Sunday, October 28, 2007

Errol Morris and Werner Herzog: A Conversation

Cultural life in Waltham Massachusetts is not quite what you find in Paris, New York, or even Boston, so it was a major event last Tuesday when Werner Herzog and Erroll Morris came to the Brandeis campus to have an informal discussion for 90 minutes in front of a packed auditorium.

The event, sponsored by the Film Studies program, was due to the tireless efforts of the wonderful and amazing Film Studies chair Alice Kelikian, who has brought her friend Morris to campus several times.

The initial plan was to have a question and answer period, but an hour into the first "answer" to Professor Kelikian's first question, it became pretty clear that it would be better to have these two just talk to each other and riff on various subjects, including the state of Hollywood (bad), the distinction between documentaries and feature films (very little), and the origins of the twenty minute short Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.

Since the shoe incident has become something of a legend, I'll report that according to both, Herzog's famous declaration - he said he would eat his shoe if Morris could make his Gates of Heaven, his first film about pet cemeteries - was not an indication of Herzog's skepticism, but an only an added incentive to the younger filmmaker. However, Morris said he believed that Herzog knew he would get Gates of Heaven made, and just wanted an excuse to eat his shoe.

This may not sound as fanciful as it sounds, as Herzog was quite philosophical in what it means to eat a shoe. "I find it to be an entirely manly act," Herzog said. "I could not imagine a woman doing it. To me, to eat a shoe is a way of showing how I am not a woman."

This quote, which closed the discussion with a roar of laughter, was just one highlight from the show. It's pretty amazing that two people could basically just talk for an hour and a half and completely capture the crowd (save for a few undergrads who had been dragooned into the show and sent texts or played video games during the talk). What really came across was the deep affinity that each had for the others' work, odd considering the different paths the directors have taken. Herzog, of course, has always churned out features and documentaries at a frantic pace, always looking for the next challenge, and the next crazy adventurer. Morris, however, tends to make smaller and more personal films, which lack the fluidity and openness of Herzog. I wouldn't say Morris is exactly stylized, but it's much easier I think to point to a "Morris" cut or shot than a "Herzog" cut.

Where the directors agree, however, is that the state of cinema is currently polarized, with big-budget, formulaic Hollywood on one end, and pretentious, navel-gazing avant-garde on the other. Between these two, Morris said, there is "a huge middle ground" where he believes great films can be made. It's hard to argue with him, as the kind of work Morris and Herzog do is notable in that it seems so much unlike anything else.

Herzog has spent most of his energy on rejecting the avant-garde, specifically Cinema Verité, a subject he has mined before. In his search for what he calls "ecstatic truth," he searches for the odd, the different and the insane. As Morris said of Herzog's most famous collaborator, "Klaus Kinski was not an actor in any sense; he was a genuine crazy person in front of a camera."

It may also be said of Herzog that he is a genuine crazy person behind the camera. One story, which lasted a good 30 minutes, concerned a trip Herzog took from Alaska to Plainfiled, Wisconsin to investigate the case of Ed Gein, the serial killer who used the skin of his victims to make furniture and was the basis for the novel Psycho and the Hitchcock film. Morris, who was already in Wisconsin, had discovered that Gein had dug up the graves of ten people in a circle around his mother's grave. Psychiatrists had said he could not have dug up his own mother's grave because of the trauma, but Herzog and Morris were not so sure.

The plan, at least in Herzog's head, was to meet up in the cemetery with shovels and see if Gein had made tunnels from the adjoining graves into his mother's. On the appointed night after Herzog arrived, Morris chickened out, assuming that Herzog could not have been serious. In the end, Morris interviewed Gein but never completed a film or book. Herzog, however, "stole" the Plainfield location for his movie Stroszek (incidentally, the movie Ian Curtis watched just before his suicide).

Morris explained his hesitancy, saying that "it would have been my family's worst nightmare, to see me lead off in handcuffs with a German."

Herzog agreed, explaining that Plainsfield was was a town where "people are not hesitant to open fire."

Sometime after that, Morris told a sick, but funny, joke about Gein's furniture covers. It was a great afternoon.

Fun stuff with Herzog here:

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