It’s not exactly the hip neighborhood, but working out of Deep Focus World Headquarters in Sleepy Hollow, NY, has its advantages. One of them is the proximity of the Jacob Burns Film Center, an arthouse triplex in nearby Pleasantville that’s several times more comfy than any similar venue in Manhattan. (Well, with the possible exception of the fairly posh Sunshine Cinemas downtown. And the similarly appointed IFC Center, also downtown. But you get my meaning.) Tonight, the Burns center hosted Werner Herzog for a screening of his documentary about Antarctic research stations and the scientists who inhabit them, Encounters at the End of the World. In the course of a highly entertaining Q&A, he held forth on his Bad Lieutenant
remake, described his rescue of Joaquin Phoenix in early 2006, and told the audience what he really thinks about film theory.
The title of the film has several meanings. For one thing, it refers to geography. For this film, made on a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Herzog traveled toward the South Pole, that place where all the lines on the map finally meet. It also refers to the predilection one of the researchers has for apocalyptic science-fiction films. (In one of the film’s several weirdly funny scenes, Herzog’s cameraman Peter Zeitlinger tracks around a room where a small group of scientists is huddled around a computer monitor screening scenes from the famous 1950s giant-insect horror film Them!) And, finally, it refers to a belief that Herzog says — in his running narration, with that unmistakable German inflection and his knack for dry comedy — is shared by many scientists: climate change is real, the history of the earth is written in epochs, and the epochal drama featuring homo sapiens as its protagonist and prime mover is in its third act, heading for an unhappy, even ironic, climax.
Happily, Encounters at the End of the World is a very good film (not Grizzly Man-outstanding, but very good just the same), and several sequences are emblematic of Herzog at his excellent best. I was especially fond of some of the underwater photography, revealing the tranquil lives of the clams and other creatures that live on the floor of the sea right next to the gigantic icebergs that jut up through the surface of the water, as well as a whimsical (and terribly sad) sequence involving a few penguins, one of whom seems to suffer from a literally terminal case of confusion — the poor bugger is last seen running off, alone, in the direction of the mountains, rather than with his brethren toward the sea where food is plentiful. The nature-documentary bits are interspersed with interview segments where Herzog tries to dig into the work of the researchers, adroitly prying nuggets out from the mountains of knowledge these knowledge professionals possess. Occasionally, he hits paydirt, as when an expert on the local wildlife orates on penguin prostitution, or when another speculates enthusiastically on what Herzog’s camera might photograph if it could see the image of a neutrino streaking across the room.
But the main attraction in the theater was Herzog himself. The man can be a difficult interview, but he was in a splendid mood tonight, willing to hold forth on the variety of topics suggested by interviewer Janet Maslin and a handful of audience questioners. He said the new film was born when he was working with guitarist Henry Kaiser on Richard Thompson’s score for Grizzly Man. Kaiser is apparently an accomplished underwater cinematographer, and Herzog just happened to catch a fleeting glimpse, on a laptop monitor, of Kaiser’s otherworldly shots of light streaming through the ice floes that cover the surface of the Antarctic sea. Herzog was transfixed, and yet it seemed impossible to actually go to Antarctica to make something real out of the footage. But then there was the possibility of an NSF grant, which Herzog dutifully applied for and won. That meant he had a ticket to the Antarctic — and still only the vaguest idea of what kind of movie he’d make.
Anyway, Herzog hustled down to McMurdo Station, a U.S. research center south of New Zealand run by Raytheon, to start shooting. It was essentially a crew of two, Herzog told the Burns Center audience. Zeitlinger — a former ice hockey player for Sparta Prague with strong arms for holding cameras in their necessary positions — operated the camera and Herzog handled the sound recording. There was some outside help for some of the film’s most striking elements, including Kaiser’s expert diving camerawork and Douglas Quin’s underwater recordings of seal songs — amazing blooping noises that one of the film’s subjects describes as a little “Pink Floyd” in nature. Cool stuff.
Maslin’s questions at first hewed pretty closely to Herzog’s directorial decisions in crafting the film, but he loosened up considerably as the questions became more wide-ranging. Maslin asked him why he prefers to live in Los Angeles, and he responded that Los Angeles has a great, hidden cultural scene. Queried on advice to young filmmakers, he suggested that they first discard film theory, which he dismissed as pretentious twaddle — especially as practiced by the “losers” at Harvard* — and instead get hands on cheap cameras and start making films. He recalled some years ago telling Roger Ebert, to whom Encounters is dedicated, that The Anna Nicole Smith Show was one of the best TV programs going, and lamented that he never had the chance to cast her in one of his films.
Someone sitting in the front row asked him if he investigated “deviant sexual behavior” among Antarctic researchers, and Herzog described wild cross-dressing parties at one station and related another story about a couple having sex outdoors who had to be rescued when their chunk of ice broke off and floated out to sea. (Global warming indeed.) Someone else asked what it was like to rescue Joaquin Phoenix from a crashed car, and Herzog launched amiably into a reasonably detailed description of the event: Phoenix had lost control of the car, which had flipped end over end; Herzog somehow recognized the actor’s upside-down face, and noticed gasoline leaking from the wrecked automobile; he also noticed the actor, in shock, reflexively trying to light a cigarette. Herzog says he ran to the car and told the distraught Phoenix, “Hey, man, relax — I’m good in these situations.”
Finally, it was Maslin herself who drew attention to Herzog’s widely reported next project, a remake of Abel Ferrara’s sleazeball classic Bad Lieutenant, with Nicolas Cage in the role made famous by Harvey Keitel. (As reported by Karina Longworth, in Cannes Ferrara told the press, “I wish these people [remaking Bad Lieutenant] die in Hell. I hope they’re all in the same streetcar, and it blows up.”) For what it’s worth, Herzog said it’s not a “remake.” Instead, he invoked James Bond, and said his version of Bad Lieutenant was related to the Ferrara film in only the same way that Casino Royale effectively rebooted the James Bond franchise. “It’s an entirely different story — I haven’t even seen The Bad Lieutenant,” he claimed. “The producer sent me the screenplay. It made a lot of sense, and I had the feeling it was a good time for making a film noir. It’s a very dark movie. Of course, Nicolas Cage was very eager to have me on board, and it turned out that he would sign only if I was on board as the director.” OK, we’ll see.
Maslin has a habit of giving me brain aneurysms at these Burns Film Center events (I’ll never forgive her for dissing the wonderful Mars Attacks! with poor Tim Burton sitting right there next to her to discuss Big Fish, of all things), and she nearly did it this time after asking a relatively innocent question about what it was like for Herzog to move back and forth between very small pictures like Encounters and bigger, star-driven projects which she described as “Hollywood productions”. Herzog immediately objected to the Hollywood label, saying that even his biggest films — Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, Nosferatu, Kaspar Hauser: Every Man For Himself and God Against All — aren’t really Hollywood films, and then averring that, over the years, Hollywood has put out some pretty great product. He mentioned Fred Astaire, D.W. Griffith — and some others I’m sorry to say I’m forgetting — as indispensable products of Hollywood. Maslin’s response? “Some of us prefer your films.” Man. Herzog is awesome, don’t get me wrong. But is he D.W. Griffith awesome? Is he Astaire awesome, for God’s sake?
Well, maybe. Anyway, it was a great night.
* Anyone know what’s up with the gratuitous slam at Harvard?