Saturday, April 20, 2013

Herzog(s): an Appreciation

Last week I saw the Werner Herzog film Happy People: a Year in the Taiga.  The taiga is in Russia but is much like the villages of Alaska, unreachable by road.  I will see anything with Herzog’s name on it, any time.
The taiga is the blank map Herzog was thinking of, I think, when he said, “Adventure is over. All the white spots on the map have been discovered.”
“Herzog never created a single film that is compromised, shameful, made for pragmatic reasons, or uninteresting.  Even his failures are spectacular.” So said Roger Ebert, getting it exactly right.  The condition to which every artist should aspire.
I own two films by Herzog, Every Man for Himself and God Against All (later titled The Mystery of Kasper Hauser–its subject), and The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the cave paintings of Chauvet. I also own three books by him: Pilgrims: Becoming the Path Itself, Conquest of the Useless, and Of Walking in Ice.  Somewhat odd, in that his films are exponentially more numerous than his writings. These are among my favorite possessions.
Pilgrims is a book of photography by Herzog’s wife, Lena, portraying the sacred Buddhist trek around Mt. Kailais in the Himalaya.  Herzog provides the text.  The subtitle is from Gautama Buddha: “You cannot travel on the path before you have become the path itself.”
Herzog on Ecstatic Truth. “The collapse of the stellar universe will occur—like creation—in grandiose splendor.”—Blaise Pascal.  And then Herzog, in a speech in Milano: “The words attributed to Pascal which preface my film Lessons of Darkness, are in, fact, by me.  Pascal himself could not have said it better.”
Later, in the same speech: “Of course, we can’t disregard the factual; it has normative power.  But it can never give us the kind of illumination, the ecstatic flash, from which Truth emerges.”
In Conquest of the Useless Herzog confirms that, indeed, he did threaten to kill Klaus Kinski during the filming of Fitzcarraldo.
“At the end of November 1974, a friend called from Paris and told me that Lotte Eisner was seriously ill and would probably die.  I said that this must not be . . . I set off on the most direct route to Paris (from Munich), in full faith, believing that she would stay alive if I came on foot.” -–from the preface to Walking in Ice.
“It was an insignificant bullet.  I am not afraid.”  Said Herzog after being shot by a sniper with a pellet gun during an interview with the BBC.
Herzog has made two films whose subjects are close to my heart: Scream of Stone, based on a climb of Torre Egger in Patagonia, and The Dark Glow of the Mountains, featuring the great climber Reinhold Messner, first to climb all 14 of the 8,000 meter peaks.  I have seen neither of these films. 
In an effort to inspire his friend Errol Morris to finish his film, Herzog vowed that if he did finish it, Herzog would eat his boot.  Morris finished.  Herzog ate his boot.  Inspiring the film Werner Herzog Eats His Boot, by Les Blank.  Herzog hoped it would inspire artists experiencing difficulties to bring their work to fruition.
Maurice Herzog—no relation to Werner (whose “real” last name is Stipetic, anyway; Herzog is his father’s name, in English: Duke)––was on the first team to ever climb an 8,000 meter peak, Annapurna, in 1950.  Although he lost his fingers to frostbite, he dictated from the hospital the book, Annapurna, which has sold 11million copies to date.
The most famous line in Annapurna is at its end: “There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men.”
I might prefer: “I also believe that if I felt such happiness in such rigorous circumstances, it is because the planned, organized predigested happiness that the modern world offers is not complete. It leaves certain sides of man’s nature unsatisfied."
The profits of those 11 million copies did not go to Maurice Herzog, but to the national French mountaineering association.   In addition, Herzog’s account differs wildly from events as other climbers remember and recorded, most notably, Lionel Terray.
When Maurice Herzog died in December of 2012, I felt that I ought to have met him.  I was, after all, in Chamonix during the time he was mayor.  Then I lamented that I ought to have a signed copy of Annapurna.  I have four editions, including a first edition, in French.  And then, browsing through my office copy, I realized it had been signed.  The peculiar signature of a fingerless man.  Herzog: his mark.
Terray’s book, Conquistadors of the Useless, 1961, is so good that for many years it was speculated that he did not write it himself.  In 1996 Terray’s original journals were found, proving, more or less, that in did indeed write Conquistadors.  And, incidentally, showing a whole other side to the ascent of Annapurna than the one Herzog (M) made famous.
Before 1996 an edited version of Terray’s journals was available.  It seemed to concur with the version of the expedition in Herzog’s Annapurna.  The editor of that version of Terray’s journal: Maurice Herzog.
Werner Herzog’s book Conquest of the Useless takes its title from a line of dialogue from the film Fitzcarraldo, the making of which it documents.  The character. Don Arajuo proposes a toast “To Fitzcarraldo, the conquistador the useless.”  It is never acknowledged that Werner Herzog is aware of Terray’s title, and, yet, their themes are similar: human folly.
But not just human folly.  The awareness that the appropriate response to the knowledge that all actions are folly is to nonetheless commit oneself the single minded pursuit of what one knows to be folly.  The larger the folly, the better.
Terray asks: “In any case, outside of primitive societies where every gesture springs from the instinct for survival of the species, what is, in fact, a “useful” action?”
Saul Bellow’s novel, Herzog, is my second favorite of his novels, the first being Humboldt’s Gift. In Herzog the main character, Moses Herzog, compulsively composes letters in his head, letters that he never actually mails.  Thus the letters are doubly removed from Bellow himself, existing only in his narrator’s head.
When pointed out the many similarities between his character Herzog and himself, Bellow said: “I don’t know that that sort of thing is really relevant.  I mean it’s a curiosity about reality which is impure, lets put it that way.  Let’s both be bigger than that.”
Bellow’s Herzog said “Unexpected intrusions of beauty.  This is what life is.”
When Werner Herzog arrived in Paris, frozen and exhausted, Lotte Eisner was alive.  She gave him a look of “understanding.”  Herzog: “For one splendid, fleeting moment something mellow flowed through my deadly tired body.  I said to her, ‘Open the window.  From these days onward I can fly.’”
In my only travels to the Himalaya, although not by design, we found ourselves in the Annapurna region, and at some point what had begun as a mountaineering trip evolved into a trek, a pilgrimage.  Every stated goal of the trip had been foiled by this or that, the weather, the terrain, altitude, the frailties of our own bodies.  On the second to last day, I noted in my journal that suddenly none of us knew with any certainty what day of the week it was.  I don’t know if we became the path itself, but I know that sometimes the other Annapurnas in the lives of men, are, actually, Annapurna.

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