In the edges

I’ve always been drawn to folk music, to roots music. I stop at Barry Manilow. From a very early age when I was a kid listening to Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five – you know, that’s very crude music in the one sense but it’s very sophisticated and advanced and harmonically interesting but its surfaces are crude. I suppose I fell in love with that sound when I was quite young and its something I’ve always looked for: sophisticated but crude.

. . .

They wanted me to transcend something and sometimes if it’s rough and has a rough quality it transcends. If you repeat music too often . . . if you rub the edges off music you take away the music itself. The music is in the edges, its in the rough bits. If you smooth it over there’s really nothing left. You’ve got lots of notes left but there’s no music, so its always a striving to keep it alive as something fresh that really has vitality to it.

[Richard Thompson]

I’ve been always after something like a deeper truth, an ecstatic truth. I’ve been after balance, after something like justice within pictures. Very strange to explain it and I’ve hardly ever seen a film that has complete balance within it. There are exceptions like Rashomon by Kurosawa where I’m sitting in awe and wondering how did he do that. How for god’s sake can I get somewhat close to this. Of course I never will but trying it anyway is okay and it gives some sort of meaning to my life and in a certain way going for the essential right straight without detour where is it . . . it’s the essential I’m looking for what is the deepest essential that defines us as human beings.

[Werner Herzog]

“In the Edges: The Grizzly Man Session” bonus feature on the Grizzly Man DVD

I have problems of different sorts with both Richard Thompson and Werner Herzog. One seems completely foreign, the other all too familiar. Richard Thompson has always been a bit weird for me because he is always “in character” in all his songs. There is virtually no sense of who or what he really is as a human being. Even watching/listening to something like A Thousand Years of Popular Music gives you little insight into what or who he is through his consumptive choices. It’s a bit like the split between the Romantic poets and the Victorians like Tennyson or Browning— with Blake or Wordsworth, you never fail to recognize who is speaking. Victorians are tricky role-playing creatures, impossible to take at face value. I tend to think of Thompson as a bit of a Victorian, and this extra bit is uncharacteristically revealing of his preferences.

At the onset of this featurette, Herzog declares that film and music are closely related, more so than film and literature. The discrepancy between container metaphors between these two collaborators is striking. For Thompson, the music is found at the edges. For Herzog, he wants to seek out the heart, the essence inside the human condition. “Straight without detour” hardly describes the arc of most of his films. He seems to want to play the trickster, dancing around the fire until the heat is unbearable. And always, the focus is on him and his feelings about the fire.

Grizzly Man is probably my favorite Herzog film so far (I haven’t seen that many) because of a profound affinity between the lunatic filmaker in charge and the lunatic filmaker under scrutiny. One sees nature as friendly and welcoming to kindred spirits, the other sees nature as hostile and unforgiving. The tension is in the dialog between the two. Because Treadwell is dead, though, he really can’t correct the crazy German. At least it’s easy to believe that although they disagree, these two guys would probably like each other.

However, the whole idea of the artist as a crazy egotist is just tired and rubbed in the ground. That’s why even after just a few forays into Herzog’s films it seems tiresomely familiar. The artist makes his statement, reality be damned. Herzog is often guilty of shaving off the edges, but less so here than in the other films I’ve seen.