Herzog Documentary Double Feature: Fata Morgana and Into the Abyss

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Werner Herzog is known just as much for his documentaries as for his fiction films. In fact his voice is more iconic than any image of Klaus Kinski looking up all bedraggled and muddy. And yet I never think of his documentaries as required viewing. Don’t get me wrong, his documentaries are fascinating and every time I watch one, I am happy I watched it, it just doesn’t hit me in the gut the way his fiction films do. He seems more clinical in a documentary but his fiction films are where he can be emotional. Thus they are films that I have to see, that I need to see in order to be a film watcher.

But why do I think this? I have watched documentaries that have touched me emotionally. That have challenged the way I feel about the world, art and social issues. I have even defended documentaries that are more expressionistic than straight forward as being important artistic endeavors. But I think that fictional films require a sense of imagination that is somehow now present in any documentary, not in the least Herzog films. So when I happened to have watched two Herzog documentaries within only a day of each other, I thought it was something worth noting… and comparing. So that is what I am going to do.

The first film I watched was also the oldest of the two. Fata Morgana is a mostly silent film meditating on mirages and the Sahara desert. He also combines a Mayan creation myth, industrialization, human fascination with animals, local life, and dead carcasses in this film. To say there is too much going on in here is an understatement. And yet there is not enough to hold my attention. Scenes seemed to be stitched together fo no reason. Each element did not mesh well together. While the soundtrack was very well done, the pieces Herzog choses to go with each scene is strange. Also the creation myth reading seemed to have nothing to do what so ever with what we were seeing on the screen. I am being a little too harsh. I didn’t hate this film like I seemed to have made out a couple of sentences ago. I was just bored by it. The one thing I did take away from this film is the germ of the ideas that Herzog would continue to explore in his later films. The idea of death and life and exactly what that looks like.

What better way to illustrate that idea than with Into the Abyss? This film that was released late last year tells the story of the death penalty as seen through the crime of two men. He talks to one who is about to die eight days from now and the other that is serving a forty-year sentence for the same crime. He also interviews their victims’ families, the criminal’s parents, and ex police officers that are put in charge of someone else’s death. Herzog asks difficult questions, always searching for the answer beyond the stated one. But he combines this footage of interviews with images of stark beauty. These images seem to not only fit the story that is being told but fits in the evolution of Herzog as a documentarian. His sweeping images of small poor towns seem like an extension of Fata Morgana’s sweeping images of the Sahara Desert. Yet the images in Into the Abyss pull much more emotional weight than the ones in the depths of the Sahara. The images give a context, a mood to the story that is not seen in Fata Morgana. (or at least not seen very much)

Werner Herzog has made a career out of exploring the idea of death and how it affects the people who are so close to it. He compliments these expressionistic views of the world around him. It is interesting to see a filmmaker just beginning to explore every aspect of being a documentarian and his evolution to the master documentarian he is today. I should pay more attention to his documentaries….

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Favorite Documentaries (The Artsy Fartsy Version)

recently decided to cut my weekly fast food budget in half and purchase some DVDs to decorate my paltry shelves. With these purchases I not only frequented an independent distributing company (commence patting on back), but I also grabbed some pretty cool DVDs in the process. One DVD that stood out from the pack was a documentary that I had watched several times before: Exit Through the Gift Shop. This great documentary that takes a peek at a street artist’s process all while giving you a is it real or is not plot got me thinking about other documentaries that sneak a peak behind the scenes. So without further ado, here is my list of five great documentaries that show the secret side of artists.

5. Burden of Dreams (dir. Les Blank)

Werner Herzog. Klaus Kinski. Their relationship was tumultuous to say the least. But their ability to make art together was enviable to a lame non-creative person like me. The crowning achievement of their creative lives was a cursed film called Fitzcarraldo. From the very beginning of the shoot, Herzog has mountains of problems (including moving a mountain…) that makes the filming of the picture more and more impossible with each passing day. Everything was captured during production and made into this cautionary tale. It is a beautifully put together documentary that makes showcases the crazy drive that a person needs in order to make such masterpieces.

4. Don’t Look Back (dir. D. A. Pennebaker)

Bob Dylan’s epic tour of 1965 not only changed music forever, but it also changed documentary filmmaking forever. Taking the fly on the wall approach (called cinema verite, if you are looking to pretentious terms), Mr. Pennebaker follows Mr. Dylan as he deals with his constant entourage, tons of screaming fans, shitty interviews and creative crises. He sings, he broods, and he always smokes. This is a truly epic documentary made up of very small intimate moments that show you a side of a musical god that you will never see again.

3. Exit Through The Gift Shop (dir. Bansky)

I love to watch art being made. I especially love watching graffiti art being made. So while this film is about the art of deception and manipulation, I really just love it because I get to watch extremely famous graffiti artists make their art. That and Bansky is funny. (He is definitely high on the list of famous people who I want to have a drink and a talk with)

2. Henri Langlois: Phantom of the Cinematheque (dir. Jacques Richard)

I have sung the praises of this film many times before, but I do really love this film. The film shows one man’s intense love of film and the need to preserve them. Because of this lovely man, we have things like The Library of Congress Film Archive and the Criterion Collection. He showed the importance of preserving films for future generations to see just by having tons of screenings every night. This film not only tells you about Henri’s life, it also shows how a dedicated man can amass so many prints, found a museum and fight to keep it alive and thriving. He was a cool man.

1. Crumb (dir. Terry Zwigoff)

Robert Crumb is a fascinating man with an even more fascinating style. His quirks and his mannerisms cannot be hidden from his art making. In this documentary, you watch Mr. Crumb create sketches, drawings and story lines from his everyday life. You see how silly little sketches he did with his brother when they were younger ended up making him the artist he is today. It is a fascinating character study.

Well, there you have it. Now go out and create some art… and don’t forget to film it.

The Andromeda Strain

 

The Andromeda Strain

Science fiction films experienced a shift in the late sixties and early seventies. Inspired by the challenge that 2001: A Space Odyssey, many science fiction films decided to up their game. Filmmakers took out lengthy action sequences and replaced them with tension building scientific explorations. The films became slower, more intellectual. A prime example of this shift is a film from 1971, The Andromeda Strain.

 

While 2001 had Hal, The Andromeda Strain had Wildfire, a bunkered down laboratory built to maintain secrecy and the ability to work even when the whole world is being destroyed by disease and nuclear energy. A scrappy gang of doctors and scientists gather in this Wildfire facility in order to figure out what killed a whole small town in New Mexico unexpectedly. I say whole, but there were two survivors, a baby and a drunk. Why did they survive when everyone else’s blood turned to powder?

The film is seemingly divided into two sections. The first section is not only concerned with setting up how dramatic this disease that might have been from outer space is but also the exploration of the Wildfire facility. The facility is seen through the eyes of the scientists that have never been there before. They go through levels each with their own tests and sterilization processes. These processes look more and more like S & M practices the deeper down they go into the facility. One scene involves each scientist stripping naked, putting on a fabulous bejewelled helmet and then having the skin burn off of them which results in a white powdery substance. The second part of the film is the hard scientific part. They hypothesize, test, and discuss what may have happened, how it is spread, where it came from and how to stop it. In this section there are a lot of trippy seventies visualizations that I found quaint but not really fitting. Have the filmmakers actually been in a laboratory before? Trust me that is not how tests look like. I guess the filmmakers were trying to give the audience something to look at while they run their boring tests. Despite these visualizations, this part is really the meat of the film and where the build up from the previous section gets it’s payoff. Will they find a cure in time? I guess you just have to find out.

 

 

In this film there are many small moments that make this film a treat to watch. All of these moments would mean nothing to you reader if you have not seen the film, but mean a lot to people who have. It is one of those films where you have to see the film in order to know truly what all of the hype is about. I thin describing it within 2001: A Space Odyssey’s wake is both a compliment and a disservice. While this film would never have been made if 2001 did not prove that there was an audience for hard science fiction, the film stands up on its own as being a unique exploration of the value of science in saving millions of people’s lives. It is a great film that needs to be seen by anyone who loves science fiction.