Posts Tagged ‘Werner Herzog’

Memory, Rene Magritte, 1948

Memory, Rene Magritte, 1948

I remember reading James Frey’s drug-addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces in 2005, back when the book was still classified as “non-fiction,” and I could’ve sworn a lot of the details smelled fishy. So the following year, once Frey revealed the truth of his fictions, I felt a little happy about it. I wouldn’t call it schadenfreude; I got nothing personal against the guy. OK, maybe there was some schadenfreude. But for the most part, I simply felt nice knowing my suspicions had been validated.

Somehow I missed the similar controversy that arose just over a year later regarding Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs Of A Boy Soldier. In fact I wasn’t really familiar with the book at all. I saw it for the first time while browsing the shelves at my local library a couple weeks ago, and I thought it looked fascinating.* And until I’d finished reading it, I had no idea that its veracity had come under serious scrutiny not long after its publication. Which is not to say that I never suspected Beah’s account may have been significantly less than 100% accurate. From the beginning, I took it for granted that the memoir of a boy soldier in Sierra Leone would have to be at least a little fudgy, considering all the trauma and drug abuse that must’ve fogged up his rear-view mirror.

Then I got to page 51 and spotted this fat red flag:

“…Grandfather always gave us a special medicine that was supposed to enhance the brain’s capacity to absorb and retain knowledge. He made this medicine by writing a special Arabic prayer on a waleh (slate) with ink that was made of another medicine. The writing was then washed off the slate, and that water, which they called Nessie, was put in a bottle. We took it with us and were supposed to keep it a secret and drink it before we studied for exams. The medicine worked. During my primary-school years and part of my secondary school year, I was able to permanently retain everything that I learned. Sometimes it worked so well that during examinations I could visualize my notes and all that was written on each page of my textbooks. It was as if the books had been imprinted inside my head. This wonder was one of many in my childhood. To this day, I have an excellent photographic memory that enables me to remember details of the day-to-day moments of my life, indelibly.

Beah may as well have written “Just in case anything here seems too far-fetched, this harrowing true-life story is really truthfully true. All of it. Truly! Because my grandfather gave me Magical Memory Juice when I was a kid, that’s why.

Reading this passage saddened me. The author doth protest too much, methought. And it didn’t feel like the passage was Beah’s idea, either. Throughout the book, his voice is humble, blunt, and fearless. I could be wrong, but I couldn’t help speculating that an editor or agent whispered the idea in his ear, told him to write about the memory juice to convince readers of something they didn’t need to be convinced of.

Yet Beah’s Magical Memory Juice didn’t spoil the rest of his book for me. I believe A Long Way Gone is true enough. I believe most of these things happened to Beah, and if any of those things didn’t literally happen to him, then I’m sure they either happened to someone not unlike Beah.

I guess the reason I’m more forgiving of Beah than I was of James Frey– aside from the fact that being forced to become a child soldier sounds far more terrifying than being a drug addict– is that except for the Magical Memory Juice, Beah’s details felt truer than Frey’s. Beah’s story captures what Werner Herzog would call “Ecstatic Truth.” And if Beah had an ulterior motive, it wasn’t, as Adam Kirsch would say, to “seduce the reader with an ostentatious display of soul-bearing,” it was to shine a light on the horrors of Sierra Leon’s civil war.

If I had been Beah’s editor, I would’ve whispered in his ear: “Sell it as a novel. Just say it’s ‘Based on a true story.’ If it turns out some things didn’t happen quite how you remember them, then so what? They’ll still call you the Sierra Leonean Hemingway. Oh, and lose that part about the Memory Juice. I don’t care if it’s real; I simply don’t buy it.” 

* On the other hand, I did work in a large bookstore when A Long Way Gone was first published, so I admit there’s a chance that I had in fact heard of the book before and simply forgot. In my defense, I ingested many intoxicants in those days, and I never once ingested any Magical Mystery Juice.

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(Part 36 of an ongoing series)

julien donkey-boy

The Father is compassionate, and His rain falls upon the just and the unjust. His sun shines upon the good and the wicked, because that’s how He is. God is good, and God is love. There’s no room in God for looking upon a child of His with disgust, or wanting to cast him out from the body of Christ, or something like that.

Unidentified Priest in Julien Donkey-Boy

It’s easy to smear Julien Donkey-Boy as condescending trash that revels in gawking at weirdos and snickering uncontrollably, different from today’s reality-TV trainwrecks only in its frequent art-house pretensions, and the fact that some of the scenes aren’t actually staged.

And yet amid all of director Harmony Korine’s snickering and art-house nonsense, there’s also a profound pathos at its core that’s closer to Tod Browning’s Freaks than TLC’s Honey Boo-Boo.

Key to the movie’s sympathy is Ewen Bremmer’s unflinching performance. As I started watching Julien Donkey-Boy, I kept wondering if Korine actually cast a mentally ill young man in the lead. It wasn’t until about halfway through that it dawned on me that Holy crap, that’s Spud from Trainspotting!

Julien Donkey-Boy also benefits greatly from what I call “The Herzog Principle,” which states that any stretch of film in which Werner Herzog is involved must be, to some degree, inherently awesome.*

*Note: I have not yet seen Herzog’s performance in Jack Reacher, which I have heard on good authority is a waste of Herzog’s inherent awesomeness; nevertheless, I can’t imagine said performance isn’t at least a little awesome.

Though it’s far from the weirdest part of this weird-ass movie, the scene that best sums up Julien Donkey-Boy is when Herzog’s character describes the “Do I Feel Lucky?” scene from Dirty Harry to explain why it’s better than Julien’s “artsy-fartsy” poem: 

I can’t tell what Korine’s trying to do with this scene. Maybe he wrote that dialogue for Herzog’s psycho character as a way to baldly criticize that kind of artificial Hollywood filmmaking. Or maybe Korine genuinely enjoys that scene from Dirty Harry, and he’s trying to use this scene as a way to annihilate the boundaries between so-called “high” and “low” art. Or maybe he simply doesn’t give a fleck about Dirty Harry one way or the other, and just thought it would be funny shit for Herzog to say.

Whatever Korine’s motivation is this scene, and for Julien Donkey-Boy as a whole, it’s arguably the most honest and most complex expression of sick, desperate laughter that 1999 had to offer.

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Why is it that a sophisticated animal like a chimp does not utilize inferior creatures? He could straddle a goat and ride off into the sunset.

Werner Herzog, Encounters At The End Of The World

Actually, Werner…

courtesy of Mark Frauenfelder, BoingBoing.net

courtesy of Mark Frauenfelder, BoingBoing.net

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There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.

Werner Herzog, “Minnesota Declaration: Truth And Fact In Documentary Cinema – Lessons Of Darkness #8” (April 30, 1999)

Heart Of Glass, 1976

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(Part 23 Of An Ongoing Series)


Werner, nobody will read this book if I don’t write bad stuff about you… The scum only wants to hear about the dirt, all the time.

Klaus Kinski to Werner Herzog (according to Werner Herzog)

My Best Fiend is a reverent ode and an unabashed grave-piss that smudges the boundaries of personal and indulgent, and it’s fascinating as long as you care the slightest bit about the two great artists at its core. Basically, Werner Herzog reminisces about what a bastard psychopath Klaus Kinski was, recounting bonkers behind-the-scenes anecdotes (which may have been painted over with a light coat of bullshit myth-making). Between anecdotes, Herzog reminds us what a mesmerizing performer Kinski was, showing highlights from each of their collaborations.

Ultimately, Herzog can’t simply pile on the dirt. In a parting gesture somewhere between saintly and Stockholm Syndromic, he leaves us imagining Kinski not as a mad monkey-chucker, but as a tender butterfly whisperer.

Had Kiniski been alive to see My Best Fiend, and could make it to the end without storming off in one of his nuclear diva tantrums, I think he’d approve. If you squint just right, you can see Kinski portrayed as a super-intense genius who embodied his roles by raging against the world the way the world raged against his characters. And if a few ass-licking idiots or lunatic megalomaniacs couldn’t grasp that, then they deserved to be screamed at or bludgeoned or shot at.

All right, there’s really no way to justify most of Kinski’s behavior, no matter how you slice it. But considering My Best Fiend spends much of its running time extolling the transcendence of Kinski the actor, it might be exactly the kind of biopic that Kinski the frenzied egomaniac would’ve wanted.

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gif courtesy of iwdrm.tumblr.com

The Sopranos is Francis Ford Coppola, duh.  Martin Scorsese‘s a little too flashy for The Sopranos so he gets to be Breaking Bad, with all the shovel-POV shots and such.

Steven Spielberg has to be LOST: heaps of gee-whiz! with a dollop of schmaltz.

I’ve never seen Battlestar Galactica, but I want to say that one’s George Lucas.  Of the shows I have seen, the closest George Lucas might be Heroes– though in fairness to Lucas, Heroes started sucking in way less time.

Friday Night Lights is Robert Altman, particularly Nashville, where country music is high school football and the acting is unbelievably natural.

Louie is obviously Woody Allen, only I think I could actually hang out with Louie’s alter ego without wanting to slap the neuroses out of him.

Mad Men is Stanley Kubrick, I think.  Clinically sterile on the surface, but still very human at its core.  Also because they both feel like Americans who love America but wish they were British so they could see America from a British perspective.

If all those Discovery & History Channel reality shows about dangerous, nature-battling jobs (Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers) procreated with all those A&E and TLC reality shows about mentally-disturbed weirdos (Hoarders, My Strange Addiction), the offspring would be Werner Herzog.

If all those tacky, tasteless MTV & VH1 reality shows (Jersey Shore, Flavor Of Love) fucked each other, the offspring would be John Waters.  (This is meant as a compliment to John Waters, and as an insult to the reality shows.  I’m not sure how that works, but that’s how it is.)

If Wes Craven and John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper and Brian DePalma and Dario Argento had an orgy and the offspring got mostly recessive genes, that offspring would be American Horror Story

Carnivale is David Lynch, because of the genuinely eerie Americana and all the unanswered questions.

The Walking Dead is George Romero if he took his sweet, sweet time a la Terrence Malick.  Though of course Terrence Malick is more Planet Earth. 

30 Rock might have to be Mike Nichols, though of course it has plenty of Mel Brooks too.  But with all the genre-spoofing, Mel Brooks should probably be Community.  And I guess that would mean Arrested Development is John LandisThe Office (US Version) is Hal Ashby (unless Parks And Recreation is Hal Ashby).  The Office (UK Version) is more realistic and uncomfortable to watch, so that’s John CassavetesHow I Met Your Mother is meta-Arthur Hiller (the guy who directed Love Story as well as a couple of Neil Simon scripts).  I can’t think of who It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia would be.  Who’s the most mean-spirited and irredeemably obnoxious 1970s filmmaker?

I have yet to see Homeland or Rubicon, but they’re Alan Pakula, right?  Because conspiracies and shit?

The Wire would have to be Sidney Lumet, with the criminals and the scathing social commentary of modern urban…OK, I’m just guessing on this one too, since I’ve only seen like 4 episodes of The Wire, and I’m ashamed to admit this.

Deadwood is either Walter Hill or Sam Peckinpah, since it takes the brutality inherent in early-20th Century Westerns and reconfigures it through modern…

…all right, I’ve seen zero episodes of Deadwood.

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