Wednesday, May 3

An Evening with Werner Herzog


An Evening with Werner Herzog: 
A Cinematic Master

A few weeks ago I got a call from a fellow film critic friend letting me know that director Werner Herzog was going to be in town doing a discussion at Arizona State University. I didn't know anything else but that Werner Herzog was coming, and I immediately knew I was going. Mr. Herzog is a master of filmmaking, an uncompromising and challenging auteur who has crafted iconic films like "Fitzcarraldo", "Aguirre, the Wrath of God", and my favorite "Nosferatu the Vampyre". Many film fans more than likely became familiar with the eccentric, outlandish Herzog through the Les Blank documentary "Burden of Dreams", one of the most fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the filmmaking process and the struggle of an artist. The documentary displays Mr. Herzog on the edge of insanity, as he works tirelessly to make his cinematic vision come to life. It's this determination and passion that makes Werner Herzog so captivating and makes his films so mesmerizing. 

 Mr. Herzog was in Tempe for an event sponsored by ASU's Origins Project, a program that brings together a diverse group of scientists, scholars, and public intellectuals to explore fundamental questions associated with the origins of life, origins of the universe, but also topics concerning consciousness, culture, and complex technology. Organized by Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and professor at ASU, the program brought Mr. Herzog in to showcase his new film "Salt and Fire" and also to sit down for a post-screening discussion on the environmental and ecological narrative elements utilized in his film. Also sitting in on the discussion was world-renowned professor of economics and United Nations Senior advisor Jeffrey Sachs. 

The film "Salt and Fire" has been described as an ecological thriller, a categorization Mr. Herzog quickly scrutinized. The film displayed the passion that the director has for topics concerning the relationship with nature and humanity, and the ultimate harm that humanity is contributing towards the demise of resources. In the film a shady businessman, played with only the kind of conviction actor Michael Shannon could bring to a role, abducts a scientist (Veronica Ferres) and her team in Bolivia and then abandons her in vast salt fields with two blind siblings. The film, written by Herzog, is a mix of social commentary and dark humor, you can feel Herzog's voice in every scene and every word being said. That's not too unfamiliar with how Herzog works but this film also feels utterly different from the style and composition the director is known for. The film, acted with complete conviction and also beautifully shot in Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni salt flats, suffers from a loss of focus. It starts off as a thriller and meanders into oblivion, with characters exchanged in a kidnapping discussing humanity and nature through poetic and philosophical means. Still, surprisingly enough through the glaring issues, it's still a Herzog film and it still has moments and shots that you'll think about. 

 The post-screening discussion was the highlight of the evening, a back and fourth conversation that ranged in topics from politics, economics, disparity, health, hunger, and injustice. It's absolutely fascinating watching Mr. Herzog stand his ground on issues concerning the individual responsibility associated with food waste and consumption while the intimidatingly experienced Jeffrey Sachs counters with opinions concerning America's political system and the responsibility the Nation has concerning the topic. Herzog discussed how a person needs to live, but that it didn't need to be a life lived in wasted excess of food and water. Mr. Herzog talked about his experience in life, with film, travel, and relationships that have shaped and molded his views on many issues facing the world today. It was in one moment uncomfortable and other moments poignant.

At the end of a near 90 minute discussion it was clear that Werner Herzog is much more than a filmmaker, screenwriter, and actor, but that this rare artist is also a deep thinker, a critical and staunch defender of nature, a sensitive and sympathetic supporter of humanity, and one of the most interesting people the artistic world has ever been introduced to.

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