Peripheral City

Peripheral City
Peri, played by Josh Elrod

Monday, December 8, 2008

Herzog's "Of Walking In Ice," All Things Are Connected

Okay, I know this is a blog about film, but I just saw Marni Stern for the first time at the Knitting Factory and my mind was blown. It was like watching Sonic Youth mushed together with Deerhoof and Awesome Color, Slash in a little female blond body. Thank you Todd for your plus one. Her fingers could reach notes so wide and fast my eyes couldn't believe what they were seeing, and her eyes displayed a surprise like that stripped away moment during sex when you don't think it's gonna work, then boom! It works.

Anyhow, film. This is a film blog even though I should probably re-title it "If it's not film, music, literature or anything else you can think of that's inconceivably cool, it's not real," because everything is connected and every particle in space for 14 billion years back has been exchanged a billion times over and is connected some how by the electromagnetism of all nature, so who am I to think I can write about film and not slip in some reference or other to Glen Branca, Can, Junot Diaz, or Denis Johnson? So when Marni Stern plays somewhere in the world her songs inspire great cinema.

Which brings me to the point of this piece; "Of Walking in Ice," a journal by Werner Herzog from 1974 when he walked from Munich to Paris to visit the bed side of dying film writer from the groundbreaking Paris publication, "Cahiers du Cinema," Lotte Eisner. Herzog, the enigmatic filmmaker, breaks his own rules again and again. He does everything large and crosses genres effortlessly. The Filmmaker is a Writer is a Performance Artist is a Visionary Drunk. He was already a filmmaker by this point, having made fourteen films, and was possibly waiting on the critical outcome of his film, "The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser" (shot in 1974), to be revealed while undertaking this pilgrimage, but hardly refers to his vocation once, which seems to be the contradiction of Herzog himself: at once so unsentimentally realist- as in the brutal but simple task of walking hundreds of miles in sleet to get to one's goal; and then so deeply and poetically inclined- as in the idea of honoring one's mentor in pilgrimage. The realist poet in hiding from film making? Who knows what his motivations were for this journey, whether an escape from whatever expectations in his professional life that may have been shrouding him or holding him down in someway or sense of the heroic unsentimentalised heroism within himself, the journey is a real departure from identity.

His only references to film are first, in a quote among the first pages of the book, which inspired the title of this column, "Only if this were a film would I consider it real." And then when he tries to buy film at a kiosk in a small village where he is thwarted by the early closing time hours.

Written very cinematically, I found myself thinking, what the hell are you doing walking to Paris from Germany in the middle of winter when your friend could drop dead at any minute? Common sense, man! Take a plane! His sense of proportion is overwhelming and that creates a great sense of cinematic suspense. In every poetic stroke of his pen (and poetic is the only term I can think of for this book), I sat in anticipation of- will he survive another brutal night? Will he get there in time before she dies? Will the cops arrest him as a vagrant? He notes with and without concern the various forms of danger that surround him as he takes this unconventional route. He writes, "A jet-black wolfhound glared after me with his yellow eyes, unflinchingly. When some rustling came from some flying leaves behind me, I knew it was the dog, even though it was chained. All day long the most perfect solitude. A clear wind makes the trees up there rustle, the gaze travels very far. This is the season that has nothing to do with this world anymore. Big flying reptiles soundlessly leave their vapor trails behind above me, heading directly west, flying via Paris as my thoughts fly with them." In his lack of regard for common sense, Herzog once again triumphs in art. I mean, yes, it's just a man pulling off what modern sense of comfort wouldn't allow most of us to even conceive of executing, but he delivers some of the finest writing in doing so, morphing from clipped descriptive bullets of consciousness, to loose scattershot flights of possibly hallucinated delirium seamlessly, and without apology. He complains about his feet and leg muscles, he's afraid of cops. He walks and writes, drinks and insults. Within the first few pages, he's gotten shin splints, smashed a window and broken into a house, and finished the tenant's unfinished crossword puzzle.

It is singly heroic to not be in fear over one's own death and tempt such a feat surrounding the topic of another's dying and to perform ritual in any way shape or form in the Western world around death is revolutionary, and drunk and belligerent as the man may have been at times, certainly superior and arrogant, what he created was near religious in his honoring trek across bitter landscape to a deathbed of a film mentor. When my film mentor, Mark Lapore, hung himself, I was cheated any sense of personal closure. No last words for me or anyone for our conscious sharing information passing possibilities from teacher to student. But, would I have walked to Boston from New York for a month in the Northeast winter? I don't know. The best I could do was to write him a song posthumously and sing it to the ceiling. Death transports us from one place to another, whether it's our dying or another's. It happens on a cellular level. When my mom tried to get me not to come to her bedside until Thanksgiving, 2006, my body shook all over until I bought a ticket for November tenth a week and a half earlier. She died on the nineteenth. It's all I could do. We had Thanksgiving with out her. We translate meaning through language and other mediums like music, literature, film- to make sense of what our bodies understand even when our brains can't- the insensible, the unimaginable, and imagine it for everyone else who can't.

And he entertains. Page 8: "For miles across open fields I followed two teenage village beauties along a country road. They were walking slower than I, one of them in a miniskirt with a handbag, and after several miles I drew steadily close to them. They saw me from far away, turned around, quickened their pace, then stepped a bit slower again. Only when we were in reach of the village did they feel safe. When I overtook them, I had the feeling they were disappointed." Herzog, not afraid to seem the letch, doesn't care what is thought of him until he realizes he has become a symbol. The mostly negative reaction he exacts from onlookers once he has entered a sort of automatic symbolic state of non-attachment dawns on him slowly, and he watches himself transform in the eyes of others. If you are without a bed at night, just passing through without car or possessions, you become a certain type of fringe element to be feared, to be watched. He makes wide circles around police, waiting to be caught sleeping in a barn, breaking and entering, or following teenage girls in miniskirts, limping along with his blistering toes and bad hip. He grows paranoid and fears getting caught almost as if he has become that transgressor that he didn't necessarily purport to be.

But in the writing he is at his best. All through out the short book, he latches onto details that one wouldn't normally latch onto, clipped and incomplete like 2D masterpieces lingering in his own personal cinema, an inward, myopic screen of visual hauntings, a movie camera pointed inward from his third eye. Herzog is a visual writer and writes in short filmic bursts, with the narrator's moment by moment departure from self, he becomes a camera. "A little further on, in the loneliest spot, the very loneliest spot, I saw a fox. The tip of his tail had turned white. Schwwuepflingen- Bihalfingen- I sit in a covered bus stop, the school nearby is having a break. A child approached, saluted, ran away. A priest had a word for me, in passing. The children are devoured by the school. Sparrows are melting from the roof in drops. There are still some frozen apples in the naked trees uphill."

And loneliness, too, becomes a big topic, transforming from peaceful and beautiful as in the above quote in the beginning of the journey, to despairing and like the weather, which has turned foul towards the end. His only compassionate contact with people of any sort seems to be with the occasional waitress in a little cafe which he ducks into when he succumbs to foul weather or Achilles tendon. And through their eyes he sees himself as human, whereas through everyone else's eyes he is suspect. But his journey is one where he experiences a death of self, a man limited to his barest means, and only his essence, his barest attributes of self, without once going deeply into the imminent possibility of his own death on such a journey. He skirts the inevitability of it all and remains true to the moment in his loneliness: "There isn't a single leaf on the wet tree, just wet apples refusing to fall. I pick one, it tasted pretty sour but quenched my thirst. I threw the apple core against the tree, and the apples fell like rain. When the apples had grown still again, resting on the ground, I thought to myself that no one could imagine such human loneliness. It is the loneliest day, the most isolated of all. So I went and shook the tree until it was utterly bare." And when he isn't remaining true to the moment, whether in fact or feeling, he crosses a blurry line into descriptive flights from reality, allowing himself the free fall of a man deprived of everything except his imagination:"There were powerful waves, pounding the surf, and nothing but haze at daybreak. Hias says he sees to the end of the world. We were close to what they call the breath of danger. Several waiters took up the pursuit of a dog that had run out of a cafe. A slight incline had been too much for an old man, and he pushed his bicycle, walking heavily, limping and panting. Finally he stands still, coughing, unable to go on. On the rack behind him he has fastened a frozen chicken from the supermarket. Must hunt Peruvian harp music with female singer. Exalted hen, greasy soul."

He makes it to the bedside of Lotte Eisner before she dies and there is a strange awkwardness that is weirdly moving. It is unclear if they had been friends or merely acquaintances before hand, as gleaned from his closing note about their last exchange. She had heard of his walking for a month to see her and must have thought him a little crazy for it, and his crooked and disheveled state embarrassed them both. But there is closure: "Together, I said, we shall boil fire and stop fish. Then she looked at me and smiled very delicately, and since she knew that I was someone on foot and therefore unprotected, she understood me." In his stripping away of all essentials, Herzog brings it all down to that state of vulnerability that only people on their deathbed may know, and walked the edge of the world for a dying heroine. Epic, senseless, and human are words that come to mind, when I think of this automatically, but also deeply connected to the nature of all things, the scale of it all, this simple work, this tiny journal transcending the unknown and surpasses the idea of death as merely just another body function, to an honorable gift, an opening to something beyond understanding, and the ultimate travel story.

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