I recently read an article that talked about how we view the world. Basically, the author talked about what we “dwell on,” and how we react to it. The message was twofold: we choose what we look at, and we choose how we see what we look at.
This is terrifically relevant to filmmaking, and I couldn’t help but apply the thought. If we personally have the option to look at the world “through the eyes of love,” than so do our electronic eyes, cameras.
And then I sat down and watched Werner Hertzog’s Wheel of Time. I’ve been reading about India and Eastern cultures lately, and it was great to have visuals to help solidify that knowledge. Hertzog is a filmmaker I never thought I would love. He’s quirkly and very present in his own films. Having some respect but little love for Michael Moore, I usually avoid documentarians who editorialize, but Hertzog doesn’t really do that. From the beginning of any Hertzog film (at least any I’ve seen) the audience is very aware that they are not being shown the documentary to end all documentaries on the subject. This is not Ken Burns’ historical documentation of (insert nearly any subject known to man) (side note: I’m really looking forward to Burns’ next project on National Parks). Hertzog explores a subject that interests him, and takes the audience along during the exploration. There is no agenda, no social movement. It is an observation by a man with a movie camera. His voiceovers (something overused in other documentaries) are wonderful. His nearly monotone voice, with a thick German accent, points out things that seem of little importance. Simple observations. Then you realize that the Dalai Lama, whom Hertzog is interviewing, has just made the comment that we, the individual, are the center of the universe. And as you continue to watch the random shots of the crowd, you realize that Hertzog is showing you individuals. People on journeys. Devouts who prostrate themselves every step on a journey that takes three years. And Hertzog ends the film on a lone monk, sitting amid thousands of empty pillows left by departed participants. “Perhaps” Hertzog seems to mention it offhand “he is the center of the universe.”
All of the sudden the forces come together. The observation is not random, it is a film shaped by absorbing everything and finding the story within the shots. This is the documentary tradition I love the most. Document, participate in the process, and show others your observation. I’m all for docs that raise awareness (I can’t wait to see Food Inc.), but these Hertzog observations fascinate me. That’s the way I want to watch the world around me. And I love the way he sees it. He sees people. He sees everything about them: what they are trying to achieve, what they have been through, what they are thinking as the camera watches them. It’s the reason I though Encounters at the End of the World was one of the most brilliant films of the previous year. I do not know how to further explain Hertzog’s work, except to say, you must experience it for yourself. Don’t expect something high profile. Expect to be told a story, quietly and personally. Roger Ebert, a long time admirer, once said to him “I have started out to praise your work, and have ended by describing it. Maybe it is the same thing.”
Hertzog’s camera observes people with an eye that respects their autonomy. Critics have commented on Hertzog’s “obsessions,” but they are obsessions that spring from curiosity and admiration. He sees with eyes that love. That, I think, is the great difference between Hertzog and Moore. Moor’s intention is to incite, and therefore his cinematic eye is one that at times can feel pity, but more often than not, is looking for flaws. It is a critical and unloving eye. I think this serves a function, but there is a better way.
How many flims, fiction or non, treat their subject matter with love? Is there a noticable difference in films that do or do not?
If you’d like to learn more about Hertzog or his work, check out his website: http://www.wernerherzog.com/main/index.htm