Let the record show, Werner Herzog is the best when it comes to choosing music–after all, he said so last night. Talking to a completely full room at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Rose Theater after a screening of "The White Diamond," Herzog mulled over opera and working with musicians, and briefly entertained a Nicholas Cage question over an hour-and-a-half dialogue with moderator Paul Holdengräber, director of LIVE of the New York Public Library.
"We are doing this as a pair of co-conspirators," said Holdengräber as the duo introduced the film. The choice of screening "The White Diamond" had to do entirely with the film's soundtrack, written and recorded before the film had been shot save for the ending track.
"It's very hard to speak, to verbalize about music," said Herzog. "Though I do stage opera once in a while, I do it quite well." The statement elicited laughter from the crowd, setting the tone for the evening, as the documentary's unfolding story about redemption and a Rastafarian named Marc Anthony with a red rooster kept the crowd giggling. But the director doesn’t always immediately recognize his own eccentricity. Herzog admitted he only came around on the humor of "The White Diamond" after seeing it again with an audience. When asked about the roosters in the film, he said, "There are quite a few in my films, chickens too. I'm frightened of them because they're so phenomenally stupid. They are so emotionally stupid. If you look into the eyes of a chicken, you'd know what I mean."
The score for "The White Diamond” is an ominous composition from longtime Herzog contributor Ernst Rejiseger and Eric Spizter. Herzog fondly recalled the singers used for the recording who came from all walks of life, including a sheep herder to "one [who] worked in a quarry. He is very popular with the women."
"The Sardinians had a lot of real physical energy," he added about the singers. "This joy of projecting this kind of stars. They were too energetic. I immediately stopped them after the first recording and said follow me." Herzog stood, stretched out his arms and slowly bobbed from side to side. Herzog also remarked that he intended the score to always be for two films — “The White Diamond” and 2005’s "The Wild Blue Yonder." But, it's not the first time he has dipped back into his catalog, nothing that “Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans,” utilized a segment from the end of his 1977 effort “Stroszek.”
"It was too good not to recycle music I used in the mid-'70s," he said, adding that he loved the song and what it represents for America so much that he had to reuse it. By the way, don't think you're alone in enjoying the madness of the ‘Bad Lieutenant’ dialogue ("Shoot him again!" "Why?" "His soul is still dancing!") in the film, as Herzog also cracks up after remembering it. Asked how that moment came about, Herzog responded, "No, it was not actually in the screenplay. It was an invention during shooting. There should be something wilder, something totally imaginary. Something only the Bad Lieutenant can see, but we as an audience are in conspiracy with him so we see as well. It's wild stuff, so we have to go wild when you do my work."
Herzog also talked briefly about working with Nicolas Cage on the film, saying, "We complimented each other very, very well. Nic knew I would get the very best out of him. I always get the best out of actors. Including [Klaus] Kinski, by the way, who did 235 shitty films. But in my films he was magnificent."
But Herzog isn't always happy with what has resulted in the films. The conversation headed back towards music, and after a clip from "An Ode To The Dawn Man" from "The Cave of Forgotten Dreams" played, Herzog lamented the musical performance of about the flute player, saying that he was not willing to see his vision for how it should be approached. "He didn't do it right. He was too cerebral," said Herzog, "…he plays from a flute made from a sewage pipe…very cheaply done flute. Kids from the ghetto would play this kind of instrument in the streets." Ultimately, the musician's style, he said, "does not function with the cinema. We are doing a film about cave paintings, 32,000 years old, and of course there's a great strangeness. But it has to move very, very slowly because I have to move the camera slowly."
There were also clips from his short 1974 documentary "The Great Ecstasy Of Woodcarver Steiner," which gave audiences a meta-visual of Herzog providing live translation of himself and attempting to shout over his own voice. From here it led to Herzog talking about the reading list from his infamous Rogue Film School, which includes "The Peregrine" by J.A. Baker, nordic poetry, and the U.S. Warren Commission report, which he describes as "a wonderful and great crime story."
Herzog briefly segued into the nature of opera versus film after a clip from his 1989 German television doc "Wodaabe-Herdsmen of the Sun," which used a Thomas Edison recording of "Ave Maria" on cylinder ("It's bold to do this music.") with Herzog using the opportunity to claim he's better at staging operas than making films. "The rules of cinema are something I do not understand as well as opera," he said. "I do understand the basics of opera better than the rules of cinema. And yet, I do music better than anyone else that I know in my profession." (He added that Roman Polanski and Paolo and Vittorio Taviani are also up to his standards).
Enjoyable and informative, if the tone of the night were to be summed up, it would have to swing back to the introduction from Holdengräber, who asked the audience to consider how Herzog views culture: "A collective agitation of the mind." And there’s no one we’d rather have agitate us for an evening than Herzog.
Werner Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo" screens at BAM tonight in Brooklyn.