THE TWO GREATEST LIVING DOCUMENTARY-MAKERS --- THEIR SECRET LIFELONG ENMITY --- LIKE LINCOLN AND JEFFERSON DAVIS IT IS SAID --- SIMILAR IN SO MANY WAYS AND YET DIAMETRICALLY OPPOSED ON THE WORLDWIDE "FIELD".
I was at the Library last night, there for to see Werner Herzog hold forth on the subject of the death sentence. His interrogator on the dais was somewhat of the "Charlie Rose School" of interviewing: he was partial to interrupting mid-sentence, just as the subject was getting going. He coupled this was an uncanny ability to poise, mouth agog, in silence for agonizing seconds on end while Herzog fanned the air with his hands in frustration: he had finished his sentence.
The conversation, somewhat freewheeling, was definitely a "curate's egg" - the good parts of which included Herzog's outspoken endorsement of Vladimir Putin, which you could tell perplexed the liberal arts community of New York City; also his enraptured praise for the library's book deposits under Bryant Park. I liked, and appreciated, Herzog's instinct that this was in its way a "sacred grove." I who have toiled in these groves lo these ten years---
Forgive me if I wax pretentious---!
The less noble moments in the evening's entertainments included the peculiar passage of time, irrevocable and alienated to me now, when Herzog tried to discuss the mysteries of Mycenean Greek, aided only by slides showing a book on the subject. I noted with displeasure puerile notes and underlining on the text. I felt like I was attending one of my own university lectures back in the old country, with my various xeroxes on acetate upon the lightbox-- "ah.. this is Thoreau with a beard; now, this is him without." Some of our most intimate passions and pleasures are really untransferable to other humanoids, I must regretfully conclude.
Now Herzog fell to reading from one book after another of middling prose which he deemed exceptional. Here was one of those books "brilliantly rediscovered" by the New York Review of Books imprint & resubmitted for the pleasuring and edification of NPR-listening McSweeneys hipsters. Ensues a protracted description of an owl. The audience hushes and warbles reverently because they have been told that this is good prose so it must be.
Then Herzog's interlocutor woke up for a moment to read a fine quotation from il miglior fabbro, Ralph Waldo Emerson, comparing death with the end of summer. Herzog responded: "Yes, that was very beautiful. Now let me read from Cormac McCarthy." Followed a bemusing passage describing a bull on a dusty tract of desert. Red clouds on its flanks &c., --- or some such.
Bulldust: seems apt.
Another score agin was the little old lady behind me whispering "That's right" to certain comments Herzog made. Testifying. Uncannily, every time he earned this lady's endorsement, I felt that he was mouthing commonplaces and platitudes. I also felt like this little old lady -- or her clone -- doppelganger -- or let us say her tanist in the tribe -- let us be mythological since that was the mood of the evening -- has been behind me at every cultural soiree I have attended in this good city New York. She crops up like the proverbial bad shekel at Film Forum -- she is at the Met when ye would goe --
Enough about that jazz. The thing over, I went to get my book signed by Herzog. And since I must be who I am, I of course did not fail to have a brilliant question to put to him as he signed.
I should really have learned, over the years, that these exchanges with the admired writers and artists (or, as Herzog says he views himself, "soldiers") never go well. They are too busy signing their names to give my incisive questions the rapt attention and full consideration they deserve. There is a line of dreary drones behind me as I ask it. The situation is awash with potential for misery. But I think it is also the type of question I go in with. I always seem to ask questions of influence or shared characteristics with contemporaries, and these questions tend to irritate the people in question. They fly too close to the petulant ego.
Mein Gott, they fly too close to the sun!!!
(These questions tend to irritate people in general. At university, I was roundly upbraided by a senior academic for my persistent inquiries into the mysteries of influence. "Why influence?" he cried from his regular booth in the bar, slamming his tankard on the table with emotion. "Why not the clash of the valiant unwashed against the prevailing ideology?"
"I don't know, I just don't seem much to kyear," I responded [quoting George Arnold].
This as I was trying to claim Cotton Mather's influence on --- what --- the Uncanny X-Men?.)
(Then I was in Rapallo, too, among those who had known Pound on the lawn at Saint Elizabeths --- and I went to them and I was among them and I asked them each of them, Did Poundie ever speak of Artemus Ward? Did he ever speak of Mark Twain?" ["Did he ever mention me?"] )
(And again see also my question to Updike, as he signed my copy of Terrorist: "Is this your Catcher in the Rye?"
"Fuck off home, sonny."
I do not win them with these my questions.
I am always going to be the preppy guy with the horn-rim glasses and the tweed jacket irritating Dylan in Don't Look Back who doesn't know what to do when Dylan hands him a harmonica.
If I was ever to collect my "celebrity interviews" in a book, each actual interview would consist of one or maybe two lines, with the usual considerable preface and epilogue (or: "flummery") in which I made my excuses.
This time, in my defence, I asked the question which I would, after all, have liked answered. It wasn't abstract or arbitrary - I had been wondering it for some time, since seeing Herzog's excellent documentaries The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner (1974) and La Soufriere (1977) several years ago and noticing a familiar tone and even methodology. My question was a good one, I maintain it, I say, goddammit, and the answer it got flummoxed me.
I asked him: What his opinion of Nick Broomfield was.
"I do not know who this person is," Herzog replied steelily through his permanently pursed lips. He'd signed one book for me, and, at my request, written To F_____ in it. However after this question, he most summarily signed the second book, notably without the gentle dedication.
I was slightly taken aback by his denial of Nick Broomfield. I said, "He's an English documentary-maker. He's made films on subjects quite similar to those in some of yours. For example, about the penal system."
(Herzog, this evening, was -- in his roundabout way -- promoting a cable TV series [? - it was never made quite clear] of documentaries about the eccentric characters who make "death row" their home. Nick Broomfield, as I thought was well-known, at least in documentary-maker circles, has also made films about people on death row and in jail, and in fact at all the stations and strata within the wider "worldwide world of crime" and criminal prosecution. I give you the superb Juvenile Liaison  and its sequel  about quaint English pre-teen delinquents and their treatment by the authorities. Then here is Tattooed Tears  about a juvenile correctional facility in California. Here is the famed visit to Suge Knight in prison in Biggie and Tupac (2002). Then there are of course, most prominently you would suppose, the documentaries Broomfield made [1994, 2003] about Aileen Wuornos while she was on death row. )
I was taken aback, probably visibly, by this unexpected response, anyway. My expression bespoke bullshit.
It is well enough known that the worst thing one can say about somebody is that one does not know the cove. People say it and sometimes - perhaps even oftentimes - it is just as they say. But sometimes (perhaps even oftentimes) it is not so. Rather it is the most cutting remark one could make. "I don't know the puppy." "The coxcomb is a stranger to me."
Woe unto the person who says he don't know a man and he is then caught in the lie and it is shown ("thuswise:") that he knows the man.
After I had "explained" to Herzog who Nick Broomfield was, because of course he didn't know, Herzog repeated gravely the fact that he did not know who he was. He was quite at pains to publish the fact that he did not know this Broomfield creature. Even as I was leaving, he was saying for a third time "I do not know who this person you are talking about is, so I am sorry I cannot answer your question."
I was inevitably reminded of Herzog's "war-of-words" with Abel Ferrara over Herzog's film Bad Lieutenant New Orleans: Port of Call (a very good film, incidentally, and far superior to Ferrara's earlier film Bad Lieutenant). Or, as Borges described it, "two bald men fighting over a comb." In that instance, too, certain corners of the filmic industry doubted whether Herzog was strictly honest in his public claim that he had "never heard" of Abel Ferrara or the original Bad Lieutenant. But why might Werner dissemble?
Three words: ANXIETY OF INFLUENCE.
Some artists (of whatever variety), however personable and magnanimous and gosh-shucks they may appear in public appearances, can withal be extremely protective of their published selves and souls. One score I had against Herzog I discovered when reading Herzog on Herzog, a book of interviews with the great man.
In this book he is interviewed about his filmic career &c. &c. There appear in the text certain anecdotes that he tells which are almost word-for-word identical with his previous tellings of them in his (excellent) documentary about his relationship with Klaus Kinski, My Best Fiend (1999). For instance, there is a good line Herzog uses in that film about Kinski trashing a room so thoroughly that all the fragments of the furniture and contents of the room "could be passed through a tennis racket." This is a novel and illustrative description. He says the exact same thing in Herzog on Herzog (2002) which instantly halves the puissance of the original usage. I thought then, Wasn't the author of the book - who surely had a thoroughgoing familiarity with Harzog's films - vexed at being given second-hand chickenfeed?
When I hear somebody repeat themselves, repeat their best lines I should say, jealously devise and then trot out fine words for sundry occasions even, I think to myself: "strictly self-fashioning." People - at least those people we hold in high esteem - should not be caught so flagrantly in self-fashioning. Larry David does the same thing.
Don't they suppose that parties interested in their work might conceivably come across both usages, as I did, and feel a certain subtle deflation?
I believe the same egotistical preening is at work in Werner Herzog's insistence that he "don't know Nick Broomfield."
In the interest of "transparency," I must declare an interest inasmuch as I have been called egotistical myself, and I believe there may be truth in it. Even so I am perhaps egotistical enough that - were I to be interviewed on the scale Herzog surely is - I would endeavour to be ever-vigilant against repeating the best-loved lines and also the mock-casual-denial-of- recognition motif. Werner, you and Nick Broomfield were both guests in the documentary category of the Toronto International Film Festival in September last year. Did you not perhaps hear tell of him among your colleagues?
Pull down thy vanity,
Paquin pull down!
Egotistical though I may be, I do, and we must, travail against the tendency, rather like Emerson did.
I am God in nature; I am a weed by the wall.
Funnily enough, I can pinpoint in my memory the first time I physically recoiled from somebody because I caught them in the act of egotistical self-fashioning, and that too was a gentleman of Teutonic extract: one J___ M______.
This J___ was a charming, excellent, guileful, gregarious, urbane, designing man, who overcame ye with modest charm,-- hooded eyes -- serpentine tongue -- but then would after a while over-egg the mixture and become unctuous - imposing -- and he would slip - his masque would -- and you would mark the chink in his works - the conceit beneath the modesty and the humble handwringing. ("The poor handwriting.") This phenomenon, when a man overplays his hand and exposes his vile, pulsing egotism, -- became known universally as the "J___ M______ Moment", indeed.
Since then I find myself more and more apt to recoil when the ego rears up - as it did last night, Mein Herr, in your avowed and over-said denial.
I hurtled away from this, yet another peculiar exchange with a cult director (see also: David Lynch, John Waters), and walked headlong into Paul Giamatti, who I grabbed him earnestly by the hand and told him he was "great in John Adams."
Only walking home, down at the turnstile in the subway by Bryant Park, did I think "I should have said how much I enjoyed him in Fred Claus!"