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“It goes in circles.”

Let us continue the theme of Herzog, as the freshest film in my mind right now is the unforgettable Stroszek

I started watching L’Enfant Sauvage by Truffaut, having anticipated it most eagerly… and I turned it off after about 15 minutes because I was disappointed – not angered, no feeling of betrayal… but just let down by a filmmaker whom I usually can trust. There is one thing I always say – I respect nobody, living or dead. Respect is nothing. I think respect is an insult. I offer friendship. And Truffaut is a friend, but not the closest. 

Soon after this disappointing visit with Francois, I watched Herzog’s Stoszek, a film that truly is about God’s feral children. 

Illustration of Kaspar Hauser, one of the better known cases of feral children.

Illustration of Kaspar Hauser, one of the better known cases of feral children.

I have an interest in cryptids – creatures that are part of our consciousness, our legends and our history, but have never been proven to exist. Of course in the last century many have been found to be hoaxes. But there are also some which remain spellbinding unsolvable mysteries. Feral children are a sort of cryptid. Though their origins are often determinable, we can never find the answer for why they were subjected to such suffering. A feral child is not just what we like to think of as Romulus or Remus, not just a babe raised by wolves representing the brotherhood (or motherhood) of man and animal but also a child that has been kept from having any kind of contact with the world – a child shackled in a basement is also a feral child. 

Bruno S. as Bruno Stroszek in Berlin.

Bruno S. as Bruno Stroszek walks down the street in his native Berlin.

Bruno S. plays the title role of Bruno Stroszek, and this non-actor’s life story is a fascinating one. Any biography of him will tell you he was the unwanted child of a prostitute who was beaten so severely by his mother as to incur temporary deafness, that he was in and out of different orphanages and institutions for much of his early life – institutions that often confined him in solitary. Bruno S. taught himself to play music and to paint, spending much of his adult life playing accordion, bugle and glockenspiel in German courtyards. In fact, upon seeing a documentary about him called Bruno der Schwarze – Es blies ein Jäger wohl in sein Horn, Herzog cast him to play one very well known feral child, the mysterious Kaspar Hauser. After The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Herzog wrote Stroszek for Bruno S. in just a few days.

You can take the boy out of the basement but you can’t take the basement out of the boy.

Bruno with Eva in their mobile home in Wisconsin.

Bruno with Eva in their mobile home in Wisconsin.

In Stroszek Bruno S. plays himself through the lens of Herzog’s ecstatic truth. He is the hero of this wistful ballad, a wandering minstrel of sorts. The film starts in Berlin as Bruno Stroszek is released from jail, and ends in the fictional town of Railroad Flats, Wisconsin, where he ends up after chasing the hope of a better life together with his fickle companion Eva and elderly friend Scheitz. he finds that Wisconsin’s open spaces oppress him more than the bleakness and claustrophobia of Berlin did. Or could it just be that he came to the wrong place and at the wrong time? Or could it be that there was no other way for him? 

The journey Bruno takes in search of a better, more comfortable life sees him either losing or having to abandon everything that makes him who he is. His grand piano, which he so affectionately calls “My Black Friend” stays in Berlin as he goes overseas. His pet bird (again a talking black bird in a white cage, as in Nobody Wants to Play with Me) is confiscated in customs, his well worn German clothes are replaced by Midwestern flannel coats and cowboy hat, and Eva, the person he considers himself closest to, abandons him for a truck driver, taking off for Canada. Soon he loses everything else, including his house, because he can’t adapt to the American principle of making money to pay off his house, his refrigerator, and his television. In a scene that takes place after the visit of a man from the bank, Bruno miserably compares life under the Nazis to life in this land of Freedom… this isn’t an indictment of America, it’s a lament of the fact that man is really not free anywhere, and there’s no way he can find freedom within any kind of societal structure.  

Is this really me!(?)

Eventually, stripped of everything, Bruno is a cornered animal with nowhere left to turn. And so he takes one final journey to nowhere, above.

Stroszek is a celebration of the damaged soul, and an elegy to true freedom. It mourns the American Myth. I came to the US at the age of seven, I wasn’t born here, and so for me, that Myth is much bigger than for the sons of sons of forgotten pioneers. Although after coming to America Bruno feels like he’s losing the identity he used to have, and thus losing the battle of life… it is a battle that must be fought. Yes, I’m sure that it is only on the field that one comprehends the true absurdity of war – but in the face of that absurdity, no one has the option of marching backwards.

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“Check again to see if there are any more brave men who know how to swim and row.”

Werner Herzog on location during the filming of Fitzcarraldo, around 1982. One of the most inspiring photographs ever.

The end of the previous post should help us segue back into Herzog nicely. Burden of Dreams is a fascinating film… but it is about Herzog, not by him. That’s a very important distinction, though you can clearly see how much Les Blank reveres and idolizes many things about his subject.

You may be inclined to ask why it is I’m watching SO much Herzog lately. For those who care, things between Werner and I are strictly platonic. The reasons for my Herzog bender… are: my fascination with filmmakers who have methods that the business deems unconventional, my admiration for Herzog’s particular process, my curiosity about it, and for how his mind works and how it is that he is driven to do things the way he does. He’s an amazing artist in a time when there are fewer and fewer individualists left. He is indispensable. 

I have a little problem: I don’t have any interest in politics or economics or other such constructs that everyone is convinced are the driving forces of human existence. I only have one interest – the individual. I don’t know why it is that this elusive creature has been sighted rarer and rarer as time goes by. I don’t think it’s true that everything has been done. Someone like Herzog can show us that you can make anything your own. All you need is that one quality that separates human from animal and continues to subdivide humans into kings and knaves: vision. And one who has Vision must be Persistent about it. 

Burden of Dreams sensationalizes to some degree the kind of work that Herzog does. Whenever I mention 

 Herzog to anyone, the response I get is, “Oh my god, have you seen Burden of Dreams? That guy’s fucking crazy.” Now I have finally seen it. And no, he isn’t crazy. 

For someone as individualistic as I make him out to be, Herzog has said before that he doesn’t look at himself, he doesn’t look into his eyes in the mirror when he shaves, and he doesn’t even have dreams when he sleeps. For him, the body is nothing but an instrument for the will. And dreams are inextricably connected with reality – he has admitted to having “daydreams” while he travels on foot. He has said that walking is the closest thing to filmmaking. He has this in common with Alan Clarke and his ever-tracking camera, stalking the action like a hunter. 

Herzog is an Active filmmaker. There is a violent energy in his films, which comes from the ultimate rebellion: rebelling against health and sense – rebelling against Nature. To rebel even in the most seemingly insignificant way – let’s say, to just stay up late at night until the dawn – is to challenge the patterns that life is hung upon, to make your own pattern. Herzog doesn’t just stay up late. He goes into the Amazonian jungle and with sheer force of will, holds together a production in which everything, absolutely everything goes wrong. At one point he says to Blank, “sometimes I wish I could just sit in an easy chair with a cup of tea.” The idealist in me (or what’s left of the idealist in me) wants to believe that this is the only lie he’s ever told.

Herzog is a very contradictory artist – most great artists are. the great contradiction is that he puts himself and everyone in his crew and cast through the ringer because he believes, and rightly, that there are realities that cannot be faked on a Hollywood set (almost thirty years after the making of Fitzcarraldo he reminisces with much amusement about how the studio he initially tried to make the film through wanted him to shoot it in a Botanic Garden in Southern California… that’s the thing about him: he seems to feel no rage at the obstacles put in his way, only amusement). In this he is very similar to another of my very favorite filmmakers, Jean Renoir. I highly recommend Renoir’s fantastic and invaluable autobiography, My Life and My Films. Renoir was also very passionate about capturing the immediate reality of what he was filming – he never re-recorded sound in a studio, he was convinced that the sound of, say, a pair of heels walking down a wet Parisian street at that particular moment of filming, could not be faked, that even such a small detail would compromise the meaning and impact of a moment. And he was right! 

Renoir and crew.

At the same time, Renoir was not bound by these material realities, and the stories he wove on film remain some of the most imaginative and poetic… Herzog is german and Renoir is French. Renoir’s father was the much-loved Impressionist Pierre Auguste, Herzog didn’t use a telephone or listen to music until almost in his adulthood. Herzog is a fighter and Renoir is a lover… yet in their art there are many overlapping points. Not the least of their commonalities is the fact that both have visions so strong that even the occasional imperfections and flaws in their films can be enjoyed, as opposed to overlooked.

Look at that, I seem to have digressed…

Back to Burden of Dreams, then.

As I was trying to say, Herzog puts everyone including himself through very difficult conditions, determined that a sort of truth will emerge. However, even in his documentaries, the truth that you see is not the factual reality of whatever he’s documenting. He mixes reality with his own vision to in the search for a greater truth. Every filmmaker struggles over how to make the strongest possible impression on the audience, and people seem to think that Herzog is too wrapped up in his experiences during shooting to care about what the audience thinks in the end, but I must say that it seems to me that he cares deeply, and feels that it is necessary to leave the strongest possible impression. As he says in Burden of Dreams, the only difference between the poet and the ordinary man is that the poet is able to articulate that which the ordinary man cannot. And Herzog also said in a different interview something that has become a sort of mantra for me: the poet must not avert his eyes. 

The title of this post is taken from something Herzog says in Burden of Dreams while trying to organize the native Peruvians, and I think it’s an important question. Are there any more brave men? And are they willing to challenge Nature? To swim against the current as Herzog does is the purest articulation of the very purpose of being human. Why have free will if no to rebel against the unconquerable?

“…Ordinary Peepholes?”

Ordinary People – I’m not going to say much about this film except for the following: The film plays just as banal as the empty conversations of the upper-middle-class soiree guests that it deplores. It’s very much a continuation of Stanley Kramer’s cardboard cutout psychology and ethics (Pressure Point, The Defiant Ones) and makes me wish that Cassavetes had not only pushed Kramer against the wall but knocked out a few of his teeth. Why did I revisit this film? That won’t be disclosed at this time.

“Rage Release Quotient!”

Satire, in this case, of a Madonna music video, is one of DiCillo's strengths.

Satire, in this case, of a Madonna music video, is one of DiCillo's strengths.

The Real Blonde is similar to Life Is Sweet.And I do know for a fact that DiCillo likes Leigh’s work. I rewatched The Real Blonde a few nights ago while slightly drunk because I didn’t have the patience at the time to watch anything better. That should say it all, but… that would be unjust. I do like DiCillo, and maintain that Box of Moonlight is one of my favorite movies, and his very best work – and it’s the only one in which the typical DiCillo Hollywood Ending is more subtle. The same can’t be said for The Real Blonde despite its many wonderful moments of humor and outrage, in which DiCillo’s own personality comes out. I do admire his optimism, but I’m afraid I can’t share it.

“Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck! Y’gotta laugh, don’t ya.”

Life Is Sweet – leave it to the self-effacing British to trash Mike Leigh every time I mentioned him in conversation overseas. I understand where dislike for him comes from, but I don’t agree with it. However, Life Is Sweet is the only film of his I’ve seen where I have felt something similar to what his critics talk about. The characters are so broad (with the exception of David Thewlis’s mesmerisingly languid “Lover” and Jim Broadbent’s immediately familiar Andy) that you feel the life go out of the film and are only left with the “sweet” part. And that’s never any fun. What I love about Leigh’s films are the details… Life is Sweet seemed to lack those things. But as a filmmaker it does teach me a lesson. Which is much much more than I could ever say for garbage like Quills.

“I didn’t mean to eat this shoe in public…”

Back to the sauna now with Herzog, or maybe the ice: Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is only truly interesting to me because of the amazing monologues Herzog is given to in moments of action, much like the greatest actors. It’s amazing, in a very cliched and devastating way that 30 years ago when that film was made, he was talking about the death of languages and of images because of television. So many people would argue and say that television now is better than it has ever been. That’s just because we’re used to it, my dear, dear friends.

Known Pornographers

Now I must go from Herzog to the illustrious Philip Kaufman – literary pornographer of Hollywood elite… that sounds so much more honorable than what he actually does. I am again reminded of Herzog, as the father in Julien Donkey-Boy“tell her she is a dilettante. She’ll never learn to play the harp. She is a dilettante and a slut.” That’s how I would describe Kaufman, and his incredibly ludicrous “interpretation” of the last days of the Marquis de Sade. I watched Quills in part because it is hard to refuse yourself the pleasure of going back and forth from watching masterpieces to trash, like the Russian sauna with its hundred-degree heat followed by excursions into snow-covered fields and even dips into ice water. There’s a certain discipline for body and mind in this kind of action. Quills is everything that I find deplorable. Able-bodied and minded actors are used to portray “madmen” and pinheads in the asylum that Geoffrey Rush’s slender and reptilian Sade shares with them. I’d gone from watching Gummo to watching Quills. There is a monologue in Gummo delivered by a retarded girl. And it’s the most tender thing, and the most respectful thing in the film. The act of shooting a film is exploitative regardless of whom or what you’re filming. However, filming actors pretending to be loony wacky mental patients is even more exploitative than shooting the real thing because it deceives the audience even more than usual. And it bores the audience. It certainly bored me. I’m not a Ted Turner-esque stickler for historical accuracy but everything, historical and not, about this film, is fake. Frenchmen being played by Australians and Americans with English accents, the slender Rush portraying Sade, who was grossly obese by that point in his life, as some sort of virile androgynous temptress, an obligatory sex scene between Joaquin Phoenix and Kate Winslet because they are the only “attractive” characters in the film… but since they really couldn’t/shouldn’t have been having sex it takes the form of a dream… oh, I had more arguments against the film while watching it than I do now a week or so later… but let that be the closing argument of the prosecution: forgettable. 

The real trouble with movies like this is that they can’t admit what they are. Porn that can be watched in mixed company and then discussed over a midnight espresso. What a contradiction that it should be about a historical figure so open about his life’s work and the motivation behind it. That’s Hollywood. Three Little Words is the exact same story, Fred Astaire just doesn’t go full-frontal.

Shame, really.