Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Herzog-Cox Creature Double Feature

My alleged real life* has butchered all my efforts to catch up this here bloggy this year so I'm going to wrap this baby up in the next two days with as grand a sweep as this lady can muster. But I'd be remiss if I didn't write of the Werner Herzog/Paul Cox doubleheader that proved the highlight of the festival's last full day, if not the festival overall.

Herzog introduced his dear friend Cox' Man of Flowers (1983), while Cox, he of the twinkling eyes that betray his expressed nihilism, did the same for his friend's wonderfully bumpy ride Stroszek (1977).

In person you get immediately why the two are life-long friends; they express the same conflict about humanity with a dark grammar punctuated by great gales of laughter. Both clearly love individuals and human potential and yet regard society overall, even sometimes nature itself, with a nearly ritualized disappointment. Who can forget Herzog's almost laughably dour condemnations of nature's chaotic evils in his brilliant doc Grizzly Man (2005)? And in Man of Flowers, an aging bachelor's sexual fetishization of natural objects save for humans themselves (except for one woman he pays to pose nude as a sort of living tableau) lives on the opposite side of that coin. Both films, like their creators, benefit from a wryness, a kindness, that renders the human condition that much more palatable. Both take their sweet time, ambling along without entirely malingering in the world of their deeply disordered protagonists.

In Stroszek, Bruno, an alcoholic former convict, shuffles through his life radiating a sweetness that draws others to him despite his insufferable self-pity. Loosely based on the real-life actor who portrays him, Bruno's inability to transcend his trainwreck of a childhood is only paralleled by his desire to experience a home or family of some sort now. This information is more collected than psychologized--and therein lies Werzog's genius. His love for humanity is both fiercely specific and also oddly abstracted--as if he just happens to be studying the species of humans rather than giraffes or racoons (an element that renders Grizzly Man that much more amusing). Psychology is of interest, but no more so than any other more element of human behavior. Herzog presents, for example, long stretches of Bruno singing to himself miserably without any exposition. Some scenes prove wildly funny — especially as when Bruno and his crony, the aged Stroszek, rob a barber for 20-odd bucks that they promptly spend at a next-door grocer to buy a roast, or when Bruno glumly feed coins to a dancing chicken — but while you don't get the sense that this humor is accidental, nothing about it condescends to its subjects nor removes the viewer from the general reverie cast by this film.

Cox's Man of Flowers channels a dryer, more deliberate wit. Charles is an aging, affluent bachelor who writes his mom with a dutiful regularity undeterred by her death. He collects art; sexually fetishes the flowers he grows; and pays Lisa, a punk naif, to strip for him to the tune of the ''Love Duet'' from 'Lucia di Lammermoor" after which scurries across the street to thunder on the empty neighboring church's organ. Funny, by definition, as are all the characters. Each borders on caricature in a strangely understated manner. Lisa for example, embodies the classic passive beauty, submitting both to her predatory girlfriend, all slim hips and lowered lids, and to her hunky bully of a boyfriend, the ultimate poser artist. Amongst that crowd Charles seems relatively sane — he may wallow in some of the harsher moments of his childhood but he does so in a mannerly fashion that doesn't infringe upon others. At heart, this film truly is a moving picture — a series of portraits that slide elegantly into each other. The person who disrupts that imagery least emerges best. And that's what fascinates me about the distinction between Herzog and Cox. Cox professes a great love for humanity but registers a distaste for individuals and their messes, at least in this film. Herzog's skepticism about human nature (all nature) is right there on the table, but he loves individuals and their various, fascinating foibles. Love, if not god, lies in his details.

And this coin's two sides love each other.

The two didn't futz around in their q and a sessions following their films; Cox in particular lurched right into the heart of what's bothering him right now about, well, humanity. He talked a lot about loneliness and people's inability to really register each other, or to be their authentic selves. At one point, he offered that women experience loneliness differently because they are more deeply, inherently connected to nature. Like we're a separate species, perhaps? His comment seemed, well, dehumanizing--or at least biologically reductionist. As if he were viewing women as animals. (It has to be said that when talking to Cox later, I found him to be extremely kindly and discerning. Something perhaps was lost in translation during that q and a. I hope.)

Herzog talked about his hilarious youth in which he emigrated to the US from Germany on a fellowship that he promptly abandoned to hitch around the countryside.

"I found the promised land to be not so promised," he allowed. At which point he and Cox fell into a discussion about the human condition of being both connected and isolated from our true selves and each other. Heady stuff, but wonderful to hear discussed aloud. (Which happened so much at this year's Ebertfest.)

Near the end of his conversation, he allowed that "fate has favored him." Both his documentaries and fiction films have strains of realism and magic.

"I'm not into cinema verite or anything like that..a superficial way of articulatiing truth in cinema. It doesn't deserve that name because it's an accountant's truth," he said. "I believe in a deeper truth that you can discover in poetry and literature and movies. It's an ecstatic form of truth that we as documentarians and filmmakers have to look into, different grammars of imagery. It all must must serve as something that will illuminate us as an audience."

In other words, "I do not know what my dancing chicken at the end of my film means but i know that it means something big."

*Paris Hilton's jail sentence

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