Theoretically, the subject of Queen of the Desert could hardly be more Herzogian in nature. With her passionate spirit of ceaseless adventure, Gertrude Bell—a British writer/archeologist/map-maker who, among her many achievements, played a major role in British imperialist foreign policy—would seem to be a kindred spirit to a director like Werner Herzog, who in both his fiction and nonfiction features exudes a willingness to follow even the nuttiest of protagonists to the ends of the earth and their outer psychological limits. This is, after all, a filmmaker who, during the making of his 1982 epic Fitzcarraldo, famously followed the path of his opera-loving protagonist, created an actual massive boat, and had people lug it over a real mountain in Peru.
Fitzcarraldo (#1–10 of 6)
James Cameron was on Charlie Rose recently to talk about his journey to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Rose asked him about The Abyss, and about the short story he wrote in high school that would later become the basis for the movie. Cameron described it:
It was about scientists who are leaving a submerged base, kind of similar to what I eventually made into the movie. And they’re going down a wall on a dive, deeper and deeper into blackness, and they don’t come back. And the ones that are left behind wonder what happened and go after them. And one after another they keep going into the darkness, and they don’t return. And the last man goes, the last diver goes down to find out what happened to his buddies. And he gets to the point of no return, and his curiosity overwhelms his caution and he keeps going. And that’s how the story ends.
If only the movie could’ve been that simple. Instead, The Abyss is a big-budget, 1980s blockbuster, the plot of which was contorted in order to allow for elaborate set pieces and expensive, state-of-the-art special effects. The story goes: Amid Cold War tensions, an American nuclear submarine crosses paths with a mysterious, underwater, alien spacecraft (which looks a lot like the aboveground alien spacecrafts from Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Its radar system deactivated due to the UFO’s aura, the sub strikes a reef and crashes to the bottom of the sea, at precisely the same time that a hurricane begins swirling overhead.
1. “Christina Hendricks: ’My agency dropped me when I first agreed to play Joan in Mad Men.’” Eight years later, Hendricks is recognised by millions. Here she talks about being bullied at school, working with Philip Seymour Hoffman and her new film role as a grieving mother.
“From the start, Hendricks was bullied. ’We had a locker bay, and every time I went down there to get books out of my locker people would sit on top and spit at me. So I had to have my locker moved because I couldn’t go in there…I felt scared in high school. It was like Lord of the Flies. There was always some kid getting pummelled and people cheering.” Hendricks found refuge in the drama department. Acting provided an outlet for a feeling of impotent rage. She became a goth, dying her hair black and purple, shaving it at the back and wearing leather jackets and knee-high Doc Marten boots. Were her clothes a type of armour against what she was experiencing? ’Yeah, exactly,’ she says, nodding. ’My parents would say, ’You’re just alienating everyone. You’ll never make any friends looking like that.’ And I would say, ’I don’t want those people to be my friends. I’m never going to be friends with the people who beat up a kid while everyone is cheering them on. I hate them.’”
With the arrival of the 20th anniversary, 3D re-release of Jurassic Park, what I’d like to convince you of is that the film watered down, significantly, the soul of the novel from which it was based (and we’re talking about a Michael Crichton page-turner for Christ’s sake). Instead of being the kind of decadent, lost-in-the-jungle, labyrinthine cinematic fever dream it could’ve been—one in which the production of the film would’ve eerily re-enacted and factually re-performed the hallucinatory chaos of what it was trying to fictionally record (a la Coppola’s Apocalypse Now or Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, and their respective making-of docs, Hearts of Darkness and Burden of Dreams), Spielberg’s Jurassic Park instead played it safe, and did so in a way that was slick, corporate, and patronizing to its audience. And one of the ways it punted artistically was to almost entirely purge from Crichton’s novel its heavy theorizing about chaos theory and fractals, which, in those days (the late ’80s/early ’90s), had just made its way into the intellectual mainstream. I’d like to briefly make the point that this was a grievous mistake (for the movie), because chaos theory and fractals have everything to do with scary movies, and horror and terror and the kind of man-eating monstrosities Spielberg and his team put so much goddamned time and money into making look realistic.
- apocalypse now
- David Lynch
- entertainment weekly
- Francis Ford Coppola
- h.g. wells
- hannibal lecter
- ivar ekeland
- james earl jones
- james gleick
- jeff goldblum
- jurassic park
- laura dern
- mary shelley
- michael crichton
- michael myers
- richard attenborough
- sam neill
- the birds
- the island of dr. moreau
- twin peaks
- 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?
The pre-credits sequence of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God informs us that the film is based on the journals of the monk Gaspar de Carvajal, who accompanied the 16th century expeditionary forces of Spain’s Gonzalo Pizarro. This announcement proves to be about as truthful as the claim of authenticity that kicks off the Coen brothers’ masterful Fargo, or those same filmmakers’ insistence that O Brother, Where Art Thou? owes its allegiance to Homer; which is to say Herzog’s claim is an amusing bit of auterist fabrication which reminds us that, for all its attempts to recreate historical reality, Aguirre is a movie, filtered through the perceptions and preconceptions of one man. And what a man this is. As Outlaw Vern might note, one masterful filmatist; to the rest of us, one Werner Herzog.
Once one moves beyond this opening bit of posturing, it is tempting to assert that Herzog’s theses in Aguirre are completely realized in the film’s opening and closing scenes. Of course, to do so would be to underestimate the power, magnificence and importance of the film’s intervening 90 minutes, but still, the temptation remains. As I am, like Oscar Wilde, able to resist everything except temptation, why not explore it?