Monday, April 20, 2009

The Harmony of Overwhelming and Collective Murder

I think about Werner Herzog a lot.  Seriously.  I've been thinking recently about the way nature looks through his eyes (or lens).  In his chapter "Comprehending appearances: Werner Herzog's ironic sublime," from The Films of Werner Herzog: Between Mirage and History, Alan Singer makes note of the visual distortions that Herzog makes use of in several films: the heat waves that blur a figure and the collapsing of space created by a long lens.  Herzog lets the camera linger and spin nauseatingly around violent rivers, wind-torn trees, billowing eddies of oily smoke and flame, and grey clouded Andean mountains.  Watch this clip of Herzog discussing the Amazonian jungle during the filming of Fitzcarraldo (a film largely about hauling a ship through the jungle, in which the crew actually hauled a ship through the jungle).  Really, watch the whole thing, it's great.

It's worth noting that he made these statements during some incredibly difficult filmmaking, and it's understandable that he speaks of the jungle with such a snarl.  During the making of Fitzcarraldo, several members of the cast and crew were seriously injured, and Klaus Kinski, with whom the director had a tumultuous relationship (they threatened to kill each other at various points), starred.  Despite Herzog's apparently foul mood, I think he believes deeply in many of the things that he says here, because they show up repeatedly in his films.  His view that nature is wild, opportunistic, amoral, and ultimately unexplainable resonate throughout his oeuvre, and when he says, "But I love it.  I love it against my better judgement," he means that.  Herzog is always trying to come to terms with these contradictions: that he both loves and reviles nature, that humans both conquer nature and are conquered by it.  

Richard Misrach, from the series Hawaii, 1978

In this early Misrach, somewhat uncharacteristic of his work, I get a similar feeling about nature.  This tropical scene, which should seem like paradise based on our expectations of Hawaii, instead is terrifying, like Lost meets Blair Witch.  We get a sense of the violence of the flora, both in its immediacy in front of the lens and in the wild, leggy roots and vines.  I like this picture so much that I appropriated it for the banner at the top of this blog (the colors are inverted).  For me, this image illustrates Herzog's idea of "the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder" quite nicely, the leaves turning into daggers and the vines into snakes.  

Here's a picture that I made a few months ago.  It's currently untitled, but I call it Spidertree in my notes.  I'm very interested in the apparently uncontrolled and uncontrollable forms that nature takes, and my thoughts about this have definitely been influenced by Herzog and Misrach's Hawaii series.  Though in many of his films Herzog pits man against nature, he always understands humans as a part of nature and looks to plants, animals, rivers and rocks as a way to gain insight into what kind of universe we live in and what kind of beings we are - or rather what the nature of being is.  

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