palovak, “You must never listen to this… You should destroy it.” Huh? In this disquieting scene, Herzog suggests he’s above satisfying the audience’s morbid curiosity, even while he stokes it. He suggests himself above snuff-tape exploitation, and yet he succumbs to it. He suggests that he’s looking out for Palovak’s peace of mind, and yet he attempts to rattle her with his display. These are Michael Moore tactics, and as far as ethics are concerned, Herzog lost a great deal of my respect in that scene.

Werner Herzog

EH: I’m sometimes bothered by Herzog’s distortions and exaggerations myself, but you’re simplifying what he’s doing with many of his “ecstatic truth” moments. The examples you cite from Little Dieter Needs to Fly especially strike me as aesthetically effective and ethically unproblematic. Both the scene in front of the jellyfish tank and the shots of Dieter closing and opening his front door are Herzogian inventions, but they are inventions based on things that Dieter himself said. In the case of the jellyfish scene, Dieter’s description of the floating, hypnotic, distanced feeling of being near death is genuine; this is really what he felt. It was Herzog’s idea to link this description with a visual equivalent, to express Dieter’s experience in visual terms. Isn’t that what a good filmmaker does? He took a monologue, which no matter how affecting would have been a mere talking-head shot in any other movie, and found a way to visualize his subject’s words. That doesn’t strike me as dishonest in the least; it’s just smart filmmaking. The same goes for the stuff with the doors. Did Dieter normally open and close his doors several times when entering his house? No, of course not. But he did express his fascination with the simple act of being able to open a door, and he did talk about it as being a symbol of freedom. So Herzog devised a way to memorably capture that sensation of freedom in the film.

In scenes like this, I don’t agree that Herzog is out to deceive the audience, mainly because he’s so forthright about all his distortions in interviews and even at times right in the framework of the film. He genuinely doesn’t seem to care if people know that his films are not entirely factual. He’s not trying to pull one over on you, and it’s a big mistake to approach his films with the mindset of trying to separate fact from fiction, determined not to be “fooled.” He’s out to create an aesthetic experience, and he probably wouldn’t agree with your proposed tradeoff between aesthetics and legitimacy. Or, more likely, he’d see the loss of legitimacy from bending the truth as a fair price to pay for the increased expressiveness he gains by being able to place his subject in front of a jellyfish tank or pass off the town drunks as religious pilgrims. And as a viewer, I honestly don’t care if that scene under the bridge is manipulated and carefully timed. So what? You say you don’t trust it, but what’s to trust or distrust? Every filmmaker worth the title thinks about the aesthetics of their images, and if Herzog set this shot up to create a visual atmosphere enveloping Dieter, why should that make you distrust it? It’s still a beautiful shot, and the combination of the setting and the context with Dieter’s story enhances the impact of what he’s saying. To me, it’s a perfect example of how the artificiality of Herzog’s vision can cut so much deeper than unmediated reality.

That said, I’m forced to agree with you about that scene with the audio tape in Grizzly Man. As much as I like that film in general, it also has some of the most wince-inducing scenes in Herzog’s entire oeuvre, scenes where he pretty much tramples on the line of good taste. Herzog listening to the tape on camera and then telling Treadwell’s ex to destroy it comes across as a self-righteous and self-congratulatory gesture. In trying to prove his own nobility and refusal to exploit tragedy, he winds up being nearly as manipulative and exploitative as if he had just played the tape. I’m also bothered by the inclusion of that weird and morbid coroner who recites, with exaggerated theatricality, the circumstances of Treadwell and Huguenard’s deaths. I don’t know if that’s a Herzogian invention or just one of those times when he stumbled across a character who’s off-kilter in his own right, but either way it’s an unsettling sequence that exploits two tragic deaths for some cheap laughs. Herzog is generally so sympathetic to his characters and subjects—even in that same film he often seems to share a posthumous feeling of kinship with Treadwell—that moments like this stick out even more egregiously.

Werner Herzog

JB: What’s so unsettling about the coroner is that with his crazed appearance and speech patterns, along with his ghastly descriptions of death, he strikes me as Herzog’s wet dream. Underneath it all, I think Herzog is a caring soul, but he doesn’t have it in him to pass up such bizarre spectacles. Bringing us back to something I said earlier, it’s scenes like that one that make me question Herzog’s motivations across the board. I don’t detect smutty exploitation watching Land of Silence and Darkness alone, and yet maybe it’s nothing more than a ticket to the freak show. In Grizzly Man, Herzog says that he believes the common character of the universe isn’t “harmony but chaos, hostility and murder.” This is a grim outlook, to say the least. So why should I expect that guy to deliver what the synopsis on my Netflix rental of Silence and Darkness calls “a wonderful testament to the triumphant nature of the human spirit.” Does that sound like Herzog to you? Maybe Fini Straubinger, like the coroner in Grizzly Man or numerous characters in Bells From the Deep, is nothing more than a source of oddity porn.

As for the ecstatic truth debate, perhaps I’m hindered by my own journalistic experiences, because I’ve performed interviews before. I’ve danced the dance of trying to coax my subject out of his/her protective shell, trying to find the character inside, searching for that quote that isn’t spit out of the cliché machine. It’s a challenge, an art form in and of itself. And when it works, quotes fall from the subject’s mouth like coins from a slot machine. It’s a rush. When it doesn’t happen, you walk away feeling like you didn’t do your job. And yet in those latter instances, as much as you would love to alter a quote, or dream up an anecdote, you can’t. It wouldn’t be right, not just because it’s against some idealized journalistic code, but also because once you cross that line, the story stops reflecting the subject and starts to reflect the interviewer.

Having said that, it’s only right that I mention that In Cold Blood is one of my favorite books, and that I’m a fan of the “creative nonfiction” genre of literature in general. Your previous comments essentially argue that Herzog is no less factual than Truman Capote, and that may be true. On that note, perhaps the audience is at fault for expecting truth from a Herzog documentary in the first place, the same way the audience might be misguided to expect definitive meaning from a David Lynch film, to recall one of our previous conversations. But your defense of Herzog’s methods ignores that Herzog could have conveyed symbolism in the jellyfish scene simply by staging the interview in front of the jellyfish tank, or by cutting away to B-roll footage. He didn’t need Dieter to actually say the words “This is what death looks like to me.” Likewise, the door gimmick is misleading, suggesting not a fascination with freedom but a heartbreaking trauma that has manifested itself as an obsessive-compulsive tick. Is Dieter silently suffering? Is that the truth, ecstatic or otherwise? I don’t know. And, frankly, how can I know, considering that Herzog’s methods bring the validity of everything into question?

To say that the effect of Dieter’s story is the effect of Dieter’s story, period, regardless of whether or not it’s “real,” ignores that without the illusion of accountant’s truth, Herzog’s ecstatic truth is neutered. Sure, Herzog is forthright in interviews about his fabrications, but when you’re making up quotes and ascribing them to your subjects, there’s no debating that you’re deliberately deceiving the viewer. (It’s not as if Herzog is shy about injecting his own thoughts into his documentaries as narration.) Thus, “Ecstatic Truth” is code for “Things Herzog Wishes Were Accountant’s Truth, But Aren’t.” Again, I have no problem with a blurring of the lines; in instances in which Herzog does the writer’s equivalent of rephrasing a subject’s comments for clarity or narrative flow, I don’t feel deceived. But there’s a reason that the talking-head format of Little Dieter Needs to Fly is more thrilling than the dramatization of the same thing in Rescue Dawn: reality has inherent weight. Herzog’s admission in interviews that he plays with truth is the equivalent of a priest’s concession that the Bible isn’t meant to be read literally: It’s no accident that these disclaimers aren’t provided within the stories themselves, because to do so would be to negate their emotional power.

Werner Herzog

EH: You ask if “a wonderful testament to the triumphant nature of the human spirit” sounds like Herzog to me. Disregarding the generic, sentimental Hallmark phrasing of it, yes, it does sound like him. Herzog’s view of the world is undeniably bleak. There’s a famous speech from Burden of Dreams, Les Blank’s documentary on the making of Fitzcarraldo, in which Herzog rants at great length on the horrors of the natural world, calling nature “vile and base.” And yet, despite his fascination with mortality and suffering, it’s equally clear that he admires those who—like him, arguably—fight back against nature, struggle against the harsh and ugly world they’ve been given. Herzog’s horrific view of nature and life only makes his heroes’ victories more “triumphant,” makes their struggles even braver. Whatever you think of Herzog’s twisting of the truth, it’s clear (to me, anyway), that he has great respect for Fini Straubinger and Walter Steiner in The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner and even Timothy Treadwell, despite the moments in Grizzly Man when we agree his intrusions are in poor taste.

Threading through our discussion so far is an unspoken question: whether or not Herzog really needs to distort the truth so much in order to achieve the effects he does, or if he could express the same sentiments in more straightforward, less deceptive ways. Oddly enough, it’s one of his recent fiction features that proves the point to me. If Little Dieter Needs to Fly is a personal essay about Dieter Dengler, Rescue Dawn is the text book version of the same story—the “accountant’s truth,” if you will. Rescue Dawn shares most of the same details, hits most of the same narrative beats, but the emphasis is entirely different. Little Dieter Needs to Fly is framed retroactively, as a reminiscence, and therefore it is about the effect of Dieter’s POW experiences on the man he is now. It’s about his experience of death and pain and suffering, his understanding of the comforts and pleasures of life in relation to those times when he was deprived of those comforts, not only in Laos but in Germany as a little boy (like having to eat wallpaper, a potent detail left out of the fictionalized remake). Rescue Dawn, in comparison, is all in-the-moment, about the schematics of the escape plan and the survival of the escapees in the jungle.

What’s lost in the translation is largely Dieter as a character. In Christian Bale’s portrayal, Dieter’s German heritage disappears along with his accent. There’s no deeper engagement with Dieter’s past, with his character, with his personality. Dieter was a fascinating figure in the original documentary; here he’s just a generic guy who has some really horrible stuff happen to him, who undergoes torture and imprisonment and manages to escape. It’s still a compelling and harrowing story, but it loses its specificity, loses the charm and joy of Dieter that made the original documentary so moving and complex. You see that as confirmation that reality has “inherent weight,” but for me it’s just further evidence that Herzog has become disengaged from the form of the straight fiction feature. If there’s a continuum between fiction and documentary, Herzog has lost interest in the two ends of the line; for some time now, he’s done his best work somewhere in the center. The director once best known for his Klaus Kinski features hasn’t made a truly compelling fictional film, in my opinion, since 1984’s Where the Green Ants Dream (and many people don’t even like that film and would place the cutoff earlier). Since then, he’s remained prolific but has only made four mostly disappointing fiction films: his final Kinski collaboration Cobra Verde (1987), the surprisingly bland Scream of Stone (1991), the meandering, overlong Invincible (2001) and Rescue Dawn (2006).

It’s clear from this that, just as Herzog is not interested in the “accountant’s truth,” neither is he truly engaged by works of pure imagination anymore. He seems to need that tension between artifice and reality that drives his best recent works. It’s also perhaps true that the method of fiction filmmaking once favored by Herzog—run off into the jungle with some cameras and more or less improvise a film—has become extinct as financiers and studio executives have tightened their control over the industry. In Scream of Stone, Herzog viciously mocks studio execs and money people who wish to rein in a dangerous but vital film production. It’s not hard to see that film as his own scream of frustration at a changing movie industry that was making it harder and harder for him to make the kinds of films he wants to make. Maybe this is why, in recent years, he has increasingly incorporated fiction into his documentaries; he knows that straightforward fiction is out of his reach for various reasons.

Werner Herzog

JB: Those are strong arguments. To build on your last point, it could be too that running off into the jungle loses its luster with age, and/or that Herzog is savvy enough to realize that creating films against impossible odds, as he did with Fitzcarraldo, has a shelf life in terms of one’s reputation. For a while, you’re a romantic, but if you keep it up, you’re just a deranged pain in the ass. (For all the ways Herzog avoids discussion of his legend—he doesn’t revel in war stories like Francis Ford Coppola—he’s spent too much time speaking to us through his films for me to believe that his image is irrelevant to him.) Also, I suspect that Herzog is miffed that so much of cinema’s landscape has been claimed now. I imagine he reacted to Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto the way he did to arriving in Antarctica and finding an ATM machine. For so long, Herzog was making films that, if nothing else, stood out by their subject matter. At this point, he must feel like an outdoorsman who goes hiking through a rain forest and comes across tourists in fanny packs. Being an adventurer just ain’t what it used to be.

As for Rescue Dawn, it’s a strong film in many respects, but, as you suggested, there’s something generic about it that makes it a little depressing. Beyond the familiarity of the story, the film’s only Herzogian trademarks are its stunning jungle shots (Herzog would vomit if he had to shoot on a backlot) and the camera’s disturbing lust for Jeremy Davies’ emaciated frame. So, to double back toward the friendship theory, if you can’t get a Herzogian touch from Herzog, what’s the point?

EH: Very true. As I said earlier, I like Herzog’s films best when they’re at their most Herzogian, when every frame is inscribed with his unmistakable imprint. And despite the lovingly photographed jungle setting and the typical subject, Rescue Dawn is one of his least Herzogian films. I remember reading a New Yorker profile of Herzog when this film was still in production, and it gave the impression that he was working with a Hollywood crew who had no knowledge of his methods and no respect for his talents—there was lots of kvetching on the set, a lot of second-guessing from those who felt that the director was doing things “wrong.” Of course, Herzog has made a whole career out of doing things the “wrong” way, of bucking standards and ignoring what everyone else considers the normal—or the only—way of making films. So it’s sad when someone like Herzog, who has always had a tight core of sympathetic collaborators, is instead surrounded by meddlers who don’t trust his well-honed and, by this point, thoroughly proven instincts. That atmosphere shows through in the lackluster finished film.

Anyway, since it seems like we’re starting to wrap things up here, I’d like to turn our conversation towards one aspect of Herzog’s cinema we’ve overlooked in all this back-and-forth about fiction vs. reality: Herzog’s often brilliant sense of sound design. From his very first feature Signs of Life, with its lilting, cyclical guitar score by composer Stavros Xarhakos, Herzog has been as attentive to the soundtracks of his films as he is to the visuals. More recently, the throat-singing that first appeared in Bells From the Deep was then reused, to stunning effect, as an accompaniment to the montage of American napalm bombing raids that opens Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Herzog’s ear for music is intuitive and sometimes even counterintuitive, pairing music and images in unexpected ways that nevertheless work on a deeper level.

He’s also collaborated often with Florian Fricke of Popol Vuh, who contributed music to many of Herzog’s films. His score for Aguirre is especially powerful, a quiet electronic murmur that blends into the sounds of the jungle. Fricke’s score for that film is eerie and subdued, somewhere between an organ and a human voice, and his haunting tones fade in and out. In addition to the music, Herzog created a complex, layered collage of jungle sounds: rushing water, bird calls and crickets, the creaking of the raft’s wooden beams. It’s not naturalistic at all but obviously carefully arranged, creating an artificial jungle soundtrack.

Maybe this is just more evidence of Herzog’s obsessive controlling tendencies. He can’t even let the jungle provide its own natural sounds but has to arrange them himself, forming an ideal aural rain forest in the editing stage. He always has a very clear idea of what he wants, if not narratively than at least aesthetically. And if, as you say, he’s now something like an old adventurer who has seen the frontiers worn away, he’s nevertheless done a good job of finding new frontiers, pushing onward, delving deeper into the kind of territory that so consistently fascinates him.

Werner Herzog

JB: I think “consistently” is the key word there, because a voice in my head wonders whether it’s worth searching for new frontiers if one’s near-sightedness always provides the same view. One way or another, most, if not all, of Herzog’s films wind up being about human life at the edge of chaos, whether that means coexisting with grizzly bears, pushing the limits of ski jumping, or hauling a boat overland, etcetera. As Herzog scales his mountains, he already knows what he will see from the summit, and so when the view doesn’t match his expectations or desires, he changes it. (That, as much as anything, is the root of Herzog’s fictional meddling in his documentaries.) Thus, I’m conflicted as to whether Herzog’s implementation of the Bells throat-singing in Little Dieter Needs to Fly reveals a kind of counterintuitive genius or merely a reluctance to leave his comfort zone. Does the score for Aguirre suggest an obsession with control, or does it expose a filmmaker who only hears the sounds in his own head? Maybe, just maybe, Herzog’s explorer persona is an illusion. Maybe, just maybe, Herzog is less an open-minded discoverer than a guy channel-surfing through the cable news channels, looking for evidence that will strengthen his already-established worldview.

I toss that out there as food for thought—an alternative view of the man, the myth and the legend—rather than as an accusation, because when it comes down to it, Herzog’s motives are irrelevant. His films are his films, provoking us in whatever ways for whatever reasons. Even if they aren’t always factual, one gets the sense that they are always honest; Herzog believes in them. Whereas other filmmakers proceed with agendas, Herzog follows his instincts, for better or worse, in ways new and, more often, strikingly familiar. If the downside of Herzog’s tunnel vision is that his films have a habit of feeling similar to one another, the upside is that they routinely separate themselves from the larger pack by so thoroughly reflecting the distinct personality of their director (Rescue Dawn, and maybe a few others, excluded).

This is especially true of Herzog’s documentaries, of course, which increasingly seem inspired by pages of his diary. For all the problems I have with Herzog’s documentary style—particularly his eagerness to skew reality, even when unnecessary, and his ever-growing need to react to his films, babbling to the point of becoming that annoying jackass behind me who has to explain the movie to his girlfriend—I do appreciate the places he takes me. Even Herzog’s least engaging documentaries leave an imprint, and I think it’s a compliment that Herzog’s collection of documentaries is as fascinatingly controversial as the man himself. For all the times that I’ve wished Herzog would quit using his documentaries to sort out his emotions, the truth is that I’m glad he’s (apparently) never sought professional therapy. Cinema is all the better for it. So am I.

Bonus: An unofficial trailer for Herzog’s forthcoming new movie, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.

Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler.

Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.

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Review: Bombshell Is a Collection of Quirks in Search of a Trenchant Criticism

The film is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Roger Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.

1.5

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Bombshell
Photo: Lionsgate

With Bombshell, director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph make heroes of the women who brought down Roger Ailes, the late chairman and CEO of Fox News who was accused by several former employees—including star anchors Megyn “Santa Just Is White” Kelly and Gretchen Carlson—of sexual harassment in 2016. The filmmakers keenly depict these women’s courage and fixate on the toxic culture at Fox that fostered so much fear and intimidation, but Bombshell is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.

The film begins in the summer of 2016 with the Republican Party presidential debate in Iowa, where Kelly (Charlize Theron), the moderator, confronts Donald Trump with highlights of his long history of misogyny. This grilling, and her increasingly—if relatively—feminist stance on the Fox News daytime program The Kelly File, is met by backlash from the ascendant Trump cult, as well as Ailes (John Lithgow), whose professional relationship with Kelly at first seems productive in spite of its combativeness. Meanwhile, Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is fired from another Fox program, The Real Story, possibly for her own newfound—if, again, relative—feminism, and counters by filing a sexual harassment suit against Ailes.

Waiting for colleagues to make similar accusations in order to bolster her case, Carlson is left twisting in the wind by a collective fearful silence—a silence that even fierce former victim Kelly obeys—while Ailes and his litigation team prepare a defense. A third storyline involves “millennial evangelical” Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a composite character representing the many ambitious young women who suffered Ailes’s demeaning treatment in order to get ahead at Fox and the other organizations for which he worked.

Bombshell operates in a style that has become numbingly de rigueur since Oliver Stone’s W., in which political and corporate corruption are presented in a dramatic yet amiably humorous style that takes the edge off any potentially trenchant critique. Fourth walls are broken, jokes punctuate scenes, and the ambiance remains oddly congenial despite the purportedly suffocating and repressive environment of the Fox News offices.

Thankfully, there are moments when the actors transcend the too-casual tone. Lithgow portrays Ailes not merely as a dirty old man, but as a pitiful control freak whose disgusting actions unwittingly reveal a deep insecurity. The tensely coiled Kelly is a mass of contradictions, and one argument that she has with her husband, Douglas Brunt (Mark Duplass), over an embarrassingly fawning follow-up interview with Trump is memorable for allowing Theron to reveal the strain imposed on Kelly by conflicting personal, professional, and political allegiances. Robbie—frequently playing off a versatile Kate McKinnon’s co-worker/lover—moves from bubbly naïveté to painful humiliation with convincing subtlety.

And yet, Bombshell is predicated on several dubious ideas that ultimately blunt its power. The film relishes the downfall of a public figure, as well as the growing chaos of a divided Fox News. By the end of the film, we’re expected to feel righteous satisfaction when justice comes to Ailes in the form of a disgraceful resignation. But such a response can only feel hollow when the country continues to suffer from widespread problems cultivated by Fox from the same sexist, callous, and exploitative worldview at the root of Ailes’s behavior. The film only briefly and tangentially explores this worldview, and mostly uses it to simply highlight conservative hypocrisy and the general sliminess of the Fox organization.

Bombshell also delights in referencing battles fought among high-profile public figures, emphasizing the kind of inside baseball that the media routinely focuses on instead of more complex and endemic manifestations of national issues. Rather than understand Ailes’s harassment in relation to the sexism so deeply embedded in American corporate media and culture, the filmmakers reduce that sorry tradition to the confines of the Fox News offices and elite legal channels. This approach allows viewers to understand the organizational and legal pressures that made it so hard for Carlson and others to speak out about Ailes, but once Carlson files her charges, the abuse that she and others endured becomes overshadowed by competitive backroom negotiations and maneuverings.

The film reinforces this emphasis with gratuitous appearances by actors playing famous Fox News personalities (Geraldo Rivera, Neil Cavuto, and Sean Hannity) who are tangential to the narrative, as well as cutesy direct-address segments meant to make us feel in the know about the world of Fox. This is the stuff that Roach, who’s mostly directed broad comedies, and Randolph, who co-wrote The Big Short, clearly relish, but rather than connecting with the viewer through these strategies, Bombshell mostly feels insular, remote, and superficial. It would be nice if for once an accessible mainstream film took on the institutional powers that detrimentally shape our world with anger and incisiveness rather than a bemused concern.

Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Mark Duplass, Connie Britton, Rob Delaney, Malcolm McDowell, Allison Janney, Alice Eve Director: Jay Roach Screenwriter: Charles Randolph Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Richard Jewell Leans Into Courting Conservative Persecution Pity

Ironically, Clint Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises.

2.5

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Richard Jewell
Photo: Warner Bros.

Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” is a detailed cataloging of rushed judgements, lazy assumptions, and unforgiveable abuses of power. Richard Jewell was the security guard who spotted an Alice pack loaded with pipe bombs under a bench at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. The bombs exploded, directly killing one woman and injuring over a hundred others, but Jewell’s preemptive actions undeniably reduced the scope of atrocities. Jewell became a national hero, though a tip from a bitter former boss led the F.B.I. to aggressively investigate him as the prime suspect in the bombing. The news outlets ran with this information, leading to a “trial by media” that ruined Jewell’s life. In Richard Jewell, director Clint Eastwood uses this story as fodder for what he clearly sees as a fable of the evil of the F.B.I. and the media, who take down a righteous, implicitly conservative hero out of classist spite.

Richard Jewell is a political horror film that serves as a microcosm of the “deep state” conspiracies that the Republican Party trades in today. The media is represented here by essentially one person, a reporter named Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) who learns of Jewell’s investigation by sleeping with an F.B.I. agent, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), who serves as the film’s more or less singular representation of our domestic intelligence and security service. As such, the media and the F.B.I. are literally in bed together, and they see in the overweight, naïve, law-enforcement-worshipping Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) a readymade patsy.

Like most auteurs, Eastwood’s films are animated by his politics, in his case often featuring singular heroes who’re targeted by bureaucrats who know nothing of in-the-field work, but the productions are often complicated by the magnitude of his artistry. Sully takes simplistic swipes at regulations that save lives, glorifying the notion of the individual, but its most muscular scenes serve as startlingly beautiful celebrations of community, suggesting an ideal of a functional state that nearly refutes Eastwood’s own beliefs. By contrast, Richard Jewell finds the filmmaker more comfortably mining MAGA resentments. The film is rife with conservative Easter eggs. When we see Jewell’s attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), in his office, Eastwood highlights a sticker in a mirror that says “I Fear Government More Than I Fear Terrorism.” The film is dotted with guns, Confederate flags, and religious artifacts. And the real perpetrator of the bombing, Eric Randolph, a bigoted domestic terrorist who might interfere with Eastwood’s conservative reverie, is kept almost entirely off screen, reduced to a shadow.

Of course, Richard Jewell is set in the Bible Belt, and many of these details are pertinent. As Brenner’s article states, Bryant is a libertarian, and so that sticker accurately reflects his beliefs. But Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray rig the story so severely, in the service of courting conservative persecution pity, that even truthful details feel contextually false. Per Brenner, Jewell was a victim of many colliding interests, from the fading power of The Atlantic-Journal Constitution, which employed Scruggs, to internal clashes within the F.B.I.

In the film, the cops and journalists are desperate elitists just looking to finish a job, and their power is uncomplicatedly massive. The timing of Eastwood’s insinuation is unmistakable, suggesting that Jewell, the conservative Everyman, was railroaded by the government and the media in the same fashion as Trump, for possessing an uncouthness that offends “tastemaker” ideologies. The notion of political convictions as informed by image, particularly of culture and attractiveness, is a potentially brilliant one, and Eastwood’s portrait of liberal condescension isn’t entirely invalid, but he keeps scoring points at the expense of nuance.

In Brenner’s article, the F.B.I. is embarrassed to search the house of Jewell’s mother, Bobi (played here by Kathy Bates), where he lived. In the film, though, the officers storm the house in a smug and self-righteous fashion. Jewell was once actually in law enforcement and had many friendships and even a few girlfriends, while in the film he’s a pathetic wannabe eager to screw himself over for the sake of flattery. Sentiments that are attributed to Jewell in the article are transferred over to Bryant in the film, so to as to make the protagonist a more poignant fool. Ironically, Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises. (The filmmaker also, weirdly, elides real-life details that would serve his demonization, such as the F.B.I. lying about there being a “hero bomber” profile.)

Even with Eastwood so explicitly grinding an ax, Richard Jewell has the visceral power of his other recent political fables. Eastwood refines a device from The 15:17 to Paris, surrounding an unknown, unpolished camera subject, in this case Hauser, with attractive famous actors so as to inherently express the profound difference between the ruling class—embodied to the public in the form of celebrities—and the eroding working class. This idea is particularly evocative when Hauser is paired with Hamm. Hauser is painfully vulnerable as Jewell, as there’s no distance between him and the character, no sense that he’s “acting.” And this impression of defenselessness, when matched against Hamm’s polish, is terrifying. Such juxtapositions fervently communicate Eastwood’s furies, however hypocritical they may be.

Eastwood continues to be a poet of American anxiety. The Atlanta bombing is boiled down to a series of chilling and uncanny details, from the public dancing to the “Macarena” before the explosion to the scattering of nails along the ground in the wake of the pipe bomb’s blast. When Scruggs pushes for the Jewell story to be published, her eyes glint with anger between the shadows of window shades—an intellectually absurd effect that emotionally sticks, embodying Eastwood’s conception of a national castigation as a noir conspiracy set in shadowy chambers populated by a mere few. Later, when Jewell is free of his ordeal, he weeps with Bryant in a café booth, a moment that Eastwood offers up as an embodiment of America stabilizing right before reaching a cultural breaking point. As stacked and calculating as Richard Jewell is, it’s a fascinating expression of the divided soul of a gifted and troubling artist. It’s a rattling expression of American bitterness.

Cast: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Kathy Bates, Nina Arianda, Ian Gomez Director: Clint Eastwood Screenwriter: Billy Ray Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 131 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Cunningham Obscures the Voice That It Wants to Celebrate

This colorful but remote-feeling documentary functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late Merce Cunningham.

2.5

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Cunningham
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Alla Kovgan’s colorful but remote-feeling documentary about modern dance legend Merce Cunningham functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late choreographer himself. The film quotes him saying in various forms that he didn’t feel it appropriate or necessary to describe what his dances were about, and as such it feels appropriate that Cunningham leaves it to the dancing to deliver his story. But the problem with that approach is that it’s likely to leave many viewers, especially those who aren’t already dance aficionados, feeling somewhat at a remove from the subject matter.

Focusing on Cunningham’s works dating from 1942 to 1972, and his longtime collaborations with composer John Cage and other artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol, Kovgan balances loosely sketched biography with artistic recreation. The former sections are in some ways more engaging, as their often scratchy-looking archival footage provides at least some context for the sparse, ascetic, cold-water-flat milieu Cunningham was operating in. The latter sections, in which Kovgan stages a number of Cunningham’s pieces in settings ranging from a subway tunnel to a forest and are filmed in 3D with luscious colors, have a look-at-me showiness that cannot help but feel something like a betrayal of their source’s intentions.

Ascetic in approach but sometimes playful in execution, Cunningham in many ways functioned as the tip of the spear for avant-garde dance from the time he started producing work in the ‘40s. As related by the archival interviews played in the film, he didn’t appear to have much of a grand unifying theory behind his style. Rejecting the idea that he was some kind of modernist pioneer, he insists to one interviewer that he was simply “a dancer” and that he was really more interested in expanding the repertoire of movements available to performers by combining the techniques of ballet with what was already happening in modern dance in the postwar era. Quoting Cage in an old audio clip, Cunningham states with an emphatic flourish that “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”

As you watch the dances staged in Cunningham, you may find it hard to argue with that perspective. In describing the reaction to one of his dances, Cunningham says with a barely concealed glee that “the audience was puzzled.” After a performance in Paris, food was hurled at the dancers (Cunningham joked that he looked at the tomato on the stage and wished it were an apple: “I was hungry”). Confusion about the lack of an underlying story or intent to deliver a singular emotion is understandable. Making less sense is the dismissal noted in the documentary of many of Cunningham’s pieces as “cold” and “passionless” (a charge that’s leveled at boundary-pushing art to this day). The pieces staged here by Kovgan are indeed sometimes airy and insubstantial or gangly and jagged. But just as often they’re lush and buoyant, like in “Summerspace,” in which the dancers’ fluid pivots spill over with a joy that is heightened by the bright spotted costumes and Rauschenberg backdrop.

In some of those segments, it’s hard not to feel as if Kovgan is aiming for a big splash that could introduce the rarely seen work of an oft-cited avant-garde pioneer to a wide audience, as Wim Wenders aimed to do with Pina. But unlike that 3D extravaganza, with its cunning staging and breathtaking moves, Cunningham is simply working from less accessible source material. Even when Cunningham’s work is less abstracted, such as that bouncy floating maneuver that is something of a signature, it doesn’t exactly catch one’s attention.

Time and again in the film, we hear or see Cunningham reiterate his principle that the dances aren’t intended to reference anything. Interpretation is up to the audience, he said. In this way, he isn’t far from the take-it-or-leave-it sensibility of Warhol, whose silver balloons he incorporated into one piece. But by amplifying Cunningham’s dances with sun-dappled backdrops and 3D gimmickry, Kovgan deviates from their creator’s principle in a way that almost seems to betray their original intent. By taking so much focus away from the dancers, the film’s stagings come close to obscuring the voice it’s trying to celebrate.

Director: Alla Kovgan Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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Review: The Two Popes Carefully and Dubiously Toes a Party Line

There isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Jorge Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona.

1.5

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The Two Popes
Photo: Netflix

Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quick to acknowledge that Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is a humble man of the people. The film opens with a scene that fades in on Bergoglio, recently anointed Pope Francis, as he attempts to order a plane ticket over the phone. Assuming she’s being pranked when the caller gives his name and address, the Italian operator hangs up on the generously bemused head of the Catholic Church. After centuries of pomp, the scene suggests, the world’s Catholics were unprepared for a genuine article like Francis, a corrective to an episcopal hierarchy that had drifted too far away from the people. So goes the thesis of The Two Popes, reiterated in a number of subsequent scenes: Unlike previous generations of pontiffs, Francis engages with the actual state of the world, watches soccer, listens to pop music, and speaks to economic inequality.

This brief prologue’s slight humor and documentary-style presentation give an accurate idea of where the film is headed, both thematically and formally. Throughout, Meirelles embellishes the screenplay’s often dry conversations with pseudo-improvised camerawork—unsteady framing, sudden tilts, and emphatic snap zooms—familiar from his prior films, most notably City of God and The Constant Gardner. But what seemed, in the early aughts, fresh and well-suited to gangster movies and spy thrillers, feels dated and out of place in a film that amounts to two powerful octogenarians having a series of conversations. By abruptly adjusting the lens’s focal length at almost arbitrary moments, Meirelles transparently attempts to add dynamism to a film in which powerful actors are stuck reciting staid, safe dialogue.

The hagiographic Two Popes shuffles through moments in Bergoglio’s life. Some scenes are set in Argentina in the 1970s, a tumultuous time for the country, but the film mainly focuses on the development of Bergoglio’s relationship with Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), Pope Benedict XVI, during the early 21st century. Flashing back to eight years before the prologue, the camera travels through the narrow alleys of Buenos Aires, arriving at an outdoor sermon that Bergoglio is delivering. Unattached to the air of benevolent superiority Catholic priests are expected to exude, Bergoglio tangentially speaks of his support for the San Lorenzo soccer team, at which revelation his congregation feels comfortable booing their diocese’s bishop.

Meanwhile, John Paul II has died, and as a cardinal, Bergoglio must return to Rome to help elect a new pope. There he encounters Ratzinger, at the time a conservative Bavarian cardinal who haughtily insists on speaking to Bergoglio in Latin when they meet in a Vatican bathroom, and who turns up his nose when the Argentinian begins humming ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” to himself while washing his hands. The inclusion of an ABBA song makes for a lighter tone that The Two Popes will unevenly revive at various moments across its running time; the film will transition between scenes using out-of-place lounge jazz and ‘60s pop, then abruptly drop the levity for dialogic lessons on the state of Catholic theology.

The dogmatic Ratzinger’s election as pope later that year would signal an end to years of liberalization within the Catholic Church, a back-to-basics gesture that ultimately failed. His short reign would be dominated by controversy, as members of his inner circle were indicted for financial crimes and a long-brewing scandal over church cover-ups of sexual abuse came to the fore. Meirelles handles this historical context through aural and visual montages of archival news reports, which fill the gap as the story fast-forwards to a moment in 2012 when Pope Benedict calls Bergoglio, his unofficial rival from the church’s liberal wing, back to Rome.

Benedict aims to convince the bishop not to resign, as it would look to the outside world—as Benedict professes it does to him—that the liberal Bergoglio is renouncing his cardinalship in protest. Strolling through the lush gardens of the Vatican, or speaking in low, strained voices in its resplendent halls, the two debate their opposing theological and political philosophies. A mutual respect develops between them, with Benedict gradually opening himself to the outside world from which he has stayed aloof; one scene has Bergoglio teaching him about the Beatles, and in another the Argentine convinces the stiff German to try out the tango.

That’s all very cute, surely, but it’s also evidence that, despite courting a gritty reality effect with its documentary-inspired aesthetic, The Two Popes is carefully toeing a party line rather than exposing any hidden truths. Though it includes (rather hammy) flashbacks to Bergoglio’s morally ambiguous interactions with the Argentinian military dictatorship of the ‘70s, there isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona. For his part, Ratzinger comes off as the best version of the man one could imagine, given the turmoil that marked his tenure: old-fashioned but authentic, perhaps just a bit too aged and attached to the institution to weed out its excesses.

As, in scene after scene, the heads of the world’s most powerful religious institution neatly summarize their philosophies to one another, the viewer may sense a misdirect: What happened to the corruption? Where are the meetings about how to handle the child-abuse scandals? Such issues, which presumably would have been the subject of many a Vatican City discussion, turn out to be little more than background material to the individualized and sentimentalized story of two men with differing views becoming friends. Even when they do come up, our attention is directed elsewhere. The flashbacks to Bergoglio’s spotted past begin soon after the sexual abuse scandals are first mentioned, redirecting our piqued concern with institutional sins toward the drama of an individual man’s fateful misjudgment.

The second time the pair’s conversations drift toward the simmering abuse scandal, Meirelles actually drowns out the dialogue with a high-pitched whine on the soundtrack, and for no discernable story reason. It’s as if Bergoglio’s hearing has been impaired by the explosive truth. The moment feels less like the filmmakers protecting us from a truth too awful to hear, and much more like them shielding us from one too dangerous to be heard.

Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín, Sidney Cole, Thomas D. Williams, Federico Torre, Pablo Trimarchi Director: Fernando Meirelles Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Empty Metal Grapples with the Efficacy of Activist Violence

The film is greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness.

3

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Empty Metal
Photo: Factory 25

The idea that violence can be an effective or even necessary form of activism is one of the last remaining taboos in a contemporary discourse that holds civil debate up as the highest virtue. Empty Metal, meanwhile, reaffirms independent, artist-made cinema as a natural arena for wading through these kinds of uncomfortable notions. Greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness, and certainly more potent than Todd Phillips’s Joker, it takes on the ambitious and possibly risky task of exploring what activist violence means in the context of a modern world where ambient forms of hostility—militarized police aggression (specifically toward people of color), mass surveillance and ongoing, never-ending wars—subtly dictate our lives.

Collaborating for the first time on what constitutes for both of them a narrative feature debut, Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer have fashioned a topical lightning rod with Empty Metal, though not in a manner that suggests willful provocation. Assembled on a meager budget with friends, family, and members of the filmmakers’ extended artistic circles, the film progresses with an untamed energy and disregard for convention that suggest the manifestation of creative impulses feeding, unchecked, off one another. Juggling multiple intersecting storylines with passages of visual lyricism and diegesis-breaking reminders of contemporary injustices, Empty Metal offers an anarchic collage that careens between narrative storytelling (Sweitzer’s background) and documentary and video-art instincts (Khalil’s backgrounds).

Central to the story of Empty Metal are Rose (indie noise musician Rose Mori, a.k.a. PVSSYHEAVEN), Pam (Sam Richardson), and Devon (Austin Sley Julian), a trio of disaffected electro-punk rockers gigging around Brooklyn under the moniker of Alien. But to call them protagonists undercuts the degree to which Khalil and Sweitzer frame them less as independently motivated agents than as ciphers ushered along a path over which they appear to exert little control. More instrumental to the film’s evolution are the clairvoyant, vaguely ethereal figures—a Rastafarian chef listed in the credits as King Alpha (Oba), an older indigenous woman (Irma LaGuerre), and several of their younger accomplices—who watch over the trio and ultimately size them up as eligible candidates for a criminal plot.

Rose, Pam, and Devon are to assassinate three infamous white cops who’ve gotten away with murder, then go off the grid. Neither the names of the targets nor their specific infractions are clarified, though the connections to real-life analogues are made more or less self-evident in the series of crude 3D renderings of police violence that are periodically inserted into the middle of scenes. On the eve of a domestic Alien tour, Rose is approached at the band van by a member of King Alpha’s clan, who leans into the would-be rebel to impart a telepathic message paraphrased, as with a number of the film’s longer monologues, from William S. Burroughs’s novel The Place of Dead Roads: “I will teach you to dissociate gun, arm, and eye.”

Intuitively reading between the lines, Rose promptly loses interest in the tour and recruits, with little resistance, her bandmates to the cause. This sequence of events, along with anything else having to do with the transition of these hitherto merely frustrated musicians to insurrectionary vigilantes, hardly stands up to dramatic scrutiny, due in equal parts to Mori, Richardson, and Julian’s stilted line deliveries and the insufficient time their characters are afforded in the editing to acquire anything like psychological plausibility.

Nonetheless, there’s something of a poetic logic to the characters’ transformations, an unnerving illustration of the idea that the gap between ambient frustration and radicalism is but a short cognitive leap. There’s also a sense of fatalism that hangs over the proceedings, of an inexorable historical duty that can’t or shouldn’t be resisted. In an ominous sequence of self-actualization, Rose recites the names of historical dissidents from Ulrike Meinhof to Osama bin Laden with a mix of clinical dispassion and reverence as archival footage and animated representations of their violent acts fill the screen.

By contrast, Khalil and Sweitzer stage a lighter scene around the mid-forest meeting of King Alpha, LaGuerre’s character, and a European monk (Pawel Wojtasik) previously seen only in excerpts of a de-contextualized courtroom taping. Here, it’s casually implied that the three characters—who suddenly claim to have last seen each other at either the “L.A. riots” or Wounded Knee—are merely the corporeal containers of activist spirits who weave through the centuries, cyclically reuniting to nudge willing souls toward more proactive forms of rebellion.

Taking its title from a description of drones given by Rose in voiceover, Empty Metal questions if perhaps these transhistorical agitators have met a new and unconquerable challenger in the surveillance state, armed as it is with high-tech weaponry and vast intel on its populace. Certainly, the right-wing militia shown in another chilling subplot offers no compelling resistance to this monolithic force, even as they stash up on firearms and embark on austere training. The figurehead of this self-determined group (Jon Nandor) happens to be the son of Wojtasik’s monk, and it’s a quiet dinner table scene between the two of them that stands out among all the jarring associative edits and flicker-frame embellishments as one of the film’s strongest effects. As the father dismantles his son’s second amendment convictions, he’s left unable to contemplate an adequate alternative, and it’s telling that even a sage, potentially immortal mystic seems perplexed by our current predicament.

Cast: Rose Mori, Austin Sley Julian, Sam Richardson, Oba, Irma LaGuerre, Pawel Wojtasik, Jon Nandor Director: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Screenwriter: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Beniamino Barrese’s The Disappearance of My Mother

It’s fascinating to see Benedetta Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself.

3

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The Disappearance of My Mother
Photo: Kino Lorber

Domestic ethnography typically sees a filmmaking member of a family turning the camera inward to investigate, or rewrite, a family’s history. This means that the filmmaker in question can occupy the inconvenient position of unearthing the ancient dirt on top of which the family is founded. In The Disappearance of My Mother, director Beniamino Barrese is less interested in wrestling with the maternal function in the drama of a household than in the mother’s status as his muse. The film is a love letter to the filmmaker’s mother, Benedetta Barzini, a 76-year-old former supermodel and the first Italian woman to grace the cover of American Vogue, now a feminist fashion studies lecturer in Milan. The constellation of the family is rendered useless here, as what matters to Barrese is the love affair between mother and son, forever mediated by the camera lens.

The tragedy here isn’t to be found in the regrettable actions of yore or the repressed feelings that both constitute and undermine a home, but in the unfairness of time. The film seems to say that a mother must age, a mother must die, and some of them may even want to. And it seemingly recognizes something tragic in an external world that’s obsessed with all of the things Barzini doesn’t value, despite having been a fashion industry commodity in the 1960s: beauty, youth, luxury, and cleanliness (she hardly ever showers or changes her bedsheets).

Barzini’s feminist stance appears as her most consistent motif in old interviews, in the strangely theatrical way she used to pose with garments in fashion shoots, and in her present-day statements captured in the film, both verbal and sartorial (she shows up to receive an award in her stay-at-home clothes). She is, from the beginning of her career, vocally aware that the femininity she’s paid to display is a playful one, removed from her actual self, which is itself, Barzini argues, unphotographable. She knows the existence, and persistence, of beauty stereotypes caging women to be due to the fact that men invent women through a series of prescriptions. And that they thus invent them as Jessica Rabbits, she argues at one point, wondering out loud whether it may not be best if women’s bodies disappeared altogether.

It’s fascinating to see Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself, bringing back news from its most glamourous yet rotten core. She lectures young college girls about the symbolic relationship between fashion, youth, and man’s fear of death, holding magazine ads in her hands as irrefutable evidence. She asks them questions like “What does ‘old age’ mean?,” “Why do imperfections bother people?,” and “What is the point of continuing to sell our bodies without any quality or talent?” These moments of pedagogical passion occur when Barzini’s presence is allowed to take over the frame precisely because the filmmaking son fades into the background. And they’re in striking contrast to Barrese’s instances of shoving the camera into his mother’s reluctant face.

That stance, though in line with some sort of undying teenage streak, reveals a misguided desire to force his mother into his cinematic paradigm. Although Barrese purposefully allows for a great degree of transparency, showing us his failed attempts to get his mother to change outfits for continuity’s sake, for instance, these sequences feel contrived when compared to those where the mother is allowed to perform in an uncontrolled fashion. When we hear him ask her, “Is there anything you want me to put in the wash?,” or “Mom, what bothers you so much about images?,” it’s impossible not to see the air of spontaneity as calculated artifice.

Many times, Barrese acts like a vulture taking something from his mother that she doesn’t want to give. Or does she? Barzini calls him a petit bourgeois for appreciating her articulations only inasmuch as they fit his filmic narrative. And she yells, “Put the camera down! Put it down!” He obeys her for a couple seconds but leaves the camera running, then grabs it back to continue interrogating her. And she lets him. Mother and son relations are often like this—full of theatrics, ambiguity, and teeming with seduction. Neither could afford losing the other’s love. And they both know it. Which forces Barrese to keep pushing the limits. He even shoots her when she’s asleep. Or, at least, when he thinks she is. It turns out that following mom is a habit from childhood. And ever since then she’s been protesting his advances. “I want to disappear, not to appear,” she says, because “the lens is the enemy.”

In a beautiful sequence toward the end of the film, after Barzini speaks about dying and the shame of belonging to this world, so sullied by white men, Barrese asks her to spin around in her courtyard, holding her dress. She says she will get dizzy. He finally listens to her and lets her stand still, spinning with his camera around her himself. She smiles, enjoying the moment. She’s happy standing still, courted in the courtyard by her child’s contemplation. Mother eventually asks her son: “Are you done playing?” He’s not, and neither is she.

Director: Beniamino Barrese Screenwriter: Beniamino Barrese Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Interview: Eddie Redmayne on The Aeronauts and Accessing Physicality

Redmayne discusses everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set.

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Eddie Redmayne
Photo: Amazon Studios

“I can’t believe you wrote your dissertation on Les Misérables,” Eddie Redmayne says in a complete non sequitur midway through our conversation. I had a feeling it might come up at some point, so I had to lead with telling him that he featured prominently in the video essay portion of my senior thesis on how Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation collapsed boundaries between stage and screen. As legend has it, Redmayne made a suggestion in post-production that led to the film’s close-up-heavy editing, a choice which sparked intense discussion around the aesthetics of the musical genre.

The episode captures something about Redmayne that sets him apart from other actors who operate in a similarly demonstrative, showy register. He’s genuinely thoughtful about the full cycle of how a performance gets created and transmitted to audiences, in everything from the rehearsal process to the editing bay. After winning an Academy Award for 2014’s The Theory of Everything and another nomination for 2015’s The Danish Girl, Redmayne took a turn toward blockbuster fare with two outings playing Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts series. But now he’s back to the period dramas that made his name with The Aeronauts, an old-fashioned movie adventure that reunites him with his The Theory of Everything co-star, Felicity Jones. As scientist James Glaisher and pilot Amelia Wren, Redmayne and Jones, respectively, spends the majority of the film confined to the tight space of a gas balloon’s basket as they rise to 37,000 feet in the air in an attempt to make meteorological breakthroughs in 1860s Britain.

Redmayne’s role is a fitting lens to discuss not only The Aeronauts, but also his recent career. His craft is just as much a science as it is an art. Our conversation got into the weeds of technical details as he discussed everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set. But, first, we had to discuss Les Misérables, given the pivotal role his behind-the-scenes behavior played in my academic career.

During post-production on Les Misérables, I read that while in the editing room you encouraged Tom Hooper to hold longer on the close-up of Anne Hathaway during “I Dreamed A Dream,” setting into motion the film relying on them so heavily.

Because of the way that Les Mis was shot with live singing, you couldn’t get between different tracks because of the variation. What Tom did was make sure that you could always have the whole scene cut from one setup: a wide, a mid, [and a close-up]. There were three cameras on at the same time. He was editing the film, and the studio had put out a trailer they edited themselves that was more of the close-up. Tom and I had a discussion, and I think I mentioned that it could hold. What I find so interesting is that everyone has a specific opinion on Les Mis, whether it worked—and, of course, the close-ups are something people bring up a lot. But the live singing process dictated the way it was shot. We couldn’t shoot outside a lot because, when you shoot outside, the voice disappears. So, we had to build the barricades in a studio.

What you did with Les Misérables speaks to just how much a performance gets remade in the editing room. Are you still actively involved in that final step of the process?

What’s weird about making films is you create so much of it in a vacuum. It’s not like theater, where actors get together for months and work things out. Often you meet the person playing your mother or father two hours before [shooting]. Often you don’t know the director, meeting them a day before you start working with them. You have an idea of what the character’s arc is, and, of course, part of the joy of making films is giving over that. You put that down and hope the director observes that. But a director can often observe something different that’s more interesting! What I like to do, and I’ve been lucky enough to do, is make work and, if I’m allowed into the editing process, have a dialogue with that director. Provided you know they see what you intended, whether they use that or not is obviously their choice.

I do find that dynamic really interesting, and I’ve been lucky enough with James Marsh on The Theory of Everything, Tom Hooper, and [director] Tom Harper and [screenwriter] Jack Thorne on this. Felicity and I worked together with Jack and Tom for a couple of months beforehand working through the intricacies of the script, and Tom allowed us that bit because it’s so intimate between the two of us, almost like [working on a play] with the writer and director. He allowed us the intimacy in the process the whole way through. The reason I do it is because, as an actor, you’re never happy with what ends up in the finished product. But while you can still shift and change things, I enjoy being a part of that process.

As someone who came up through theater, where you have so much less mediation between your performance and how an audience receives it, have you found comfort in the editing process?

It was a massive adjustment because I got into acting through theater. For many years, I couldn’t get cast in TV or film because I was playing to the back of the stalls in my audition. When I did start working, it’s all been a massive learning curve.

How do you approach acting out of sequence? In both The Aeronauts and The Theory of Everything, you’re tasked with building a full and continuous character arc, but that seems tough you’re stopping and restarting.

Quite often, directors will try and keep as much in chronology as possible. A lot of the stuff we did in the basket in The Aeronauts was shot chronologically. It’s the other bits that aren’t. What you have to do is see how the director is filming it, what their process is and work out what’s best for you. For example, on The Theory of Everything, all the exteriors we were shooting in the first two days in Cambridge when all the students weren’t there. That meant that any time Stephen was outside in the entire film, we were shooting in the first two days. Which meant we had to do all different physicalities at different moments of his life in the first two days. Which meant [I] had to be able to access those different physicalities very quickly, which in itself dictated the process. I wasn’t going to spend hours getting into the zone, I have to slot into these. For me, I said, I need months to rehearse, and I need to rehearse the movement like a dance so that [I] can access it quite quickly. It’s all about the stuff you do beforehand so you’re ready when you’re working the other actor to be completely free.

You shot some of The Aeronauts outdoors in the gas balloon and then some on a soundstage against a blue screen. How did you all work to keep the authenticity consistent in your performances?

We were lucky that the first thing we shot was the real stuff. We went up in the real balloon—we had this accident, it was really terrifying—and the notion of the stakes were weirdly embedded with us from day one. Ultimately, it always feels horrendously fake when you’re in a giant basket surrounded by blue screens, but they did things like [freezing] the studio for our breath. We were shooting in the summer in the U.K., and then you had cast and crew in jackets because we were in a giant refrigerator. They also gave us freezing buckets with ice to plunge our hands into beforehand. The director really gave us everything he could to make it feel [right]. Because they had gone up in helicopters and shot the skyscapes beforehand, they had very clever technology on an iPad that lets you look at the balloon to see where the sun was and what the weather was. They spent a long time working in pre-production about how to not make it look fake, and one of the things was that it could look real, but if your eyes are totally open, the fact that there’s blinding sunlight…of course, you can look at a big, bright light without it being a stretch. It was to learn to squint a bit [to avoid] the giveaway.

Between The Aeronauts and the Fantastic Beasts series, you’ve been doing quite a bit of acting in synthetic spaces.

[laughs]

That’s not a value judgment! How do you go about using your imagination to bring the surroundings to life in your head while maintaining the same specificity as if you were there?

I try and do a load of research, so even if it’s on Fantastic Beasts, it’s talking to the animators, going and looking at drawings and set designs. Trying to do all of that early so it’s not in your imagination. The other process I tried to learn from Dan Fogler, who’s in Fantastic Beasts and very free. He’ll try lots of different things, and I watched him on the first film and thought he was brilliant. It’s a mixture of doing your research, then throwing it away and trying things.

Has it gotten easier over time? Like a muscle that has to be trained and toned?

Yeah, it definitely does. For example, with Pickett [a small plant creature his character keeps as a pet] on Fantastic Beasts, I was so concerned with talking to something that’s not there and make it feel real. I would over[act]. [Reenacts staring intently at the creature on his hand] You never normally look at people when you talk to them. You can have a conversation with Pinkett on your hand and not really look at him.

You’ve mentioned that the basket became like another character in the film because you and Felicity shared such tight quarters with it. How do you make spaces feel natural for your characters to inhabit?

That is rehearsals. That’s why we did them. What I love about this film, hopefully, is that it’s this thrilling adventure on a big scale. At the same time, it’s also an intimate little drama. That space is the size of a sofa. We had weeks working of thinking how to make things visually interesting for an audience. Each time the camera comes back to it, it needs to have transformed or changed. We rehearsed on it so we could find different ways: whether it was sitting on the floor or one of us up in the hoop, different angles, getting rid of carpets or some of the tools. They add character to this battered, bruised vessel that’s been pummeled.

Does that mean you all were really working out specific shots and angles within the rehearsal process?

When we were rehearsing the scenes over and over again, Tom would have suggestions and ideas from watching with the cinematographer. One of the things he found is that, early on, if the camera was ever outside of the balloon—even centimeters out—it doesn’t feel real. Any moments that are caught inside the balloon, apart from a few moments where drones fly and take close-ups, the cinematographer was always inside the balloon. He was moving with the movement. The camera, similarly, was like another character in the piece. Because just one centimeter outside, since we can’t suspend ourselves in mid-air, felt unreal.

Do you find it liberating to work within such tight confines like the basket? Does it force you to be more precise and conscious of your movement and blocking?

Yeah, it does. Because you’re confined, the freedom is in the minutiae. You can’t be making big, bold gestures. I think the intimacy plays to its favor in some ways.

The Aeronauts has a theme of looking up for inspiration amidst troubling times. The last few films you’ve made generally have some kind of optimistic feeling about them. Is that a conscious running thread running through your filmography?

I never relate my films to each other, but what I think is interesting is that the only way I choose work is by reacting to it. So maybe there’s a sense of that [optimism]. The reason I wanted to do The Aeronauts is because I got to that last passage where Felicity’s character is standing on top of the world, and I just thought I would love to see that. I loved the idea of working with Felicity again. I loved this old-school adventure thrill to it. I felt like you’ve seen space investigated, but I hadn’t seen the sky. Sometimes, on a cold, horrendously miserable day, there’s something ecstatic about a break through the clouds. And whether you can retrain an audience who’s so used to seeing the sky from planes to make it feel like something new, all those things were curious to me. I don’t specifically go looking for optimistic pieces, although there was a period in my career when I was playing incestuous teenagers and schizophrenic psychos, so maybe I need to go talk to a therapist about that!

I know some actors like Meryl Streep or David Oyelowo, just to name two that come to mind, say that they deliberately only put work out into the world that they think can make it a better place.

That’s really interesting. I haven’t read that, but I’m probably not that…selfless. It tends to be something I just react to. There’s a weird moment when you read a script and suddenly feel a bit sick. That’s when you transfer yourself from imagining it to imagine yourself doing it. That’s the reality of the responsibility.

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Review: Midnight Family Is an Intimate Look at Mexico’s Ambulance Crisis

It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives the film its empathetic power.

3

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Midnight Family
Photo: 1091 Media

Director Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family opens with a startling statistic: In Mexico City, around 45 public ambulances serve a population of over nine million people. Picking up the pieces are private ambulances, such as the one owned and operated by the Ochoa family, whom Lorentzen follows over several nights as they pick up patients from accident sites, provide immediate medical service, and deposit them at various hospitals. Every element of this process is a negotiation, and Lorentzen captures a multitude of damning and haunting details. Following this family, Lorentzen fashions a documentary that serves as a wrenchingly intimate portrait of a country’s wide-reaching healthcare crisis.

For the Ochoas, particularly their portly paterfamilias, Fernando, and his charismatic 17-year-old son, Juan, the ambulance is firstly a business—a means of barebones survival. The Ochoa ambulance often resembles a kind of medical food truck, as it roams Mexico City looking for customers, who are, of course, individuals in pronounced danger and pain. Lorentzen vividly captures the chaos of the accident sites, including the maddening array of traffic lights and people wandering haphazardly among the twisted ruins of crushed vehicles and property. Into this chaos, Fernando, Juan, and others enter with a kind of cleansing purposefulness, though they also have to watch out for cops who are looking to shake them down for pay-offs. (The legality of private ambulances is somewhat vaguely rendered here; the Ochoas may or may not have the right paperwork, though they definitely need official license plates.)

It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives Midnight Family its empathetic power. While saving lives, the Ochoas must focus on means of payment. They’re not ghouls, as we come to see that their next meal, and their ability to keep the vehicle running, depends on a night-by-night payout, which is threatened by the police as well as rival private ambulances. Since the Ochoas run a private business, patients can apparently refuse to pay them without recrimination from the government, which occurs often given the poverty of their largely uninsured clientele. Lorentzen is bracingly specific about money: One pick-up, of a teenage girl battered by her boyfriend, costs 3,800 pesos, at which her well-off mother balks.

Across Lorentzen’s documentary, viewers also learn of the equipment that the Ochoas need to pass regulations, and of the consequence that expense has on their ability to eat. In one evocative illustration of the effect of their profession on private life, we see the Ochoas at a gas station making tuna salad, which they eat on saltines. This meal occurs after an elaborate debate on whether they can afford to eat more than two tacos apiece.

Yet Lorentzen doesn’t turn the Ochoas into objects of our self-congratulatory pity. The filmmaker captures the despair as well as the adventure of such a livewire way of life, especially as the Ochoas race other ambulances. Fernando places a poignant amount of trust in young Juan, who daringly drives the ambulance, cutting off other vehicles with various improvisations of navigation. These chases are filmed by Lorentzen in a mixture of first-person and mounted-camera compositions that emphasize the limitation of a driver’s sight, establishing a sense of immediacy and danger that is far more thrilling than the standardly detached, alternating coverage of a conventional action film. In this fashion, Midnight Family sometimes brings to mind the brilliant chase sequence in James Gray’s We Own the Night.

Given the privacy of the scenes we witness in Midnight Family—moments of carnage, need, poverty, corruption, and love—the invisibility of Lorentzen’s presence comes as a mild disappointment. This project begs for an examination of how the filmmaking process informs the behavior of its subjects. This quality, or lack thereof, is especially evident when a family member of a patient is seen weeping in the front passenger seat of the Ochoa ambulance. How does she feel at being filmed at this moment of extremity? Midnight Family is a rich and textured film, but it stints on this kind of auto-critical answer.

Director: Luke Lorentzen Screenwriter: Luke Lorentzen Distributor: 1091 Media Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Aeronauts Takes to the Skies, Without Much of a Dramatic Hook

As a suspense film, it’s so sluggishly structured that it borders on the avant-garde.

1.5

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The Aeronauts
Photo: Amazon Studios

Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts is such a sluggishly structured suspense film that it borders on the avant-garde. James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), a 19th-century meteorologist, is attempting to prove that man can predict weather patterns, and he plans a hot-air balloon ride high into the Earth’s troposphere to conduct high-altitude measurements. With no available technology for breathing apparatuses or other modern safety equipment, James’s gambit is a bold one, but he hopes that by traveling so high he can use the most accurate measurements to prove his meteorological theses. Accompanying him is Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), a daredevil aeronaut with experience flying balloons at extreme altitudes. They’re practically a study in contrasts. James, humorless and bookish, talks rapidly and in fussy detail, mostly holding conversations with himself and putting others in the position of needing to interject to get a word in edgewise. Amelia, meanwhile, is filled with a certain joie de vivre, literally arriving to the balloon launch doing acrobatics to liven up the assembled crowd.

This is the second time that Redmayne and Jones have starred in a film together, but familiarity has done little to deepen their stilted chemistry. James and Amelia don’t converse so much as recite their respective credentials at each other. This might have worked if The Aeronauts gave the characters specializations that the other lacked, yet each has similar strengths: James, the less experienced balloonist, nonetheless knows enough about piloting the craft to not need instruction, while Amelia understands enough about meteorology to not require James to dumb down his scientific jargon. As a result, the pair’s dynamic is devoid of inherent conflict, which might have distracted them from the monotony of their balloon’s ascent into cloud-studded skies, which Harper stages as if in real time.

Of course, sitting in a vehicle that slowly drifts upward as its two occupants engage in, at most, haughty disagreement makes for moribund drama, so Harper fills time with flashbacks to show how James and Amelia got to this point. Anyone who’s ever seen a historical fiction about a scientific pioneer will know what to expect of James’s backstory: repeated scenes of the man explaining his ideas to academic administrators with sideburns large enough to count as mating displays, all of them mirthfully wagging their turkey necks as they respond to James’s hypotheses with sayings like, “Hitting the sherry a bit early this morning, aren’t we, Glaisher?”

Meanwhile, across a series of frenzied, chaotically edited memories of trauma, Amelia relives the death of her husband, Pierre Rennes (Vincent Perez), in a ballooning accident. It’s a hysterically lopsided distribution of character motivation. We get a few shots of Amelia and Pierre tenderly embracing, but otherwise the dead man is a mere device, and all that she can say of him to James is that “his most enduring quality was a deep, true love for the beauty of the world,” which, as far as eulogies go, is about two steps above “He loved to laugh.”

George Steel’s cinematography, namely the way it captures the balloon’s ascent, is the film’s strong suit. Especially noteworthy is when James and Amelia break past the cloud layer and are left in direct sunlight that’s rendered with brilliant white light that washes out the frame even as it communicates the rapidly falling temperatures at that altitude. And that temperature drop becomes the first catalyst for actual drama when James lets slip that he didn’t pack a warm enough coat out of concerns for the balloon’s weight, setting up the last act’s belated decision to include some kind of suspense in order to give the film a dramatic hook.

Indeed, the film’s last hour, in which James and Amelia find themselves increasingly starved for oxygen as their balloon rises higher into atmosphere, is its most engaging. Here, a violently shivering James transforms into the reckless adventure, while Amelia becomes the more anxious and fearful of the two. As she urges caution in the face of falling oxygen levels, the mild-mannered scientist is suddenly overcome with delusions of grandeur and fame and does everything to keep them rising. The camera begins to blur at the edges to reflect the characters’ fading consciousness, while a series of desperate last-ditch efforts on Amelia’s part to save them both is mounted with real tension. Still, the film’s wonky, flashback-heavy structure puts so much emphasis on the by-the-numbers backstory of the characters that the actual drama of the balloon flight itself is muted, making the eventual turn toward chaos less of a narrative culmination than a last-minute recalibration of the film’s inert quality.

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Phoebe Fox, Himesh Patel, Vincent Perez, Anne Reid, Tom Courtenay, Tim McInnerny, Rebecca Front Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin Limply Aspires to the Lynchian

The film gets so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.

1.5

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Knives and Skin
Photo: IFC Films

Something terrible has happened to Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley). But unlike Twin Peaks and its plastic-wrapped Laura Palmer, Knives and Skin makes it immediately clear what occurred to her: She was left bleeding and without her glasses in the wilderness by a vengeful jock, Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin), because she wouldn’t have sex with him. She never makes it back. This transpires near the start of the film, and what transpires after this point is a dreamy, neon-tinted vision of a town overcome less by grief than ennui.

Throughout Knives and Skin, writer-director Jennifer Reeder draws heavily from the style of David Lynch, cycling through the townsfolk and their weirdest tendencies. Carolyn’s mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), insists that she can smell her daughter on Andy. Andy’s sister, Joanna (Grace Smith), sells underwear to Principal Markhum (Tony Fitzpatrick), cash only. The girl’s father, Dan (Tim Hopper), who’s cheating on his wife (Audrey Francis), is seen at one point emerging from between a waitress’s (Kate Arrington) legs while wearing clown makeup. And Grandma Kitzmiller (Marilyn Dodds Frank) pesters everyone for weed. Certain objects glow, and the girls’ choir practices a series of haunting pop song arrangements, its members whispering to each other one by one while the rest of the ensemble keeps singing.

Other than Lisa’s persistent, unfounded hopes that her daughter is still alive, Carolyn’s disappearance seems to intentionally leave little impression on anyone. Everyone is wrapped up in their own concerns and pursuits, struggling to hold down jobs or dealing with disinterested partners. They’re united only by their vaguely odd feelings and a sense of being trapped, as one boy (Robert T. Cunningham) does when he stands on the roof of the high school; he doesn’t intend to jump, he just wants to see the highway that leads somewhere else.

But in untethering itself from what happened to Carolyn Harper, Knives and Skin ends up unfocused, shambling from one moment of self-conscious weirdness to another. Its themes, like the constant and varied violations of consent going on throughout the town, get lost in favor of things like the talking tiger T-shirt and the hamburger meat lobbed at a vehicle in protest until the entire purpose of these surreal flourishes seems to melt away.

The film is intermittently striking with its heavily stylized lighting and wistful electronic score, but it creates little sense of place. The town where these people all live, which seems to be affecting them to such a profound degree, is so nondescript beyond a few anonymous landscape shots that it stops evoking a place they would want to leave because it doesn’t really seem like a place at all. Rather than explorations of individual oddness, Knives and Skin becomes a rather tedious mood piece with an ethereal atmosphere so remote, so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.

Cast: Marika Engelhardt, Raven Whitley, Ty Olwin, Ireon Roach, Haley Bolithon, Aurora Real de Asua, Grace Smith, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Tim Hopper, Audrey Francis, James Vincent Meredith, Kate Arrington, Kayla Carter, Robert T. Cunningham, Alex Moss Director: Jennifer Reeder Screenwriter: Jennifer Reeder Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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