Why Are There So Many Hummingbirds?

Did I ever tell you about the time I saw Werner Herzog? It was a free screening of Grizzly Man at the Natural History Museum in New York. I read about it at the last minute and, with no time to spare, I dashed off by myself in search of the haunting voice I had come to worship. A line formed around the corner outside of the museum and into the space, winding around the Native American wing, passing through looming totem poles, wax figures eagerly rowing nowhere in a stationary canoe and huge, shadow casting bears flanking passage ways all ending at an enormous IMAX theater. The film, as everyone should know, was a breathtaking vision of a man in pursuit of something greater than himself, a curiosity, love and desire that eventually led to his death. After the lights came back on the stage was set for a Q&A where (and I am not making this up!) Herzog, a preeminent bear researcher (donned in a genuine eye patch that he got in as the result of a real life bear fight!!!!!!) and an aspiring actress (whose closest brush with acting also involved an eye patch, as part of her waitressing costume at a pirate themed restaurant where she worked alongside the films protagonist) were seated in front of heavy velvet curtains, gently lit up on display in the massive theater like the little dioramas scattered throughout the museum.  Herzog answered questions with such poignancy, caring and humor adding to the whole dream of the event (when a hippie audience member asked if Timothy Tredwell, the ill fated self proclaimed bear whisperer of Grizzly Man, was a vegan Herzog replied in his draconian way "We both have a passion for Butterfingers.") . The whole experience was surreal and beautiful, the perfect backdrop to a perfect film, redefining what documentary film is and can be. So when the power flickered back on earlier this week and an invite to a screening of Herzog's latest film, Into The Abyss, was sitting in Brent's inbox I instantly RSVPed and awaited traveling from my chilly barn adventure to almost the opposite: the warm theater seats of New York.

(more about Herzog, Maysles & the New York City Skyline after the jump!)


The film screening was part of the opening night gala for the second annual Doc NYC film festival. The fest supports documentary film in all of it's aspects and is complete with panels, Q&As and parties drawing from the vast doc film landscape of New York. Into the Abyss was an exploration of the American death penalty. The film followed one particular case involving a series of murders in Texas resulting in the two convictions of very young criminals, one receiving the death penalty and another narrowly escaping it. I understand wanting to provide a nearly unbiased portrait of events to show a documented account of capital punishment but, it is Herzog's reflections that make his films have an intense depth and philosophical wonder that I think this film was slightly lacking in. Not to say there weren't engaging moments of poignancy or beauty but it seemed a little too full of the bleak state of things as opposed to the rhetorical questioning & responsibility that Herzog usually strongly takes on as a director (the thing that made his other recent film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a relevant masterpiece). Also, watching the New York film audience react to the rural subjects of the film was a bit disappointing- predictably honing in on inadequacies and ignorance that the cultured metropolitan dwellers are not used to, leading to some gross displays of laughter or shock in the face of many people's reality, a judgmental position that I think is questionable at best... I do think that Into The Abyss will be a valuable tool for audiences who are unaware of this issue and that it will also act as a good cultural document of the horrors of civilized society but the artistry and urgency felt a little light for such a weighted subject.

Following the screening everyone piled into an elevator to retreat to the film festival's opening party. When Herzog insisted that our elevator could hold another and proceeded to board I felt a little rush of air as all of us in the tiny space inhaled out of fear, exitement and room making for the giant, mythic man that holds the disembodied voice we all have come to know in his films! The man who pushed a gigantic boat up a hill, single handedly saved a chunk of the rain forest and had Klaus Kinski & Mick Jagger secluded in the terrifying Amazonian wilds all to the tune of Popol Vuh for ONE film was in our elevator! What?!!? Once again some strange, strange real life Herzog-ian dream! The party was of the fancy variety with city views and sushi and drinks but it was watching Al Maysles (!!!) talking to Werner Herzog (!!!) that was by far the most jaw dropping part of entire evening: these two shaped the way I think of documentary film, the way the world thinks of documentary film, and there they were in all their graying glory- incredible! Also incredible was unexpectedly running into so so many film related friends at this event, too many too name, most of them on the path to documentary legend and all of them smiling in the presence of these amazing documentary forefathers! Now, back to the woods and trying to uphold the legacy of filmmaking that we were just plain lucky to have spent an evening with!

 

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