To begin with: I don’t think there is a Herzog film I haven’t loved. By this I mean the films stay with me, move me, infect me. His work makes me want to learn more about the medium; I actually watch and absorb his end titles and credits. This is all by way of a mea culpa, because compared with the standard average readership on this site, I can’t claim any privileged access to either knowledge or deep understanding of much cinema. I watch what savvy viewers suggest I watch, what my baser instincts sway me to watch, and what I have time to watch—not necessarily in that order.
I’ll state the question before going into my perplexities. (Having recently watched “The White Diamond” and not yet seen “Into the Abyss.”) Is WH making a sort of anti-documentary in Cave, and has he done so perhaps in his other “docs”? The early fantasia with little people seems to have set the standard, inasmuch as the historical and the cinematic and human farce are well married, and chucks anyone with a deep sense of humanity into yeasty self-reflection. When I watched Cave again (the fourth time) tonight, I found myself uncomfortable with how readily WH put a filmic interpretation on virtually every bit of cave art or encounter.
The beasts have eight legs! The horses are lined up laterally and thus have motion. The rhino has eight horns limned so as to give the appearance of motion—primitive Muybridge? This niche is perfect with its undulation and shadow. A collection of quadrupeds is descried by a spring as if it were conceptually appropriate, to gather them around a watering hole, when in fact the artist most likely encamped there as well. So paint that meat on the stall wall, progenitor.
Suddenly, then, WH came glaring into my view, figuratively (I know he couldn’t get out of the shot)! And frankly he spoiled the experience, despite his rather milky teutonic voicing.
My training is anthropology. That doesn’t give me any special authority, except to say what everyone knows about dealing with antiquity: every understanding we have of the cavemen is poetry.
At the same time, I’m not sure how one would have done that film.
So you wonder if Herzog was being ironic in waxing admiringly on the perceived filmic aspects of a fascinating subject? I must admit i enjoyed it more at face value. And the eight horns bring to mind not only Muybridge but Duchamp’s painting Nude Descending a Staircase. I think we can make such comparisons without suggesting that life for earlier humans was some kind of great cinematic experience, or that a film-maker is too quick to look for features in common between art, life and cinema.
Of course Herzog likes subjects off the beaten track and is known for his fascination with the extraordinary, but is also known for mischief, sharpness, outsider viewpoints, so i’ll bear your question in mind. Take another example: The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner is another documentary i took at face value, a poetic quality and apparent genuine respect on Herzog’s part, i hadn’t thought of him undercutting his own work, and the same could be said for other films, including on Buddhism. Or should we be more tuned in for self-conscious and ironic currents?
I’ve finally got to see his early feature Signs of Life- a superb film.
I;m not sure of the answers, but I love your questions.
Yes, very interesting questions.
There are some Herzog films i’m not keen on- even though Herzog isn’t one for Bourgeois condescension, social conventions and comfort zones, i find Even Dwarves Started Small cruel. Scream of Stone and Cobra Verde were disappointing, and in the Vietnam tales he seems more inspired by the extraordinary in an individual experience than critical of US involvement and imperialism. Whereas the lunacy of colonial “adventures” is evident in Aguirre Wrath of God even as we’re mesmerised by the journey and perhaps excited by the sheer audacity (as with Fitzcarraldo). And Kaspar Hauser, for one, is satirical of “refined” and “civilised” society
I find Herzog’s “Grizzly Man” one of his most moving films.
The subtitle of which could have been, “How to Get Eaten by a Bear.”
I was suggesting Into the Wild for a film society season and a guy there, who i later realised had confused it with Grizzly Man, effectively scuppered its chances of being chosen. “Silly, and he obviously had it coming.”
This thread does encourage open minded and more self-aware viewing as well as looking for extra layers. Now, should Herzog be considered both a great wise visionary and an ironic commentator on films and our viewing, including his own films? Did he move to the US as an ironic and satirical act? Now to believe that would i think be pushing it.
His films often carry very interesting social content, undercutting conventions and organised “advanced” but sheep-like societies, with free spirits the outsiders (who like other cultures can be misunderstood, dumped on or mistreated) but i wonder if Herzog cares enough for suffering, exploitation and political issues, compared with the extraordinary and beautiful. Some say he’s the better for not being too overtly political.
Hmm, I interpreted the OP a bit differently. (Btw, welcome, Frank! :) When Frank asks whether the film is an “anti-documentary,” and says, “I found myself uncomfortable with how readily WH put a filmic interpretation on virtually every bit of cave art or encounter,” by "anti-documentary, I thought Frank came from the viewpoint that documentaries should be “objective” and factual—removing or minimizing the subjectivity of the filmmaker. If so, I’m pretty sure is not interested in making an “objective” documentary. I believe he’s more interested in truth, not facts, and he believes that an objective approach isn’t the best way to get at the truth—at least truth as he defines it. Then again, maybe I’m misreading the OP.
Just wanted to welcome you, and respond to a remark you made:
This is all by way of a mea culpa, because compared with the standard average readership on this site, I can’t claim any privileged access to either knowledge or deep understanding of much cinema. I watch what savvy viewers suggest I watch, what my baser instincts sway me to watch, and what I have time to watch—not necessarily in that order.
For what it’s worth, no apologies are necessary for this. What you’re describing applies to me, and they haven’t banned my posting privileges! In other words, it’s all good! :)
Thank you all for the thoughtful and helpful responses. I certainly didn’t mean to suggest he had some sort of “bad faith” in making the movie about Chauvet cave. And obviously every film maker or commentator or artist brings their own interest and predilections to their work. It just struck me on (and only on repeated viewing) that it was a problematic (and I mean this in the best sense) “documentary.”. Thanks for the welcome and the responses, again, are really excellent.
@Jazzaloha I fully concur with your point about “truth” versus “fact.” Nice observation. I don’t harbor any false hopes for “objectivity.” I was getting at the interesting mix of traditional “objective,” “journalistic” documentary—e.g., comments from archaeologists, scientists, grad students—and his speculative, interpretive narration. I mean honestly, it is quite likely that depictions of eight-legged bovines are intended to represent motion. Or maybe it represents a herd—increase and fecundity. Who knows, that’s fine. Something seemed jarring on my most recent viewing. I’m trying at present to grasp that in a less nebulous way. In any event his work always gets me into this reflective, philosophical mode, which also is just fine.
edit: I should add that indeed in my original post I was focussing on the meta-narrative and filmic self-reference that seemed implicit in the commentary on the cave paintings—or just unavoidable reflexivity?
So then your personal criticism of Little Dieter Needs to Fly is ‘Does not wax my personal agenda’?
You’re clearly extraordinarily open minded. ;)
@Frederick Henry Jr
It’s true Herzog over-extrapolates from the evidence in order to fit a narrative. Cave of Forgotten Dreams takes an anthropologists most entertaining best guess and delivers it with authority of truth, making it more like a History Channel special than a documentary (Sorry, had to get in my jab at HC).
Herzog’s films are generally more about his personal interest in a topic rather than the topic, and he does a very good job at portraying what makes the caves interesting to him. Everything he said was just as plausible as it was unprovable.I found it interesting just how protective they are of this cave. Like, they can’t whip out a mirror or something to see the back of that stalactite?
@Jirin I’m an anthropologist so I should be sympathetic to the sanctification of the cave, but you
raise a great point. Clearly there is a need to take measures to preserve a 32,000 year old
piece of art. The level of awe and effusion of the Sacred that was apparent in the film was part of
what I found jarring. This makes sense too in your accurate characterization of Herzog: he definitely verges obsessive about his subjects and that makes for great film, even as it can obtrude overly in the experience of it.
I agree with preserving the cave, I just didn’t understand why they couldn’t bring out a mirror attached to a long pole or something if they really wanted to see the back of that stalactite.
Yes, I felt as if I were watching a surgical procedure replete with ritual.
" just didn’t understand why they couldn’t bring out a mirror attached to a long pole or something if they really wanted to see the back of that stalactite."
Well, anything you bring in increases the likelihood of damaging the cave, and I would think that getting usable footage of a mirror image of the back of a stalactite inside a cave would require, for one thing, significant additional lighting.
@ Jirin: i react to films subjectively. I’m a feeling human bean. And US v Vietnam was a contentious war, so what may seem apolitical may inadvertently carry a political edge. Even the subject’s nationality or largely one-sided viewpoint may do that. Little Dieter was based round an individual’s subjective experience, far from a wider picture. But as i said, some reckon Herzog is the better for not being too political, which gives me pause- and i did say i “wonder”, so even as a loony leftie i’m trying not to be too closed minded. I respect Ken Loach politically but still prefer several Herzog films to most by him- formal and visual qualities being important to me. I do have some leeway beyond my own agenda. On the other hand, form and cinematic bravura could never save a film whose soul is rotten, like Triumph of the Will or Birth of a Nation, but might merely make it more dangerously seductive.