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Important to acknowledge at the outset that Herzog is not a young man.
He's the same age as Scorsese and note how long it's been since
Scorsese settled on being an illustrator, a lifetime. Herzog as
recently as a few years ago was still venturing out in search.
Having said that, it's hard to fathom this was made by the same man who gave us Stroszek and Fitzcarraldo. In those, the place was real. The protagonists were actual lost souls, not actors feigning. The journey was about actually going where we did to tug for transcendence.
He has a female lead this time, the very first time if I'm not mistaken. He has been hobnobbing with Hollywood people for a decade, perhaps the question was put to him, perhaps he thought he had been remiss himself all this time. No matter, like so many of his characters, he gives us someone who yearns to venture outside maps, explore hazardous edges of the world.
But he has everything else be conventional and streamlined this go round. Actors stay actors whether they're playing Turkish gendarmes or Druze rebels. Oriental music swells over sand dunes like you would expect from any other film. He filmed in Morocco sets standing in for the Middle East.
So yes, atypical for Herzog, a letdown, not one of his high marks. Others fret in comments about Herzog not getting the trivia right, right to left writing and such. What's really the trouble for me is that it dulls the edge of dangerous discovery that set him apart. We're in the Lawrence of Arabia timeline anyway and the film is cut from that Hollywood cloth. We're always more or less safely ensconced.
The film has been so gracelessly attacked in reviews however it makes me want to take a step back. All or some of this would have been obvious to him while preparing anyway, so the question is, what got him out of bed and across the ocean to make this?
No answer is going to be particularly lucid I feel or avoid sounding like excuse. Maybe he couldn't resist the opportunity of going on cinematic adventure, knowing he has only a few more left. It does have the feel of those tail-end films by aging filmmakers who were past their prime but still mounting epics in the 60s.
Maybe he would explain that we're seeing through the narrator's eyes, the world as Persian poem on evanescent love, arrested love as a deeper kind of love. Ridley Scott was briefly considered to direct, no doubt there would be sweeps of battle. Something he couldn't do and Herzog does, in a strange coup, is that it's a very sweet film about yearning.
I would like to rest here. I wouldn't trust the film to be stating too much but for what it's worth; here's a Herzog tract that swaps feverish ego in the pursuit of futile escape from the confines of the world with a heart that submits to the world being confined thus and so and this doesn't stop it from journeying freely.
Islamic poets make a big deal of this, acquiescing to be simply a vessel for luminous mystery. Maybe re-read on that Rumi than get it here.
One last word. Herzog's work is done really. His journey has been vast but is coming to a close. Rather than pounce on him for a film like this, take from his legacy. Don't be a tourist of being, a sherpa of other peoples' reality. We're living in interesting times that require courageous clarity.
And I write this after finding out that IMDb have decided to close down their message boards. It has been a decade for me, more for others. I'm not one for goodbyes, but maybe this one time. Something by way of farewell to people we won't be seeing each other in some time.
Friends, visiting the Mausoleum of Poets in Tabriz wouldn't make you one, not visiting wouldn't stop you. There comes a day when you are called to the back door, going out, you will never be seen again. Learn how to move towards, how to move away, there's no other art. A tree is useful for someone who comes to chop it for firewood or turn it into furniture. May you come to rest in the shade of having less use for things that don't make the heart grow fond :)
Shackleton's third and last journey to the Pole in this documentary. We
avoid talking heads and instead immerse ourselves in the arduous
experience of traversing icy wastes. It has all the staples of polar
exploits as have seeped into the popular imagination; valiant human
endeavor, pitilessly harsh nature that cares none for our feeble
attempts to cross it, scenes of increasing despair and privation,
endured nonetheless with stoic composure.
They were the moon landings of their time. Crews setting out with lofty aims of expanding the map of human knowledge, broadening horizons. What captivated audiences back home was either more prosaic or more poetic; will they make it alive, human bravery in an alien cosmos, the attending mystery of venturing in uncharted territory.
One part of the film comprises actual footage of the expedition shot by a cameraman who was among the crew, really exciting (silent film) footage of the ship being crunched by the ice, desperately futile attempts to haul it out, playing with their trusted dogs, their makeshift camps as they have to go out on foot. The second part shows modern enactments, presumably captures views like they would have stumbled through, whether or not the very same locales. It's actually South Georgia later. But how different the visual regions when charged with knowledge that we're actually seeing into things as they happened.
I remember being enthralled as a kid by a book on polar misadventures. It was about an earlier expedition - the Discovery - but very much the same grimly claustrophobic experience. (What I couldn't know as a kid was that so much of my book's power came from the notion that these were things that actually happened.) It was the kind of story that makes you freeze simply to read, glad for home.
I have a quite different response these days than simply being aghast at what a cold universe it is out there.
See, these people ventured full of dreams. They were broken just as they were starting, shipwrecked in the early stages. Can you imagine the kind of disappointment that shakes you to your core? To know your dreams are quashed, your expedition is a complete failure. The same tortuous effort you expected to muster in the course of making history will now have to be spent just making it back alive.
So, you expected life to go one way, it went another. What now? Now dust yourself off and come back to us with a story of making a full return from the edge.
Herzog is one of few I trust to snap my eye open with just an image,
he's done it a few times by this point. When he won't, he will still
intrigue, invite me to swims unknown. He has powerful intuitions, will
venture where the ground trembles with disorder and once there is
spontaneous enough to let it climb up through the soles of the feet.
It's a German kind of duende that colors his world; the urge or passion a singer cannot quite put to words and responds to with song. I may disagree with him on conclusions of that duende about the cosmos and the futility of endeavor, but I trust him as explorer and soul.
He's in Antarctica here, another desolate landscape outside of maps that beckons in a most primal way. It's where Scotts and Shackletons wrecked themselves, and why. He enters as as anyone else might these days; by plane, one more sleepy traveler among dozens.
If you know a bit about him, you will observe a few things.
He is pleased to find McMurdo base looking like a drab construction site with machinery tearing up the ground, confirming his views of a fundamentally wretched humanity that fouls the earth. He is as pleased to find a forklift operator on the scene who very poetically describes his presence there as a desire to fall off the edge of the world. It's why Herzog has been in most places.
He is enormously pleased to find that all Antarctica newcomers must be drilled on white-out conditions by wearing buckets on their heads and stumbling after each other while tethered to a rope. You can almost feel his exhilaration when they have to reach a certain point in this state but find themselves in a jumble in the opposite direction.
He includes a tidbit about researchers studying seals, extracting milk from the mothers while claiming they want to be able to study the animals in their natural state. It mirrors Herzog's own endeavor of perturbing to extract truth about it. He tickles us with these researchers; the milk is being collected for studies on weight-loss.
He has the researchers lay down with their ear pressed to the ice, harking for calls of seals from below that sound like Pink Floyd (which are artificially edited on top of the scene). There is a whole world down there that ebbs and calls. It's the world Herzog has sought to portray.
An oceanologist had previously explained that the Antarctica - standing for a broader cosmos - is not a big, inert slab of ice as thought in Shackleton's time but an organic entity that is rippling out change. He mentions icebergs the size of Texas that will one day head north, saying this with a mad glint in the eye.
He finds an entry into that world below via divers. He gives us fluorescent jellyfish undulating in eerie blue silence. This world is constant struggle, one of the divers confirms. The link is made to a precarious humanity, perched on the outer layer of unfriendly chaos, this time via sci-fi movies.
So far we haven't had ecstatic truth of the kind which he favors. He finds it in a disoriented penguin that heads inland towards certain death all by himself.
I have still only described parts, there is more to see. It points altogether to a certain cosmology.
Yes, he has constructed on the way, intruded upon the subject, made it a point to include the bits we have while omitting others. You can imagine that he has sifted through a lot of otherwise unexciting footage. He has staged most of what you'll see. You can tell how well he has (or not) by noting that he first encountered the lone, intrepid penguin and then went back to set it up by filming the exchange where he asks the penguin researcher about insanity among penguins. It couldn't have taken place the other way.
I would disagree in parts, or with the temerity of the physicist who explains on camera about neutrinos as coming from another dimension. It's up to us anyway to choose how to perceive ourselves and our struggle, the universe neither cares nor doesn't. It simply provides the building blocks and vistas.
But he's a trusted explorer with good intuitions and here's why. This isn't the natural world of Koyannisqatsi, fundamentally pure and being imbalanced by us. Herzog finds a world with disorder and transience built right in, and welcomes the fact. He's more spiritual than he would admit.
There is no fathoming our modern world for me outside the invention of
the camera, this newfound ability to take up the world in terms of
timeflow and shuffle it in reflection. It is the world standing on the
precipice of modernity that silent cinema uncovers after all, looking a
little damp and sunless from the centuries, but also a little startled
and excited as it prepares to make the leap and finds all around it
wondrous tools for that leap, automobiles, trains and cinemas.
The impulse would have been simple for silent makers, simple but no less exciting for that. All these things waiting to be documented as if for a first time. It was so in that Leeds film about traffic some thirty years before and so it is here. Ships, streets, structures, activities from the bustle of the modern city to native dances, the film is a travelogue that celebrates the swirl of being able to now have views of all these things in the same space. Among them now are sounds; the film is offered as the first German sound film. They were making so called 'city symphonies' at around this time; the filmmaker behind this being responsible for one of the very best I know. We would call this a world symphony.
All told, it isn't particularly worthwhile other than as a cachet of images from the time when our gaze was beginning to go global. The impulse for this type of film hasn't gone away of course but rather undergone a shift. This mode, more evidently symphonic, continues in films like Koyannisqatsi only the modern world is presented there in the cautionary light of having strayed too far and contrasted with the sanctity of the natural order. The modern lunge is here celebrated with wide-eyed eagerness. Still the eye is as rather dull as it would later be in Koyannisqatsi. Contrasts between old and new, far and close.
Because after all the camera is a marker of modernity in another sense as well. It's not simply that far and close could be shuffled now, past and present, it's that the whole unraveling of appearances - all this motion in every direction of perception - being facilitated by the modern surge forward, reveals a narrative eye with the ability to leap and surge itself, an eye that gives rise to world.
This is what more erudite filmmakers of the time, in Paris and Moscow, were busy exploring, the mechanisms that control that surge of the eye. I would rather pick up the thread there. The vital distinction is between the camera as device that records and as soul that surges through to animate. Such efforts were running parallel to a good deal of modern thinking about how the world is put together; I'd like to imagine, somewhat wistfully, that an alert mind of the time would have been as stimulated by news from Solvay as by the dreamlike uncertainty of Menilmontant.
I had saved this for a time when I might want to vicariously visit
Cuba. Fidel Castro passed away last week so it felt like an occasion on
which to look back and reflect. The place is seductive and the guide
would not be just anyone. Chris Marker had been there two years before
but Varda is second to none in my book.
Agnes is reflecting on her own right here. It's not meant to be a chronicle of anything, much less paean of revolution, but a sketchbook of impressions, glimpses on the road. She had been there and came back with still images which she edits in a playful way. The revolution does loom central of course, in the campaigns to literate peasants and the collective dances of gathering sugarcane, the frescoes and images of heroes, but seen through Varda's eyes, Cuba is a place that above all sways in rhythms and music that well up from inside of it, from generosity of heart. It is collective joy that Varda graces us with and salutes.
It's in the music, the religious dances and masks, the sugarcane work, the women's bodies, such evocative women that even Varda pauses to admire. It's no less in the gallery of gruesome photos from the war, exhibits of pride. Another segment admires soldiers on horseback as movie figures from westerns, ironically admiring the capacity of image to support our own imprints of meaning, able to bridge odd divides. Fidel as the Gary Cooper of the revolution, the narrator muses.
It all turns around form, image, dances of recollection from these, the transient and impromptu. It all points to how the image is pliant, a field where memories and narratives intersect. Some of these she has just improvised for us.
I don't leave feeling like I'm much the wiser about Cuba or revolution, which is okay, I'm fine without being wise in that sense. I leave feeling like I have briefly swayed in the breeze of being able to touch without smudging, partake without taking, know without knowing. More important this.
At the time, this was just another tangled web of political murk to me,
one of many it seems when it comes to dipping in the Middle East. Now
that I saw it again I note it as a more interesting failure in itself
and more interesting than assorted war films on Iraq.
It's let down I feel by two specific choices in the fabric. One was the choice to use the language of the CIA thriller to tell their story. It seems to be an established filter of seeing Americans in the Middle East. But in this case only serves to divert attention to Bourne thrills that won't come, it's not that kind of film really, so registers as muddled. Viewers sometimes wonder about bad directing, I would offer this as example.
The other, no less crucial, is that they put too much in. You can imagine how in TV form the same story would have been a first season's worth. That is where they probably would have pitched it these days. We'd be free to trace longer spans of threads, inhabiting and fleshing characters, stakes and conundrums. It's all been condensed to two hours here so we end up having to jump around story lines, landing here and there for moments that, given the time constraint, all have to forward the longer arc, which creates the real trouble. It has no room to breathe and winds up feeling mechanical.
Both choices force a shallow clarity that works against what this is. Too bad. If you see this, know that it's about no shady deal in particular but shadiness in general. About no specific manipulation by secret agencies but the agency of manipulation itself and how its toxic effect permeates the larger fabric to frazzle lives.
There's a fine metaphor in the film about exactly this. The world of politics as a lavish cocktail party going on in the rich Saudi mansion, but unbeknownst to the oblivious clinking of glasses, a light has short-circuited inside the pool where children are about to play.
Marvel has repeatedly toyed with ways to riff on their overblown
antics. They had Ant Man last year where he shrunk and all that and the
all important fight to save the world took place among toys. They had
Tony Stark in the last Iron Man as screwy actor struggling with
superhero machinery that blew up in his face. The first Thor of course,
with the savior hero washing down in 'real life' from his astral world
above and shown to be a big jock.
That's what they do here, a superhero narrator plowing his way through the superhero plot while commenting on the absurdity of tropes. It's mostly matter of engineering gags from that point. He's hideous looking, rides to the big showdown in a taxi. He has only 12 bullets, misses a few times in close range then gets a miraculous shot. He's only incidentally fighting against evil and would rather chew his own hand out of a bear trap than join the goody-two-shoe X-Men. He's basically this snarky dude who was plopped inside a Marvel movie and is fighting his way out of being a superhero (but meanwhile enjoys the mischief possible with playing the part).
Far from novel but they decided to keep the kids out this time so we have a bit of personality, a stoner imagination. His flatmate slash sidekick is an old lady and they get to toke together. Unlike an Avengers Walmart, you don't get the sense that it's corporate wash aimed at everyone and no one in particular.
My favorite bit was probably the relationship with the girlfriend. Love as unabashedly chasing each other outside norms. It's not as easy to seduce that twinkle in the eye out of actors as it looks.
One more attempt by a spy film to capture something of the machinations
that move our modern world, the contradictions at the heart of it that
keep it dissembled and ambiguous. It's why I seek these things out,
apart of course from the thrill of secret lives and manipulable
narratives. We can feel our own lives to have a kind of secret agency,
well some days we might, it's what in older times people identified as
Bond and sundry capers give us a world powered by duplicitous forces but an action hero plows through it. Everything eventually makes clear and simple sense, good and evil kept on different tabs. The narrative threads plucked from the motives of characters are childlike; world domination and averting it.
This is a step up from that. We're told that this cranky old agent of 30 years may be working for the other side. The film is a portrait of this man at the center of duplicitous narratives, a narrator used to tweaking truth. Over the course of things we come to understand that a man has his reasons, reasons that go beyond simple right and wrong are are entangled with a whole self. We understand the disillusionment to be woven with the place he worked.
It's touted as a mature look overall, above silly histrionics. But it's still a portrait and feels, like all portraits, the result of something posed for. It's a romanticized portrayal to boot, compared to the real person, serving us the tacit archetype of the stern American patriarch who glares and snarls and is set in his ragged ways that the world has no more use for. Cooper is great but I miss the abstract swim of a more pervasive uncertainty, a work that doesn't just prop up and define a type.
And I spent some time last summer, boring time, with a CIA paper on counter intelligence from Reagan's day, originally released as a series of internal memos and later compiled in a book. Written in the bureaucratic language of university psychology, it was aimed to instruct square military types like the guy Cooper plays here, with their old boy attitude of knowing best because they've been around, on the difficulties of making sense and precisely how observation is perturbed by the viewer.
It was a boring read that zapped vital ideas of their seductiveness and another instance of how state agencies guiding the lives of millions often work from outmoded blueprints. You'll see the latest iteration of this in the Iraqi failure. But the real insight for me was that an all powerful agency tasked with making (and constructing) sense had to be instructed as recently as yesteryear on how it's a multitudinous thing. The original impetus for the paper incidentally was a high ranking KGB defector and the tangled narrative web of whether or not he was a double agent.
And all of this cuts for me at the heart of how we make sense as viewers in both life and the cinema. Our dogged insistence to make clear sense, to fit people into types and fashion stories in dramatically neat archs about what motivates them, papers over a fundamentally uncertain world where self will heave and elude in turbulent ways.
If you ever wondered how comedy at the hands of Akerman would look
like, it's right here. It's the gentle kind that might make the edges
of a smile curve upwards, not the kind that will elicit guffaws of
course. It goes without saying.
It is in fact a twist on the kind of movie she usually makes, about a woman who waits and frets as walls of self cave in, here rendered for amusement. A woman returns to her apartment to find a friend she had allowed to stay is still there. She wants him gone now so she can have peace of mind but she's too reticent to make a scene.
It's Chantal herself on screen playing a filmmaker working on a script, so another way for her to tell us about solitary life she probably knows well and bugs her. It has the tone of intimate quiet I like about her, the sense of diary and fecund waiting; a tone she shares with other women filmmakers I like like Varda and Kawase.
Unable to concentrate on her writing, she begins plotting on her typewriter about ways to avoid him, like how early to wake up to have finished breakfast before he comes in, writing the movie we watch in fact.
Another notion. She eavesdrops on a phonecall he makes and looks slightly piqued to realize it's to another girl they know. Is this all about her finding ways to not express feelings she would like to?
When he finally goes, the loneliness of the empty flat offers no solace, the opposite. We see her set up a camera that feeds back images of the building outside, the withering function of memory, of the self inhabiting images that anticipate instead of facing the real thing.
What we see is a self who continuously moves about a house, doing everything except moving out of its own way of expressing itself truly. The movement is funneled into a story about the self- inflicted woes of having to do so of course; it's a comedy about being fettered in this way.
But the point remains, one that links back to Jeanne Dielman. Is life kind of hopeless that way, vague, opaque, to be tacitly accepted as disheartening? It's where I part ways with her, although I accept her whole as a genuine person, a gentle soul speaking about real things. I think she only really managed to rise above the fog in Meetings of Anna.
Here she offers a small gesture. She writes again the morning after; okay. But how truly to move out of our own self when that's all that stands in the way of expressing ourselves? I'm reminded here of one of my most cherished Buddhist koans that speaks about the guest and the empty house.
Films are direct embodiments of what they are, we need only take an
honest look. Some viewers have held this one up as important debate
that brings attention to cruel double-binds of war, others have decried
it as one-sided propaganda. But what do the mechanics of how it has
been put together reveal?
We have viewers watching a movie that poses a grave moral conundrum unfold across screens, top military brass and politicians in various rooms as they contemplate a drone strike. If they decide to strike, innocents will die. If they don't, suicide bomb vests are being prepared inside the house, innocents will die soon after. We are viewers watching viewers watch a morality play about what to do.
It is a morality play; the particulars all simplified to make obvious the specific moral response. The setting has been simplified for the same narrative economy as every play, a jihadist hiding house surveyed from the sky. The innocents who stand to die are reduced down to a single little girl, who we have seen before as cute and loved by her parents. The desired reaction is reduced to the drone operator shedding tears over a magnified image of the little girl as he fights orders to kill.
What to make of all this, those of us who would rather confront ugly, complicated realities anyway? Would there be a movie at all if it was a gangly, ugly twentysomething or a middle- aged street vendor we had to mull over? Having bureaucrats obligingly swap opposing points of view, is there something to actually contemplate in all this?
There is no debate here. It's the kind of debate we would be having in the scenario with having to decide to push the red button that kills a hundred people or the one that kills two hundred. We have simply arrived too late, given the controls too late. We should be asking, how did it come down to where these two are our only options, or are they?
Look, film has the power to purify and bring to light, but where are you going to point? You have the opportunity to hover over the world, swoop from above to magnify and project back to screens all over the world. And it's a complete waste when there's nothing more to take back home beyond a mere somnolence, beyond a flimsy sense of 'humanity'. Spielberg has made a career out of this, choosing to find just those historic moments when the world is tearing itself up, often war, never trying to find the moral impasse where it lurks next to us and doesn't make itself obvious, in mundane reality, then lazily uses the world at its most cruel and senseless to bludgeon the viewer with how cruel it all is. It's a cynical thing.
The moments that test or betray humanity do not begin with having to decide what button to press. They begin on a mundane day with two people talking.
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