"The wisdom of the snake"- An Afternoon with Werner Herzog in Tampa

My annual Thanksgiving trip to Tampa included a special pilgrimage this year to the University of South Florida's Interdisciplinary Science Department for a special (and free!) presentation from the seeker and purveyor of Ecstatic truth himself, Werner Herzog.  The event was sponsored by USF's Department of World Languages and the German Consulate of Miami, and included a screening of Herzog's latest release, Into the Abyss, and was followed by a lengthy Q&A session that provided an insightful look into Herzog's process in making Abyss, which delightfully veered into such unexpected topics as his recent foray into acting (a "bad guy" opposite Tom Cruise--a role he feels suits him well), his obliviousness to the music of The Talking Heads, and his deep dislike for rooms full of Wisconsin housewives doing yoga.

A packed house for
 "An Afternoon with Werner Herzog" at USF
Having seen Into the Abyss at the Chicago International Film Festival, I think a small part of me was hoping for a DVD malfunction--not because I didn't want to see the film again, but, rather, because Herzog made an announcement before the presentation that he was not able to check the DVD he had brought, and therefore was not sure if there was even anything on it, but, if that turned out to be the case he had brought DVDs of four other films he had completed since making Into the Abyss, and if all else fails we could watch one of those, all of them hour-length films about different death row inmates.  I think it goes without saying that I left my first live engagement with Herzog with the same thought that I often take away from reading or listening to his interviews:  "Good God, I'm lazy."  In any case, the first 10 minutes of Abyss were marred by technical issues, and I kept my fingers crossed, but Herzog managed to correct the problem, then sat down in the front row, and watched the film along with us.  Ultimately, I was pleased to discover that I liked Into the Abyss even more the second time around.  Not unlike Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog manages to craft a precise, in depth study of his subject with incredibly limited access.  In Cave, confined to a metal walkway and a limited amount of time to explore his subject, he managed to illuminate a profound message from the past in a way that allowed us access to the unseen, and created a space for us to meditate on the idea of historical memory in a way that posits primitive cave art as a possible genesis of cinema itself.  In Abyss, Herzog manages to spark similar expansive insight through another situation of limited access, as he assured us that everyone he included in the film (which is, perhaps, the film of his most dominated by "talking head" interview material) were people he had only met on the day of the interview, and, in the case of the imprisoned subjects--Michael Perry, Jason Burkett, and his father, Delbert Burkett--he was allowed only one interview with each of them, which constituted the first and last time Herzog would meet them.

Michael Perry - Executed on death row, Huntsville, TX, July 1, 2010
for the murder of 3 people
Upon second viewing, Herzog's abilities as an interviewer in Into the Abyss struck me as particularly remarkable.  In the past, Herzog has taken on more of a "narrator" or "commentator" role in his films--in the case of Lessons of Darkness going as far as to play a sort of "alien" interrogator in his voice over--but in Abyss Herzog shows us an interview technique that, in it's most fruitful moments, yields reactions from his subjects that cannot be mistaken for anything other than genuine surprise at Herzog's depth of insight.  If you haven't seen this ability in action, it would be almost laughable to hear a film maker respond to a question about his interviewing technique with a statement like:  "You must have the wisdom of the snake."  But, I have to say, few people earn the daring nature of their claims like Herzog, be they lies, truth, or the lie that reveals the truth.  So, for all you aspiring documentary makers out there, there is a very simple trick to getting interviews of great depth--as Herzog puts it:  "The key is knowing the hearts of men."

Wulf Hein and Werner Herzog shooting Cave of Forgotten Dreams
After the success of Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World (although Herzog informed us that the latter was "disliked by the network" for it's lack of appeal to a female audience), it seemed that Herzog's increasingly mainstream invention of himself was turning in on itself a bit, punctuated for me by his embarrassingly sensational appearance on the Conan O'Brien show, pitting one of the worst interviewers in history against one of the best, and leaving us with nothing more than giddy questions like "Did you really eat your own shoe?!"  Oh well...Herzog didn't seem to mind, and I can only assume his television exploits, which now include a guest spot on the Simpsons, will all be rolled up neatly into his ongoing narrative (I imagine appearances where he proclaims "I know not of these "Sampsons" you speak of ...but, yes, I appeared on their television show). 

Herzog, Simpson-ized
Though his USF appearance did lead him a bit toward indulging in his pop-Herzog persona ("Pop-zog"?), there seemed to be more of a tendency in the questioning toward trying to tie his films together thematically or stylistically, which Herzog immediately denied as facile "film school" rhetoric.  When asked about the work contributed by David Byrne on the score of Into the Abyss, he informed us that he did not know who this "David Bird" was, which prompted an exasperated shout from an audience member seated on the floor behind me:  "The TALKing HEADS!";  Herzog did eventually recognize the musical contribution of Mark Di Gli Antonio to the film (though I'm guessing Werner is not a big Soul Coughing fan).  Into the Abyss does, in fact, greatly benefit from the contribution of both Byrne and De Gli Antonio, creating a more seamless meld of sound and image than many of Herzog's pictures, only occasionally allowing the music to be the aggressor.  And, as I started to get at in my previous Ecstatic article on the film, Abyss is important as an antidote to the trivialization of death and murder that occurs every night on TV shows with some of the highest viewership in the country, from "Law and Order" to "America's Most Wanted."  Herzog's scoring choices, the scant but effective moments of visual poetry he achieves in the film, and the choices he makes in the editing (a process, he confided in us, that got he and his editor smoking again) are what set Abyss apart from the commercial television treatment of these same types of crimes.

A Texas Death Row Graveyard - Into the Abyss
What stays most with me through this opportunity to listen to Herzog speak at this point in his career is how clearly compassionate his position as an artist is, as well as the maturity of his world view, always evident in his films, but remarkably tempered by an enthusiasm for discovery usually associated with film makers 1/3 his age.  The attempts to reduce his films to a consistent stylistic preoccupation, or to analyze them in relation to their recurring motifs, were met with disdain, unapologetically, as Herzog reminded the audience that no one gets upset about playwrights trying to write poetry, or novelists attempting the occasional essay.  If Herzog wants to make a sequel to Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant without having seen the film, or even knowing who Abel Ferara is, he does.  If he wants to collaborate with David Lynch, despite his disdain for meditation as yet another form of privileged escapism, he does.  Upon the release of Into the Abyss, Herzog claims to not be working as an activist through this film, and warns us not to read it as a "message" piece.  As with all of his work, he continues to capture, augment, and share the grandeur of his continued discoveries, whether it be from the edge of an active volcano, or inside the darkest, narrowest halls of death.

Encounters at the End of the World
Into the Abyss

Special thanks to Michael LeVan, Melissa Freeman, Julie Garisto, Dave and JB for being my 
Tampa hook-ups for this event.  (Now, go READ!) 




alice said...

I don't read blogs that regularly but really enjoyed this. I think your point about Herzog's film being an antidote to 'the trivialization of death and murder that occurs every night on TV' is a really strong one. Thanks for writing
Alice, Dublin, Ireland

Jason Hedrick said...

Thanks for reading ECSTATIC, Alice. Great to hear from a reader in Dublin. Please pass along a link for the blog to those you think might be interested, and remember that you can sign up as a member if you want to get email updates on posts.