Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The films of Werner Herzog

I'm currently working on a zine for an upcoming exhibit + zine release at BOOKMACHINE books + zines called "Our Eyes, Spinning Like Propellers: a Year of Films at Hibbleton Gallery," which is curated by my friend, filmmaker Steve Elkins.  For the past year, we have been screening art films every week that Steve selects.  

The zine will be a kind of retrospective of the 50 plus films we've watched together.  As I'm working on it, I thought I'd share with you some of the films, plus Steve's descriptions of them.  Last August, we watched a series of films by director Werner Herzog.  Here they are

"Portrait Werner Herzog" (1986):  Herzog's autogiography of his early work, including a feature film shot with his entire cast under deep hypnosis ("Heart Of Glass"); documenting the lives of Miskito Indian child-soldiers behind enemy lines in Nicaragua ("Ballad Of The Little Soldier"); flying to the island of Guadeloupe after it's been evacuated due to an impending volcano eruption to talk to the one man who refuses to leave ("La Soufrière"); contracting malaria before his entire film crew is imprisoned and beaten for suspected espionage in Cameroon during production of "Fata Morgana", walking from Germany to Paris in the middle of winter (breaking into homes to survive along the way) in the belief it would save the life of one of the founders of the French Cinematheque, and pretending to be a medical official to steal an army of monkeys for a scene in "Aguirre, The Wrath Of God."

"Herdsmen Of The Sun" (1989):  Documentary about the Guérewol ritual of the Wodaabe people in the Sahara of Niger, in which men attempt to attract women by putting on elaborate make-up, feathers, jewelry, and drinking a hallucinogenic fermented bark concoction.

"Lessons Of Darkness" (1992):  An exploration of the apocalyptic Kuwait oil fields as they are set on fire to keep American companies from illegally taking them over at the end of the first Gulf War. Herzog is there when Texans are sent in to put out the fires, who eventually go insane and start lighting the oil fields on fire all over again.

"Bells From The Deep" (1993):  An investigation of Russian mysticism through Siberian shamans, Orthodox bell ringers, local drunks, pilgrims searching for visions of the lost city of Kitezh beneath a frozen lake, and much more. 

"Burden Of Dreams" (1982):  Les Blank's documentary about Werner Herzog’s attempt to haul a real 320-ton steamship over a mountain in the Peruvian Amazon with no special effects in the midst of a war between two native indian tribes attacking each other with poison spears. What unfolds is far more insane than even that initial premise (including Herzog and his lead actor Klaus Kinski literally plotting each other's murder), the result being a perfect introduction to the “Ecstatic Truth” of Herzog and his drive to tell “the inner chronicle of who we are” even under suicidal circumstances. We also screened “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe,” in which Herzog jumps into a cactus and literally eats his shoe to inspire others to make war on mediocrity.

"Wheel Of Time" (2003):  If I had to pick only one film to share with the world, it would almost definitely be Werner Herzog's "Wheel Of Time." Or to put it another way, if the human race died out and we left one film behind to represent the best of what we were, I hope it would be a film like this. “Wheel Of Time” documents the life threatening pilgrimage Buddhist monks have been making for thousands of years, bowing their way across 3,000 miles of the Himalayas on their stomachs to the tree where the buddha was enlightened, in order to better understand the nature of the human mind. The pilgrimage culminates in the creation of an enormous mandala out of colored sand which is promptly destroyed upon completion to reflect the impermanence of all things and the importance of non-attachment to even our most profound accomplishments. Completely transcending the boundaries of Buddhist beliefs, this film is one the most moving depictions of the power of selfless human devotion I can think of.

"The White Diamond" (2004):  Herzog follows an enigmatic airship inventor to the treetops of Guyana on a breathtaking and moving adventure involving a man who lives with giant gorillas, a breakdancer on a waterfall, a rastafarian who loves his rooster, stunning scenery in unexplored regions of the earth, and plenty of insane people. Not to mention one of the best film scores of all time, combining the madness of experimental Dutch cellist Ernst Reijseger, Sardinian throat singers, and Mola Sylla from Senegal.  This night we also welcomed one of the lucky few to have been admitted to Herzog's Rogue Film School, OC Weekly writer and theater director Dave Barton who shared his personal memories of the experience, which Herzog himself describes as ""not for the faint hearted; it is for those who have travelled on foot, who have worked as bouncers in sex clubs or as wardens in a lunatic asylum, for those who are willing to learn about lockpicking or forging shooting permits in countries not favoring their projects. In short: for those who have a sense of poetry."

"Encounters At The End Of The World" (2007):  Herzog goes to Antarctica to find evidence of something Alan Watts once said: "Through our eyes the universe is perceiving itself, and through our ears the universe is listening to its cosmic harmonies. And we are the witness to which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence." "I noticed that the divers in their routine were not speaking at all," Herzog observes, "to me, they were like priests preparing for mass. Under the ice the divers find themselves in a separate reality where space and time acquire a strange, new dimension. Those few who have experienced the world under the frozen sky often speak of it as going down into the cathedral."

The opening reception for this art show + zine release + video installation is Friday, June 6th, 2014 from 6-10pm, during the Downtown Fullerton Art Walk.

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