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a crack in your ear through which sound surreptitiously slips, or an illicit substance which gives your ears immense pleasure while enslaving them to a crippling addiction

Sunday, December 11, 2005



If you enjoyed the recent Werner Herzog documentary Grizzly Man, three of his short documentaries from the 1970's were recently released on a DVD called Short Films by Werner Herzog. They're each 45 minutes long, which made them difficult to distribute theatrically, but ideal for a DVD compilation.

I love DVD's. They make so many things possible, like seeing films that break the molds of traditional formats, or watching TV shows without having to watch TV, or hearing my favorite directors ramble on about lighting and their battles with weather conditions. But I digress.

This particular DVD didn't have a commentary track, but the liner notes included an excerpt of a print interview with Herzog (from the book Herzog on Herzog, edited by Paul Cronin). If "Herzogian" is a word, I think it has to do with man confronting nature and accepting the will (or wrath) of God. Or something like that.

The three films included on the DVD are:

The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner (1974)
I liked this one so much I watched it three times. The subject is the great Swiss ski-flyer Walter Steiner, and it includes some stunning slow-motion ski jumping, filmed at 1/20th speed. The score by Popel Vuh is beautiful too, with electric guitar swells that perfectly mesh with the snowy-mountain images. In the film, we witness Steiner breaking the world ski-flying record, easily beating all of his competition. He starts his run lower down on the ramp than the other skiers, because he's concerned that he'll fly too far and have a terrible accident if he starts any higher up, and he still beats everyone handily. But the film is not about athletic accomplishment, it's about spiritual quest. What they are doing is very dangerous (Herzog repeatedly shows images of ski-flyers wiping out in "agony of defeat"-type crashes), but they confront their fears, pushing the limits of physics and nature in order to achieve the ecstasy of flight, if only for a few seconds.

How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck (1976)
This one takes place at the 1976 World Championship of Livestock Auctioneers in New Holland, Pennsylvania. It begins with some interviews with the winning auctioneers, made all the more touching by the way Herzog lets the camera linger on the subjects for a brief moment after they finish talking, somehow making me feel like I was stealing a glimpse of their souls. But most of the film is simply watching the competition, letting the viewer revel in the beauty and poetry of the auctioneers' voices. I read someplace that the German version of this film includes a voice-over by Herzog in which he calls the auctioneers' chants the "poetry of capitalism."

La Soufriere (1977)
A volcano on the island of Guadeloupe is steaming, threatening to erupt at any moment. Authorities claim the force of the eruption could be equilvilent to several atomic bombs, and the island has been deserted, the residents fearing for their lives. What does Herzog do? He goes there with a camera crew and climbs the volcano. The man has guts. There are some beautiful and erie shots driving down the streets and docks of the deserted island town, and late in the film the crew happens upon a man who stayed behind, accepting his possibile fate as the "will of God." Luckily for Herzog, the ending is anticlimactic. But while waiting for the "unavoidable catastrophe" that never takes place, the film becomes a meditation on the ephemeral nature of life.

Sometimes I think part of me secretly wants to be a film reviewer, but then I worry that having to write about movies like this all the time instead of just watching them would totally suck.


Blogger Paul said...

I finally got this on Netflicks thanks to your blog post here and it was great and well worth watching. How Much Wood does indeed drag a little bit, but I also kind of like how it drags. Amazing how each auctioneer is just as good as the last. I had a favorite, and he didn't win (the guy with the white hat who had a nice back beat).

The text ending of The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner is kind of creepy and obsessive, but also really touching. Something like "if it were only me and Steiner, I would no longer be afraid." What a weird thing to say, and still the words are haunting me since I saw it.

4:32 PM


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