The Ecstatic Truth

My love affair with the genius of film director Werner Herzog stretches back to a magical evening at the ICA a few years ago. I’d wandered up through St.James Park after work to meet a good friend. This good friend had been trying to get me to watch some Herzog for a while, film student as he was, but I don’t think I paid any serious attention until that night and the The Wild Blue Yonder. Like some culturally unfulfilled child of the rave I’ve been chasing the same cinematic high ever since. I probably always will be.

The Wild Blue Yonder is largely made up of stock NASA footage and film of diving explorations in Antarctica. Herzog gives the footage new life by re-contextualising it into a fictional narrative about aliens coming to Earth and the search for a suitable planet for humans to colonise. This fantastical story, played out amidst long sequences set to epic throat-singing and operatic scores, is utterly enchanting. It was a story I wanted to believe. The use of stock footage makes the fantastical tangible; it has a documentary quality which blurs the edges of sci-fi, fact and truth.

When I saw the director in conversation at the Southbank Centre last month he spoke of the ‘ecstatic truth’, something I had heard him talk of in this awesome excerpt from the making of the Grizzly Man soundtrack.  In Werner’s opinion fact does not necessarily lead to truth. He used the example of a phone-book. It may contain millions of facts – phone numbers and addresses – but it cannot tell us anything about truth or help us in our search for it. He went on to say that this is why the genre of cinema-vérité, a style of documentary film-making based on depicting reality, also fails to tell us anything about the truth. It may be reality laid-bare but it doesn’t help us to see beyond our own reality. As a fan of documentary I still appreciate verite form to tell a story – the world needs as many storytellers to tell its stories back to itself as possible – but I can’t deny that it is Herzog who leaves me ecstatic.

I saw Herzog’s foray into the crime caper at the London Film Festival last Friday. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, a alleged remake of Bad Lieutenant – Herzog claims never to have seen the original and to have argued against the title – had me slightly apprehensive beforehand. Nicholas Cage? Xzibit? Eva Mendes? Val Kilmer??? It made little sense, how would these folk help me search for the ecstatic truth Werner? By making me laugh out loud, a lot, it turns out. BLT, as its been dubbed, is simply entertaining from start to finish. Nicholas Cage delivers the kind of glory days performance of David Cronenberg’s Wild At Heart that makes the utter mind-curdling dross he has turned out – GhostRider? one of the worst films ever made perhaps? – so frustrating. I think the collective conscious had wanted to give up on him completely but deep down we always hoped he’d turn it around. Apparently Herzog informed Cage of an old Bavarian saying, ‘to turn the hog loose’, when Cage had any questions about character motivation or such ‘bullshit’ as Werner states in this Q&A. Getting Nic Cage to fulfil his potential, I told you the man is a genius.

Oh and here’s the awesome ‘Coyotes’ from the Grizzly Man soundtrack


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