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GRIZZLY MAN

Back in April, Paul Holdengräber interviewed David Lynch in front of a sold-out crowd at BAM. For his follow-up discussion, Holdengräber has landed a subject that some would argue is even more unpredictable: German filmmaker Werner Herzog (Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo). Though Herzog’s films are bizarre enough in their own rights — featuring unhinged performers like Nicolas Cage (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans) and, much more frequently, Klaus Kinski tearing up the screen in his fiction work — the director himself is also a notoriously strange and fascinating interview subject. With a little luck, his in-person appearance at BAM will lead to a classic new Herzog quote that can rival this choice excerpt from Herzog on Herzog: “Look into the eyes of a chicken and you will see real stupidity. It is a kind of bottomless stupidity, a fiendish stupidity.”

Thu., Sept. 4, 4 & 8 p.m., 2014

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In Mistaken for Strangers, a Familial Hanger-On Makes a Doc about The National

In Mistaken for Strangers, filmmaker Tom Berninger uses brother Matt, lead singer of indie rock band The National, to feel better about himself. This is especially frustrating since Tom reunites with Matt while The National perform and promote their chart-topping album High Violet, itself worth a film.

But since Mistaken for Strangers is all about Tom, there’s virtually no uninterrupted concert footage. At first, Tom presents himself as a goofy, insensitive kid. He spills milk all over his and Matt’s shared hotel room, forgets to tell Matt that Werner Herzog and the cast of Lost are waiting to party with the band, and pouts when he can’t join The National when they meet President Obama. That might have been funny if Tom weren’t always pouting, like when he whines, “You’re way more famous than any of my friends,” and Matt stammers back, “That’s . . . OK.”

Tom further stokes his rivalry with Matt by having his mom compare the brothers’ childhood drawings; she abashedly insists that Matt was always her “most talented” son. Tom even comes off like a putz after he admits that Matt’s success is well-earned. He listens thoughtfully when Matt says he’s grateful that The National aren’t performing for empty auditoriums anymore.

But when Tom finally shares his brother’s success, and holds Matt’s mic cord when he dives into a packed auditorium, it’s too little, too late. Tom predictably shifts Mistaken for Strangers‘ focus back to himself in the film’s concluding scene when a friend asks if he’s done making his film: “I’m getting close. Just let me figure it out.”

Mistaken for Strangers doesn’t reveal anything about Tom but his own insecurity.

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Werner Herzog Brings Happy People to Light

Calling Happy People: A Year in the Taiga a Werner Herzog film is something like calling the dozen 2012 books with James Patterson’s name on them novels actually written by James Patterson. It simply isn’t so. But in this case, the end product isn’t some fake ground out by subordinates. It’s a Herzog film Herzog just happened not to have shot.

Herzog came on board as a co-director only after all of this arresting documentary’s footage of life in Siberia had been captured. The story goes that Herzog caught a glimpse of it at a neighbor’s house. Impressed by the subarctic landscapes, both spare and grand at once, and the not-quite-of-this-century life of the lead subject, the stoic trapper Gennady Soloviev, Herzog tracked down Dmitry Vasyukov, who shot the footage. Herzog’s offer: to take the four hours of finished film and cut a movie out of it.

That’s not far from what the craftsmen Vasyukov has filmed do to Siberia’s trees: They laboriously fashion traps, canoes, skis, and even repellent for the mosquitoes that percolate about each body in the summer like hiccup bubbles around comic strip drunks. Vasyukov accepted, and here we have Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov’s Happy People. If that’s what it takes to get this remarkable footage onto screens worldwide, so be it, and let’s applaud Herzog for using his name for good.

Happy People cycles us through one year in the life of a trapper in the Siberian town of Bakhta, population 300. We follow Soloviev through the forested vastness as he putters over the frozen Yenisei River, a husky leashed to his snowmobile. It’s spring. Soloviev checks his traps, explains how to select wood for ski making, tells us how there’s easy game to be had because the crust atop the snowdrifts isn’t strong enough for moose to walk on without falling through. These scenes will inspire many viewers to imagine a go at this fat-of-the-land life. Building a trap for sable, Soloviev explains that he’s doing it the same way that his Siberian grandparents had; other than that snowmobile, a chain saw, and the plastic he wraps around trees to keep mice from getting at the food he stores up in the boughs, he could be toiling under the rule of the czars.

Then comes the summer with its bounty: fish, vegetables, daylight for 20 hours at a time. Happy People‘s structure is that of 1,000 nature documentaries, but its immersive patience is rare, as is its commitment to showing us the flat taiga forest as its residents see it. Instead of sweeping vistas, seen from the eye of God or Richard Attenborough, Vasyukov gives us what Soloviev and his fellow trappers see—and have to deal with. The Yenisei thaws, the current takes hold, and fishermen have to tug their dugouts against it with ropes. We’re shown a reindeer swimming across, its mighty antlers just dipping into the water. The moment reads at first as an establishing shot, or stock footage. But then there’s a ruckus, and a dog splashes into the water, and the camera turns just enough for us to see that we’re actually looking out from Soloviev’s canoe. That reindeer had just been passing, and now it’s being hunted.

Herzog narrates. Doing so, the great German director gets to say the kinds of things viewers of his previous films—Woyzeck, Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World—imagine he’s probably always saying, such as “All provisions here must be secured against bears.”

The year passes quickly, with festivals in town, a harvest, and preparations for the long winter, when the needle drops down to 50 below zero. The most interesting passages concern work—the process of splitting a tree—and dogs, who are never just companion animals. Soloviev complains about a “freeloader” dog who no longer works; another old dog he likens to a “pensioner” and promises “I’ll keep feeding him as long as he is alive,” which to Western ears sounds like what you’re just supposed to do. Later, displaying little emotion but apparently shaken, Soloviev tells a heartbreaker of a story about his favorite dog going up against a bear.

Soloviev’s world is presented simply, with little comment, at a pace in which viewers can sink in it and feel the place. Vasyukov’s digital photography is somewhat muddy, with objects and creatures blurring against the backgrounds. This is especially apparent toward the end, when winter has hit and Soloviev, gathering trapped sable, picks his way though snow-bent branches and harsh white horizons. A yellowish aura surrounds him at times, a testament to the expenses that were spared. It’s fitting that this film of people making do with what they have should itself look somewhat humble, without lyricism, a work not of beauty but of work—which is the thing that makes it beautiful, no matter who directed it.

ascherstuhl@villagevoice.com

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Dinotasia

In days long past, watching the double-feature or late-night UHF, kids had to find it within themselves to wait and wait for a glimpse of the monster. Now, with something like Dinotasia, a new computer-animated kinda/sorta nature-doc-like thing narrated by Werner Herzog, kids get full-on dino neck-snapping action within the first minutes. And the end of the world, courtesy of (spoiler!) that one asteroid. And the bones of a real-world T. rex skeleton growing CGI flesh and then tearing from their museum moorings to stomp and howl and generally be awesome. That flourish aside, most of Dinotasia concerns life millions of years back, with brawling, PG-brutal vignettes based on incidents that the writers have based on scientists’ speculation about what might have happened to actual individual dinosaurs. These dinos fight and suffer and poop and, discreetly, copulate, and some are treated to action-movie deaths that suggest the fossil records these scenes are drawn from might have been punched up by Hollywood. Some dinos have feathers, all are more colorfully birdlike than Spielberg’s were, and if they’re never fully convincing as photo-realistic figures, they’re certainly as much good gory fun to watch as any old-school monster kids had to stick with dreary first acts to see. There are no words, other than occasional strained and sleepy pronouncements from Herzog, and the ending is never in doubt: That asteroid is bearing down, and there ain’t a dino Bruce Willis in sight.

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Deeper Into the Abyss: On Death Row with Werner Herzog

Unlikely as it might have seemed 25 years ago, when his documentary jones took off but his “career” was idling in neutral, Werner Herzog has become the indispensable Virgil of 21st-century film space, the best and most indefatigable guide through wonders and horrors that should astound us and rarely otherwise do. In a tangible sense, we are all cast members in Herzog’s reality show, with our every narcissistic urge and act of unfathomable strangeness on display.

Herzog’s “reality” is unlike anyone else’s, especially considered in toto (starting with 1962’s Herakles, made when Herzog was 19), and in his latest, Death Row Portraits, he succeeds in making the TV-doc dynamic feel fresh, meaningful, and appalling. A continuation and expansion of last year’s Into the Abyss, Portraits is Herzog’s idea of a miniseries we should all be forced to watch: four hour-long episodes analyzing and scab picking four capital-punishment cases, three in Texas and one in Florida. Throughout, Herzog is offscreen and interrogating the prisoners in his patented “it’s my movie, fuck off” style, and often his calmly menacing presence feels more formidable than the murderers in front of his camera. He insists he disagrees with capital punishment on principle but clearly relishes asking unpleasant questions and making judgments. (One con rationalizes “I was still inside tying up hostages” when the killings went down, to which Herzog replies, “Which is bad enough, let’s face it.”)

The four cases are four different brands of down-home nightmare, including one centered on devious psychopath James “The Burning Bed” Barnes and another involving a thrilling Texas prison break that could easily be its own movie. The simple approach is proto–Claude Lanzmann by way of Errol Morris: cinema as people telling stories, revealing far more than they mean to. (Crime photos are useful, too.) But Herzog’s inquisitiveness is its own brand, now as always, and though America has been just one detour among many for him, it’s a terrain that comes off more apocalyptically bleak in his gimlet eyes here than in any film since the first Paradise Lost doc. The four episodes are playing at the IFC Center for only two nights and will be followed both evenings by Herzog live, answering questions and pondering the mysteries.

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The Year in Film: The Old Men and 3-D

It was 1952 in Haddon Township, New Jersey, and five-year-old Steven Spielberg was bummed about The Greatest Show on Earth, the first movie he saw in a theater. “I wanted to see three-dimensional characters, and all this was was flat shadows, flat surfaces,” he once told biographer Joseph McBride. Little Spielberg had expected a real circus, with live elephants and clowns. “I was disappointed in everything after that.” A year later in Manhattan, 10-year-old Martin Scorsese got Spielberg’s wish: He witnessed André de Toth’s House of Wax in stereoscopic 3-D. “The sense of depth took me into another universe,” he recently told the Guardian.

Nearly 60 years later, both directors have finally released their first 3-D films (The Adventures of Tintin and Hugo, respectively), as have two German contemporaries: Wim Wenders (Pina) and Werner Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams). Going in and out of fashion for decades, but always the domain of money-grubbing blockbusters and projectile-hurling genre pictures, 3-D came of age in 2011 thanks to these four artistically accomplished films. But more importantly, the format seems to have re-energized these auteurs to make what the besieged movie business might need most: impassioned and ambitiously personal movies.

Born within four years of one another—bracketing the beginning and the end of the second World War—these four filmmakers discovered cinema in the 1950s, when postwar pop culture was exploding and diversifying, and television was threatening Hollywood’s dominance (much as it’s now threatened by the digital hydra). Theirs was an era of appropriation and possibility (yes to TV, 3-D, rock ‘n’ roll, and Disney), and each, in his own way, came to feel entitled to his ambitions, whether it was taking a bicycle ride across the moon in E.T. or tugging a steamship up the side of a mountain in Fitzcarraldo. All four came of age during the new waves of the 1960s, and in the ’70s, helped chart a course of cinema for a generation. Now established, bankable veterans in their late sixties, they’re in a position to do it again, seizing the latest industry trend not as a gimmick but as an opportunity.

In Hugo, Scorsese uses 21st-century technology to honor 19th-century innovation, evoking the magic of early cinema via 3-D sleight of hand. He depicts 1920s Paris as a city of bygone fantasy, where details are period specific, but the camera can seemingly do anything it wants, such as careen through a crowded train station at jet-speed or place Ben Kingsley in a Georges Méliès film. Consistent with Scorsese’s career (as both filmmaker and film preservationist), Hugo celebrates cinema’s past, argues for its enduring relevance, and eagerly partakes of its evolving powers.

Although different in form and tone, Spielberg’s Tintin also animates a fantastical past (vaguely 1930s) with contemporary tools. Like Scorsese’s picture-book adaptation, Spielberg brings a two-dimensional source to three-dimensional life, yet Tintin retains its comic-strip look and feel. Clearly turned on by the elastic potential of motion-capture CGI, Spielberg outdoes his own live-action virtuosity without abandoning classic film framing and pacing. An epic long-take chase sequence through a winding Moroccan village is breathtaking because it mimics—rather than disregards—the daredevilry of physical action, craftily preserving a sense of danger even though, thanks to CGI, anything is technically possible. For all his intervening achievements—and despite Tintin‘s wearying relentlessness—it has been decades since a Spielberg film was this adventurous, this infectiously adolescent.

Of all four films, Wenders’s Pina is most revelatory in its use of 3-D. Challenged to do justice to the late Pina Bausch’s dance-theater choreography—to make a record of her intrinsically transient work and have it make sense as cinema—Wenders has created a meditation on perception and sensation, reconsidering both physical and virtual/cinematic spaces by constantly reconfiguring our perspective on them.

As gifted as anyone of his generation at marrying form and feeling (Wings of Desire confidently combined a poetic elegy, a philosophical treatise, and a sappy love story), Wenders endured years of rough footing until this major revival. The same can be said of Herzog, whose condescending, self-serving, self-parodic (and yes, occasionally entertaining) stentorian narration had corrupted much of his recent nonfiction work (Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World). Outside of an audacious Herzogian coda, he’s comparatively restrained in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, seemingly and appropriately awed by the 30,000-year-old cave paintings he ventures to capture. Unlike his American counterparts, Herzog maintains the integrity of his 2-D source—there’s no making these pictures “come to life” via CGI—instead using the extra dimension to insert the audience into the cramped space of the cave and letting us marvel at these rediscovered masterpieces through his camera’s eye.

Yet all four films, excluding perhaps Pina at times, function just fine in two dimensions, making what came of the technology less crucial than what the technology inspired (which can’t be said for, say, Shark Night 3D). Each film feels like a reboot. Each is motivated by possibility, by forms and effects unknown; each is a kind of adventure film. With the movie business as conservative and risk averse as ever (or at least since 3-D was last a thing), it’s gratifying to see these four directors—decorated vets who could easily rest on their good names or retire—spend Hollywood coin on passion projects. As the industry wrestles with anxieties old and new, they show how film can still revive itself and take us somewhere new.

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After the Murders, Before the Death Penalty, Into the Abyss

An egalitarian study of crime and punishment in a small Southern town, Into the Abyss is also an unmistakably Herzogian inquiry into the lawlessness of the human soul. That would be the abyss of the title, though if you’re looking for more of that kind of shameless lyrical swagger, you might be disappointed by the documentary’s lack of Werner Herzog’s signature, Cousteau-on-quaaludes narration. Here the director is a more spectral presence, an outsider in Conroe, Texas, warmly urging on his subjects—including the two young men convicted of three particularly senseless murders—from behind the camera.

Herzog had only half an hour with each prisoner, one of whom—28-year-old Michael Perry—was scheduled for execution eight days after their 2010 interview. Ten years after their convictions, neither man cops to killing a middle-aged woman, her son, and another teenager. Each is petulant in their blame of the other; the long stretch of crime-scene footage that opens the film accompanied by a pleading string progression and the description given by the detective assigned to the case, tells a different story. Instead the prisoners talk of their upbringing, their families, their exploits on the outside. Perry comes off as a genial cipher, while his handsome partner, Jason Burkett, who was sentenced to life, emerges in greater dimension. Herzog seeks out Burkett’s incarcerated father as well as his correspondence bride, who, by the end of the film, is pregnant with Burkett’s child.

Equal time is given to the family members of the murdered, each of whom makes a kind of victim statement while brandishing framed pictures of their loved ones. Choked pauses and dangling close-ups are pushed for ecstatic effect; Herzog’s opposition to the death penalty is clear, but loaded aesthetic overtures are made to both sides of the argument. His subjects—including a death-chamber chaplain and a former executioner—often veer from testimony to intimate tangent, moments arranged to form the film’s gothic microcosm. Compelling as portraiture but short of a profound whole, Abyss is at its totalizing best when it recalls the courtroom observation of another Perry, Truman Capote’s murderer-muse: “I’ll be damned if I’m the only killer in the room.”

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No Sophomore Slump for DOC NYC

Bigger and here to stay, DOC NYC returns for its second year to spread the gospel of nonfiction, showcasing 52 features in what’s becoming the city’s mainstream fall complement to MOMA’s more international and experimental Documentary Fortnight. Boldface names Werner Herzog, Barbara Kopple, and Jonathan Demme come bearing new work; anticipated favorites such as The Island President and an Eames doc will be rolled out; a memorial tribute to the late Richard Leacock burnishes another vérité legend; and a host of often issue-oriented other films await presumably sympathetic perusal.

Ringing in the festival (at $35 a pop) is the Grand Teuton’s latest, Into the Abyss. Herzog follows the ruminative 3-D spelunking of Cave of Forgotten Dreams with an absorbing and refreshingly down-to-earth engagement with the perpetrators, victims, and bystanders in a rural Texas triple-homicide case. It’s framed by 28-year-old death-row inmate Michael Perry, a murderous, gawky car thief with a disarmingly childlike grin and little apparent conscience beyond full faith in his own salvation. Although declaring an opposition to capital punishment, Herzog devotes himself instead to emotional detail and death’s aftershock in all its messiness: Perry’s weary bullet-headed accomplice, Jason Burkett, Burkett’s similarly incarcerated and crushingly ashamed father, a victim’s relative who unplugs from the world, a former execution guard who seems to have lost a bit of life force with every state-sanctioned snuff. Other than the occasional true-crime TV-show echo and ponderous chapter headings, the compassionate inquiry satisfies, with Herzog directing his conspicuous fascination toward grounded rather than grandiose ends.

A second Herzog project, Happy People, carved out of filmmaker Dmitry Vasyukov’s Siberian fur-trapping chronicles, was not available for preview. But among the docs that were, Ingrid Betancourt: Six Years in the Jungle stood out for its riveting, evenly paced storytelling and allowance for complicating viewpoints. Onetime Colombian presidential candidate Betancourt was kidnapped in 2002 by FARC insurgents mere weeks after a summit in which she decried such strategic body snatching to FARC leaders’ faces. Director Angus Macqueen lets the poised ex-politico recount the ordeal with practiced yet compelling observations and reflections. But it’s the inclusion of Betancourt’s also-kidnapped assistant Clara Rojas—along with FARCers and American prisoners—that render this well-publicized story far more than a feature-length 60 Minutes segment. Macqueen lets the plainspoken Rojas voice her side of the experience—an awkward silence apparently reigned between she and Betancourt—and leaves class tensions (and FARC cant) hanging in the air. There’s due respect for Betancourt’s influential part-French family, maintained by a civilized voiceover, but the enigma of Rojas’s pregnancy in captivity is allowed to undercut a straightforward hero’s tale.

Six Years in the Jungle might not fully reckon with its contradictions, but Toronto festival crowd favorite The Island President hardly recognizes the existence of any. Like more than one documentary in the festival, this climate-change consciousness-raiser has got the hook but proceeds to hammer it blunt. Plucky underdog Mohamed Nasheed, the post-revolutionary leader of the Maldives, delivers a familiar handful of talking points about his nation’s imminent doom from rising oceans and sasses some statesmen along the way in a 101-minute film padded with pleasing seascapes and Radiohead noodling. The 2009 Copenhagen summit is the end point, with backroom jockeying a highlight, but the price of admission is that begging-to-be-retired narrative structure—the hurry-up-and-wait Run-Up To the Big Moment of Judgment. As for the endangered Maldivean way of life, it sometimes seems more like a photo op.

If The Island President is slickly packaged to move, Jealous of the Birds could have used a bit of an analytical polish, hovering between the profound and the self-evident in its fraught, fascinating topic: Jews in postwar Germany and the question of life after so much death. Like Jealous of the Birds—whose director is the grandson of survivors—Perdida is a family affair. Its filmmaker-narrator is a descendant of Mexico’s Calderon film dynasty, which wended its way through theater-owning, distribution, and producing scandalous cabaret and vampire B pics. Love and business intertwine, lore and gossip flow freely, and the many treasures from scrapbooks and vaults make for a sweetly homey chronicle, if not always a clear history. Perhaps most importantly, among the Mexican stars interviewed, we get to see the late Ricardo Montalban, deep into his eighties and just as dulcet-toned and suave as ever.

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It’s a Musical Life: American Man Trades Jersey for the African Forest in Oka!

Love Actually‘s Kris Marshall stars as Larry, an endearingly goofy ethnomusicologist from Jersey who travels to the forests of Central Africa for a passion project: recording the music and microcosmic sounds of the Bayaka Pygmies, with whom he previously cohabitated. Based on a memoir by Louis Sarno—who fell in love with a tribeswoman and still lives with the clan more than two decades later—director Lavinia Currier’s Oka!, a loose-limbed tapestry of cultural nuances, atmosphere, and song, is a tuneful tribute to the Bayakan spirit. Matching Naples-scape Passione in its celebratory tone but filmed with all the staged-documentary performances, eccentric visual ironies, and caught-wildlife moments of a Werner Herzog narrative, Oka! delights only when it isn’t trying to keep its plot turning. That plot, such as it is, basically revolves around naïve guide Larry’s hapless ability to get lost, hoodwinked, and appear right in the path of splashed mud. There’s a detour involving a bottom-line official (Isaach De Bankolé as the film’s emblem of modernity) who exploits the pygmies for their elephant meat. Meant to open eyes to a plight still endured by these hunter-gatherers, it’s a well-intentioned detail but not as thrilling as, say, three lake-bathing ladies drumming a song with only water as their instrument.

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Burden of Dreams

Dir. Les Blank (1985).
Les Blank’s documentary on the making of Werner Herzog’s 1982 jungle epic Fitzcarraldo is a far stronger movie than Herzog’s in part because it has Herzog himself as the real life madman who wants to drag a steamboat over a mountain and bring opera to the Amazon.

Sun., June 26, 5 p.m., 2011