Werner Herzog is one of the great masters of cinema. Through work in both his native Germany and his work here in the US, he’s always given us uncompromising genius. His movies are like no others, and his documentary work has actually made him my favorite documentary filmmaker. I recently watched his 2010 doc The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, his 2011 Into the Abyss, and re-watched his 2005 doc Grizzly Man.
Much of Herzog’s work centers on obsession of some kind, perhaps none more obviously than Grizzly Man. Timothy Treadwell spent his last 13 summers in the Alaskan Katmai National Park and Preserve “protecting” the grizzly bears that lived there. Treadwell was a moderately successful amateur diver and failed actor who for unknown reasons felt drawn to nature and to this National Park, where he became obsessed with the wildlife there, the bears in particular. Treadwell filmed his last 5 trips into the wild, and Herzog’s film is made from that footage. Herzog provides the narration in that calming voice of his (the only case in which a German accent has ever been comforting), and guides us through interviews with both friends and family, as well as the park service that repeatedly told Treadwell he was doing the bears more harm than good.
Herzog has always had an ability to, to me, seem to evoke the most human emotions in us, while also acknowledging the ambivalence of the universe to our existence. He never makes fun of Treadwell, though it would’ve been immensely easy to do so. He doesn’t share Treadwell’s affection for the bears, instead only seeing murderous hunger in their eyes. However, he lets Treadwell speak for himself, show his own misguidedness, and receive no judgement from Herzog. Instead, Herzog imbues the film with almost the sad resignation of the fact that Treadwell would eventually be eaten by the bears he wanted to “protect.” That footage, rightly, isn’t in the movie. We only get a scene of Herzog listening to the audio tape (the lens cap had been on the camera) of the deaths of Treadwell and his girlfriend. He tells the owner of the tape not to listen to it, and that it should be destroyed.
It’s not Herzog’s greatest work, but it fits perfectly into the boundless depths of obsession that he has plunged into throughout his career.
The Cave of Forgotten Dreams is an odd movie. It’s about the discovery of the Chauvet Cave in southern France. In this cave were found paintings made somewhere around 32,000 years ago, more than twice as old as the oldest previously discovered human paintings. The area is so tightly controlled that Herzog had only a few days, of only a few hours at a time, in which to film. The crew could only be 4 people, with Herzog himself working the lights, which had to give off no heat and run on battery packs the crew wore around their belts. All of this while only being able to walk on a two foot wide platform, because the cave is so delicate that nothing can be risked to be destroyed in any way.
It’s certainly fascinating to see these paintings, almost all of animals ranging from rhinos and bison, to horses and deer. Some were even drawn with 8 legs, as a way to convey movement, “almost a form of proto-cinema” Herzog says. And at only 89 minutes, it’s the shortest Herzog film I’ve seen, but the only one that’s ever had me checking my watch. Sure, it’s awesome seeing things created by humans 32,000 years ago, but there’s not much more to the movie after that. I didn’t feel like Herzog really had an hour and a half of things to say about this subject. It got almost universal critical approval, and it was the highest grossing independent doc of 2011, but it didn’t grab me like the next movie did.
Into the Abyss is the most thought provoking movie I’ve seen from Herzog. He uses the Texas triple murders committed by teenagers Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, both of whom are in prison (Perry on death row), to study life choices and the ripple effect of how it impacts the people around you. One of the deepest emotionally affecting movies he’s ever made, Herzog interviews victim’s families, officers who worked the cases, Burkett’s father (also in prison, as is his brother, whom we don’t see), and those involved in the prison system. The interview with Michael Perry was 8 days before the then 28-year-old was to be executed, in July of 2010. Herzog makes clear from the start that he’s against capital punishment, but says it only once. He’s not the type of filmmaker to harp on a subject, he lets the film and its subjects speak for themselves.
In the opening scenes, filmed among the unmarked graves of some of those executed by the state of Texas, Herzog talks to the prison minister. When he asks why God would allow the death penalty, the minister doesn’t have an answer. Later, Herzog talks about the execution process with Fred Allen, a former Captain on death row. Allen talks about leading prisoners the ten or so steps from the holding cell, into the execution room, and the protocal for strapping them onto the gurney to be executed. After doing more than 120, by his count, Allen one day couldn’t do it anymore, and at the risk of losing his pension, quit. In my favorite sequence, Allen tells the story of “your dash”, the hyphen on your tombstone between your birth and death, and asks “how do you live your dash? What are you doing with your dash?” It’s the perfect ending note for Herzog’s meditation on life and what we’re all doing with our dashes. Into the Abyss easily fits alongside Herzog’s other masterpieces as a profound work of art from one of the greatest filmmakers in all of cinema.
Much like her previous two movies, Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff is a minimalist little gem that refuses to fit into any sort of mold that we've seen before. It's a western, but it's completely unlike any western I've ever seen. It concerns a small group of pioneers trekking across 1845 Oregon, led by Stephen Meek (a never better Bruce Greenwood). Reichardt successfully evokes the hardship that these settlers came up against, the exhaustion, dehydration, and simply the physical harshness of the land and travelling over it. Michelle Williams continues her streak of brilliance, working with her Wendy and Lucy director again, as Emily Tetherow, the strongest and most vocal of the women of the group.
Meek was hired to lead the pioneers through the dangerous and unforgiving land, but some think he has lost his way and is too proud, or incompetent, to say it. When they capture an Indian (Rod Rondeaux), it's Mrs. Tetherow and her husband Soloman (Will Patton, also returning to Reichardt's world after Wendy and Lucy) that says they should let him lead the group towards water, of which they're quickly running out. They can't communicate with the Indian, and there are some in the group, specifically the Gately's (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan) who think the Indian is leading them into an ambush from his tribe. The paranoia and sense of impending doom don't really ever disipate, letting things fester in the minds of the pioneers and us in the audience.
Most people who dislike the movie have said things along the lines of "it's boring, nothing happens, etc." and I kind of think that's part of Reichardt's point. These people were traversing the land on the hope of finding something, but that doesn't mean that they will. Often times, one day melded into the next, as you rode from one generic valley to the next without any clue of what you're leading towards. I felt a profound sadness as Emily throws an old clock that belonged to her husbands mother, and some chairs out of the back of the wagon, just to ease the load on the oxen as they got further into the depths of the land.
Reichardt shoots the scenery in an oppressive vastness. It's a very lonely movie, as the neverending landscape insulates the group further and further, letting them see far enough to know that they're not close to anything, but with the manifest destiny belief that paradise could be just over the next hill.
The acting in the movie is top notch, especially by Michelle Williams, who has become possibly my favorite actor to watch think. She shows so much with her eyes and body language, and not every actor can tell a story without much dialog. Rod Rondeaux, as the Indian, has the mystery they leads our eyes to him over and over again, as we try to read him and figure out his motives. Is he leading them to water and more? Or his he leading them to certain doom? He certainly doesn't hate the settlers, as he gorgeously sings a lament for one of the men dying from dehydration. Reichardt's final shot lets us decide for ourselves, though I'm not sure what I think
Stephen Meek was a real man, a fur trapper and guide through the old pacific northwest. He even has a path named for him, the Meek Cutoff, a road branching from the Oregon Trail. Greenwood plays him with something of a messiah complex, false humility, but certain intelligence behind his bushy facial hair. Reichardt definitely, from her comments on the movie, wished to make comparison between the divisive historical Meek, and our current times (or at least our former president). I didn't really care about drawing modern comparisons (though I wondered about the choosing of the phrase "stay the course"), I simply looked at the movie self contained, and liked it a great deal.
Bobcat Goldthwait’s God Bless America is the kind of satire we don’t get often enough. It’s rough around the edges, sure, but it also contains enough truth, enough anger, and enough balls to really say something worth saying. What it’s saying isn’t anything new, but that’s okay. The point of the movie is that America has devolved into a celebration of the loudest, stupidest, and meanest among us. Its surface target is reality TV, but it extends down to the stupidity and selfishness we are faced with on a daily basis as well.
At its core it contains a superb performance from Joel Murray as Frank, a depressed man who’s just found out he has a terminal brain tumor. Fired from his job for trying to do something nice for a co-worker that was misinterpreted as creepy, living next door to a white trash couple whose baby is always crying while he lays awake with insomnia and migraines, Frank has reached the end of his rope. Before committing suicide, Frank decides to take a few along with him for the ride, starting with ungrateful reality TV star Chloe, who Frank sees screaming at her dad for daring to buy her a Lexus for her 16th birthday instead of the Cadillac she wanted. When angry teenager Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr) witnesses Frank’s killing of Chloe, she convinces him to let her go along with him as they kill people, but “only people who really deserve to die.” Hijinks, of a sort, ensue from there as the duo make their way across the country towards the studio of American Superstarz, the American Idol stand-in that Frank so despises.
The best part about the movie is the brilliant opening 30-40 minutes or so. While the remaining hour isn’t exactly slouching, it doesn’t have the manic ferociousness that the beginning has. I thought maybe Goldthwait would lead us somewhere new as we went along, but really it was just a reiteration of the offenses he presents in the first few moments of the movie. It’s done nicely, but I kinda wish there’d been more as it went along. To be sure, Goldthwait fills the movie with plenty of bitter outrage at what we’ve let our pop culture become, but he doesn’t really have much to add other than “we should be nicer.”
The performances by our two leads are wonderful, Murray in particular makes you realize he’s always been much more than just Bill’s little brother. He’s funny as hell, but also lets plenty of pathos into the mix, as we really feel Frank’s depression. Barr’s character is a little too “psychotic Juno” at times, though maybe by design. Frank even calls her Juno during one scene. But that’s an issue with the character, not with Barr’s terrific work pulling it off.
Yeah, the characters all talk alike, and we don’t really see anything astounding directorially, but the overall feel of the movie is one of freshness and a curious sense of wondering where it was all going to go. I was certainly never bored. And this kinda makes me want to check out more of Goldthwait’s directorial work, since this is his fifth feature. I’ve listened to some of his stand up lately (thank you Pandora) and realize he’s got much more depth to him than Police Academy’s Zed would’ve ever made you think.