DOES MR. JONATHAN SMITH CRY IN HIS PILLOW AT NIGHT?: THE UNIRONIC WORLDS OF WERNER HERZOG
One of the most revealing statements in the book Herzog on Herzog appears early on, when Werner Herzog tells interviewer Paul Cronin that from the time he was a young child he has suffered a particular "communication defect": he has no sense of irony.
Whether Herzog the actual human being does or doesn't have a sense of irony is itself a minor point, a bit of autobiographical gossip. But there is a useful truth in extrapolating the insight to his work: Understanding and appreciating Herzog's films means giving up on the pleasures of irony. (It is difficult to imagine a satire written and directed by Werner Herzog.) What is entertaining and meaningful in Herzog's movies and his public persona is a peculiar earnestness — the earnestness of the straight man in comedy routines, but less oblivious, more mystical. Various labels can and have been applied to his work: Romantic, Expressionist, Existentialist. But they are inevitably incomplete and unsatisfying because their orientation is toward analysis, systematization, precepts, and principles—where Herzog's philosophy is more like a garden of intuitions, or a collection of koans written on scraps of paper and scattered across the floor of an abandoned monastery atop some far-off mountain where the wind never settles down.
The title of Nelson Carvajal's new video essay, "Werner Herzog Looks at Man's Futility," is full of tricks and traps. What is Werner Herzog: the filmmaker, his films, the actual human being for whom that is a byline, the public figure we know from interviews and guest appearances and YouTube videos? Looks: How? With eyes or camera? Are we looking with him, through him? Man's Futility: "Man" as a macho revanchist term for "humanity"? Or literally of men: the futility of men, the futility of masculinity, men adjusting their lives to the fact of futility . . . (The video's first image, from Stroszek, is of a woman being beaten by men.)
Carvajal's work can speak for itself; its juxtapositions are rich with possibility and ambiguity. The choice of the word futility is what most strikes me. A quick glance at Herzog's oeuvre might cause an inattentive viewer to see it as nihilistic, as celebrating or at least embracing the futility of living: human life is inconsequential, nature is great and unknowable, death and failure are ever-present, hopes and dreams are naïve. But that is not it at all. Instead, Herzog encourages us toward the sublime, toward awe and humility when faced with great mystery—toward, indeed, the seeking and celebration of such mystery. Toward an epistemology that is not irrational but sur-rational, that thrives between the lines of all we could ever know. It is not that we live in a meaningless universe, but rather that our intellectual tools for measuring the meaning of the universe are about as well developed as those of a mosquito contemplating how Manhattan came to be so tall.
Existence is its own meaning. Thus, the need for pushing existence toward its limits and extremes, for exploration and adventure. Every worthwhile encounter happens at the end of some world. Facts are not truth, and truth is not a product of careful measurement and objective observation, but of ecstasy, and ecstasy requires the knowledge of the senses, the trust of intuition, the cultivation of mystery. Teleology leads to ruin, but knowledge and enlightment come from the fact of life's force: Aguirre, on a monkey-covered raft at the end of his adventures, doomed and clearly mad because still he dreams of conquest; Fitzcarraldo failing at what he set out for and achieving much he did not; Dieter Dengler clinging to existence with the same strength as the premature baby grips the doctor's hand in Stroszek. Life's force and the power of chance determine the aesthetic, with shots and scenes included not for reasons of cause and effect, not for obvious or metaphorical association, but because they feel right. Animals and objects take on mercurial meaning: the albino crocodiles in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the fiery oil fields of Lessons of Darkness, the basketball in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, the chickens in everything. Chance and chaos rule over all: the volcano in La Soufrière might explode at any moment, the actors in Heart of Glass are hypnotized and thus strange and unpredictable, the squirrels in the story told in Into the Abyss could have been killed if not for good brakes on a golf cart.
Herzog's truths emanate from estrangement. The worlds and peoples he portrays are always exotic, and so there is a consistent unity to his work from its earliest days—each film displays a contempt for nothing except dominant normality. No person or place is exotic to itself, but we do not have access to these selves. Few, if any, of Herzog's characters are "knowable" in the sense familiar from the genre of psychological realism. Psychologizing is futile. Worse than futile: boring. The camera's fascination adheres to anyone and anything that confounds simple analysis, that lives outside predictable boundaries, that does not look like commercial, homogenized culture. We discover (through cracks, crevices, abandoned pathways, extremes of distance, altitude, weather) the panoply of ways of living.
"I want the audience with me in wild fantasies in something that illuminates them," Herzog said in an appearance on The Colbert Report in June of 2011. Wild fantasies illuminate. Wild fantasies bring us beyond the banal, commodified dreams that haunt our days of sleepwalking. "You see if I were only fact based—you see, the book of books in literature then would be the Manhattan phone directory: four million entries, everything correct. But it dusts out of my ears and I do not know: do they dream at night? Does Mr. Jonathan Smith cry in his pillow at night?" Knowledge requires imagination, empathy, curiosity. Anything else is at best facts, and, as David Byrne once sang, "Facts are living turned inside out."
Herzog makes a point of differentiating his lack of a sense of irony from a lack of a sense of humor. Irony and humor, he says, are very different things. This is a truth borne out by Herzog's films, which are often filled with sly and absurd humor. By desaturating his work and words of irony, Herzog adds another layer of ambiguity to his films, provoking laughter at moments where we might not know why we are laughing, or what we are laughing at, and complicating those moments with other emotions.
I recognized this effect most forcefully when, on a lark, I re-edited the trailer for Baz Luhrman's upcoming adaptation of The Great Gatsby to be, instead, a preview for a Herzog movie. My intentions were entirely silly. But once I started editing the video, I realized that by inserting Herzog into the glitzy stylistics of the movie, and positing him as a director of the hollow shell of a character that is Gatsby (the opposite of the obsessed dreamers he often films, for Gatsby, though obsessed, lacks their gravitas, their mysticism, their madness), that the silliness of the premise was undercut.
Even when Herzog is at his most humorous and least meaningful, his affect is one of absolute sincerity, which heightens his humor but also adds other layers. When he reads Go the Fuck to Sleep, for instance, there is no fear that he will ever break into giggles, no chance that he will laugh along with us, no suspicion that he is even inviting us to laugh (imagine the contrast if an irony-besotted comedian like Stephen Colbert read it). Irony insists that we know there is a joke, that we see the opposite meanings, that we smirk inside because we get it. It can be a lot of fun, and even quite meaningful. But it's never what Herzog is up to.
A mien of sincerity can be as shallow and tiresome as an endless array of ironies—who wants to live in a world of anchorites, pamphleteers, and true believers? Gnomic pronouncements get old fast when all you want to know is whether you should eat at the restaurant on the corner. But ours is a culture of winks and spins, of campaign slogans, billboards for Jesus, self-help politics, and an endlessly Googled Earth. Every imaginable court bursts with jesters. We need a few people with no sense of irony to see through it all. We need enigmatic images to steal our dreams back from their corporate mergers.
Men are futile, yes, in every sense, and Herzog, whose movie worlds are mostly made of men, knows this as well as anybody. "Get over it," he seems to say. What does our futility matter if we can share our wild fantasies? Give up on the wonders of your gender, stop venerating your species. Are we so different from radioactive albino crocodiles? In the movie, they're just as real as we are. — Matthew Cheney
Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System."
You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.
Matthew Cheney's work has been published by English Journal, One Story, Web Conjunctions, Strange Horizons, Failbetter.com, Ideomancer, Pindeldyboz, Rain Taxi, Locus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Site, among other places, and he is the former series editor for Best American Fantasy. He teaches English, Women's Studies, and Communications & Media Studies at Plymouth State University.