Sunday, February 07, 2010

Benjamin Noys: Antiphusis -- Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man

Antiphusis: Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man
by Benjamin Noys

The moon is dull. Mother Nature doesn’t call, doesn’t speak to you, although a glacier eventually farts. And don’t you listen to the Song of Life.

----Werner Herzog

At the heart of the cinema of Werner Herzog lies the vision of discordant and chaotic
nature – the vision of anti-nature. Throughout his work we can trace a constant fascination with the violence of nature and its indifference, or even hostility, to human desires and ambitions. For example, in his early film Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) we have the recurrent image of a crippled chicken continually pecked by its companions. Here the violence of nature provides a sly prelude to the anarchic carnival violence of the dwarfs’ revolt against their oppressive institution. This fascination is particularly evident in his documentary filmmaking, although Herzog himself deconstructs this generic category. In the ‘Minnesota Declaration’ (1999)3 on ‘truth and fact in documentary cinema’ he radically distinguishes between ‘fact’, linked to norms and the limits of Cinéma Vérité, and ‘truth’ as ecstatic illumination, which ‘can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization’ (in Cronin (ed.) 2002, 301). In particular he identifies nature as the site of this ecstatic illumination – in which we find ‘Lessons of Darkness’ – but only through the lack of any ‘voice’ of nature. While Herzog constantly films nature he films it as hell or as utterly alien. This is not a nature simply corrupted by humanity but a nature inherently ‘corrupt’ in itself; Herzog’s vision of nature is a kind of anti-vitalism, a horror at the promiscuous vitality of nature.

Such a vision is evident in Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man (2005), in which it is
articulated by explicitly raising the question of how a filmmaker should capture
images of nature. The film is structured as an inquiry into the fate of the ‘grizzly man’ – Timothy Treadwell, an amateur bear expert and filmmaker who lived amongst these creatures in the Alaskan wilderness for ten years. Herzog engages in a kind of cinematic ‘duel’ with what he regards as Treadwell’s sentimentalised view of nature. Alongside the film I place the later work of Lacan, in which nature is theorised as ‘antiphusis’ (anti-nature) or counternature. In the 1970s Lacan elaborated a strikingly similar conception of nature to Herzog’s, as ‘internally plagued by “rottenness” [pourriture], by a decay or defect out of which culture (as antiphusis) bubbles forth [boulliner]’ (in Johnston 2006, 36). This is not a simple matter of imposing Lacan’s work as the key to Herzog’s. Herzog vehemently objects to any thematic, academic or critical reading of his films, arguing that ‘[f]ilm should be looked at straight on, it is not the art of scholars but of illiterates.’ (in Cronin (ed.) 2002, 70). This antiintellectualism may well be problematic but it does raise a warning to any critic tempted to impose a psychoanalytic master-code. Instead I choose a more modest approach in identifying a convergence between Lacan and Herzog in their thinking of nature, and also in a certain political scepticism that resonates between them concerning the post-1968 revolutionary movements. In very different forms and styles they both indicate how the deadlock of a mute and corrupt nature also links to a political deadlock around the naturalism of desire and revolution in the 1970s. If ‘mother nature doesn’t call’ then we have to re-formulate any politics of nature, which is, if anything, a more pressing concern

In October 2003 Treadwell and his companion Amie Huguenard were brutally attacked and killed by a wild grizzly bear. It is a macabre fact that Treadwell’s camera was
running at the time of the attack but the lens cap had been left on, leaving an audio
recording of the deaths (which Herzog listens to in one of the most disturbing scenes in the film). Treadwell had collected over one hundred hours of footage over five years at the time of his death. As Herzog states in the film’s Production Notes, when he and his editor Joe Bini came to view this material, much of it never seen:

We could not believe it. It couldn’t have been our wildest fantasy to find something like this, … We had to stop and walk out of the building. Both of
us had quit smoking, and yet we had to smoke a cigarette to take what was coming next. It was one of the great experiences I’ve ever had with film footage. It was so beautiful.

Herzog’s film makes use of his selection from this material, alongside interviews with Treadwell’s friends and family, as well as other more critical parties. Particularly important in structuring Herzog’s film is his own commentary, which makes explicit his interpretation of both Treadwell’s life and actions, as well as the images that we see.

These elements are organised together to structure the film as a demythologisation
of Treadwell, casting him as a self-conscious styler of his own image, a
failed actor who had transformed himself into a new role as the protector of the bears. Herzog makes clear his belief that the bears did not require Treadwell’s protection and that other motives were at work – such as Treadwell’s desire to escape the world of human civilisation and to enter into a ‘primal bond’ with the bears. Of course we have no true access to Treadwell’s point of view, except the chosen statements Herzog has placed on screen. This is therefore an uneven contest and we can view the film as one of antagonism and rivalry between the two filmmakers, one living and one dead, over the conception of nature and their own obsessions. David Thomson’s comment on why Herzog is not the ideal documentarian seems particularly apposite: ‘You feel he has his mind made up about so many things – and so you do not always want to trust what you are seeing’ (2003, 397). Previously Herzog has defended the protagonists of his films as neither marginal nor
eccentric, but as belonging to the same ‘family’ of desperate and solitary rebels against a mad society (in Cronin (ed.) 2002, 68-9). In the case of Treadwell Herzog appears to lack this sympathetic identification. Instead, the structure of rivalry recalls something of Herzog’s relationship with his alter-ego the actor Klaus Kinski – ‘my best fiend’ to recall the title of Herzog’s film on the subject. Coincidentally that relationship was also characterised by conflict over nature.

To Read the Rest of the Essay (PDF)

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