25 February 02006

Film is not the art of scholars, but of illiterates

The title of this article is one of film-maker Werner Herzog's quotes. He rails against the "worn out" images that are served up by TV, and his advice to budding film-makers is, "You will learn more by walking from Canada to Guatemala than you will ever learn in film school," and "Work as a taxi driver, work as bouncer in a sex club, work as a warden in a lunatic asylum: do something which is really into pura vida as the Mexicans would say, into the very pure essence of life" (source).

I thought about Herzog's attitude when reading the following passage from J.D.Lasica's Darknet: Hollywood's War Against the Digital Generation:

Lots of people will experiment with creating visual media. Much of the new video verité will be bad. But some will be watchable, perhaps even addictive. Where big media will continue to offer polished, mass market shows with linear narrative, high production values, and orchestrated story lines, the video of participatory culture will be marked by the quirky, personal, edgy, raw, unpolished, unscripted, unconventional, hyper-realistic, and genuinely surprising. (page 95)

The footage of grizzly bears, and of himself, that Timothy Treadwell shot in Alaska seems to live up to all of Lasica's adjectives.

This footage makes up half of the film Grizzly Man, in a form edited by Herzog and complemented with Herzog's own original material about Treadwell.

In the film, and in this interview, Herzog gives Treadwell credit for his work and effectively claims him as a vindication of his theories about film-making. Treadwell has thrown himself into pura vida and reaped the rewards: "he has left footage of great intensity and beauty of something that no money on this planet could ever achieve. You do not get that kind of footage with a Hollywood studio behind you," claims Herzog.

So far, then, it looks like Herzog and Grizzly Man are in sync with Lasica's prediction. But is it as straightforward as that?

We only know Treadwell's footage through Herzog's edit of it (he reduced a hundred hours to about fifty minutes in the finished film). In Lasica's 'participatory culture' future, that footage might have been released by Treadwell himself as a video blog (assuming the Alaskan wilderness had good wi-fi or satellite coverage). It would still have been quirky, personal, raw and unconventional, of course — but would it have had half of the emotional traction and cultural resonances that Herzog's film achieves? Herzog himself seems doubtful, in the film itself and in the Time Out interview:

Q: If Timothy had lived, do you think he could have made a decent film?

A: I am the person who discovered the beauty and depth in the material that I'm sure he would have thrown away and discarded. For example, when Timothy leaves a frame and there is only wafting grass in the wind and then he returns, he would have cut out the piece in the middle — the useless empty moment which is actually the great beauty.

Of course, the answer — as I'm sure Lasica would be quick to point out — would have been for Treadwell to license his video blog under a Creative Commons licence that allowed derivative works, possibly using the Ourmedia site that Lasica co-founded. Then Herzog could still have done his edit, and negotiated if he wanted to release the result commercially. We could have had both versions to compare.

Further resources postscript: this BBC video interview with Herzog includes clips from Grizzly Man (though sadly not the 'wafting grass' moment), as well as footage of Herzog being shot by a sniper with an air gun. My Squidoo lens on Werner Herzog has many more Herzog-related links, and, at the time of writing, is ranked over 400 places higher than Time Out's film lens.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Cinema, Cultural Calendar on 25 February 02006 | TrackBack
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