For the better part of two decades, a debate has been waging in documentary film studies over exactly what constitutes a nonfiction film, which essentially comes down to a central question: How much power and control does the director yield over the proceedings? In his excellent new monograph, Ferocious Reality: Documentary according to Werner Herzog, Eric Ames uses Werner Herzog’s documentaries, nearly 30 films, to make a case for an evolved understanding of nonfiction cinema. However, Ames doesn’t wish to simply attempt a blurring of lines between fiction and nonfiction in Herzog’s work; rather, he takes up Richard Schechner’s concept of “restored behavior” (or “twice-behaved behavior”), what Ames will refer to as “performance,” and demonstrates how Herzog’s films “perform” under this operative logic. Drawing on film studies titans like Bill Nichols, Linda Williams, and P. Adams Sitney for his framework, Ames lucidly addresses these larger issues while “performing” meticulous close readings of his own, organized into seven chapters, by theme. What materializes is a fascinating, provocative examination of Herzog’s complex oeuvre, written with a simultaneous eye for irreverence and certitude, not unlike Herzog’s own work.
Performance attains two tracts—that of diegesis (the content of Herzog’s films) and exegesis (how the filmmaker’s work can be interpreted over time). According to Ames, these two lines culminate in Grizzly Man (2006), where Herzog is aligned with subject Timothy Treadwell physically (filmmaker), but divergent on philosophical grounds, since Herzog believes “the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.” Yet such explicit attempts at distance only further obfuscate the distinction, as subject and artist become further intertwined. These entanglements raise an important question: Is Herzog the subject of his own documentaries? These divergences-cum-convergences are primarily seen in Herzog’s more autobiographical work—namely, My Best Fiend (1999), which Ames describes as “a cinematic self-portrait of Herzog as refracted through the prism of his love-hate relationship” with actor Klaus Kinski. Thus, autobiographical acts, as Ames calls them, are inseparable from the films proper, as Herzog is often inscribed within them, be it through voiceover narration, off-screen voice, or his actual presence on screen. Ferocious Reality seeks to situate the autobiographical within the overall concept of performance, as these more renowned Herzog docs exemplify.
However, Ames doesn’t give short shrift to Herzog’s lesser known documentaries; in fact, these analyses are often the most illuminating. Wodaabe: Herdsmen of the Sun (1989) receives a particularly fruitful discussion, not just in terms of its juxtaposition of two societies, but as “Herzog’s confrontation with the tradition of ethnographic film.” For Ames, Herzog’s documentary mold is equally about questioning the form, itself, as it is revealing various content. Thus, Land of Silence and Darkness (1971) is about “a site of contact between disabled and nondisabled bodies,” but also “the materiality of cinema itself.” These distinctions allow a renewed approach to Herzog’s amorphous contribution to the documentary form, while teasing out that ever important question: Can there be a separation of form and content in terms of significance? Ames suggests this distinction cannot exist in Herzog’s cinema because of its ecstatic, polyvalent nature. Moreover, Herzog takes aim at conventional cinema verité with The White Diamond (2004), which Ames deems a self-conscious performance of a documentary and a playful take on what Nichols terms “epistephilia,” a simultaneous desire to know and pleasure derived from learning. There’s a progressive, multi-faceted dialogic dimension to these films which is going to be severely limited under more normative understandings of nonfiction filmmaking.
Considerable credit must go to Ames for crafting a rigorously researched and theorized account of Herzog’s documentary work, but also for doing so with an ability to maintain the fluidity of his arguments without devolving into unnecessarily metaphysical language and non sequiturs. In fact, the pacing of the book is remarkable, given its fairly routine structure. Each section tackles (Herzog is a fan of American football) a different component of performativity, convincingly balancing and interweaving different tangential arguments without losing sight of larger pursuits. For example, a wonderful chapter entitled “Baroque Visions” examines three lesser seen docs in light of a revival of the baroque in 20th-century art and literature, where Ames cannily aligns the two: “The baroque famously envisioned life as a play; for Herzog, life is a film.” With a similar degree of aplomb, the chapter “Moving Landscapes” centralizes Herzog as “a director of landscape,” touching on theoretical topics like Tom Gunning’s “phantom ride” or Sitney’s conception of the avant-garde “trance film,” while offering detail-driven film readings that will satisfy a more historical, textually inclined reader.
In April 1999, Herzog visited the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis for a conversation with Roger Ebert. There, Herzog read aloud a manifesto deemed “The Minnesota Declaration.” Contained within it were 12 points on the idea of cinema verité, each written in a terse, if slightly hyperbolic manner (“Tourism is sin, and travel on foot virtue” being one example). The passion Herzog, like many great provocateurs, has for the medium rages through such an act, playful but angry, meant to elicit reaction, but farsighted. The same could be said for Ames’s book, which brings a level-headedness to its thorough analysis, while prodding the reader (and film-studies practitioners) toward a less restricting understanding and definition of documentary filmmaking. Ames’s project, much like Herzog’s, is one of measured instigation: Ames is by no means calling for a disavowal of previous studies and theories, but reconciliation on an empirical, evidentiary basis. If a landscape is the avenue toward an inner state of mind, as Herzog has stated, then Ames’s book performs a similar function, taking filmography as landscape and offering a sharp, considerate look into the mind of one of cinema’s most elusive practitioners.
Eric Ames’s Ferocious Reality: Documentary According to Werner Herzog was released on October 17 by University of Minnesota Press. To purchase it, click here.