29 August 2014

From Birdsong to Herzog

I try to use this weblog to post only spontaneous thoughts that come to me in the heat of the moment and knock me flat on my back and take my breath away so that I feel compelled to open my laptop and type, but the present entry is a xerox copy made out of real paper from actual trees felled by overworked elephants which I decided to re-share tonight for the following two reasons:

  1. I haven't posted anything here in a while; and 
  2. Some friends and I were talking about movies today.


Recently I was reading Plato's Phaedo to remind myself how Socrates faced his death sentence, and it surprised me to find him interpreting the song of swans:

I believe that the swans, belonging as they do to Apollo, have prophetic powers and sing because they know the good things that await them in the unseen world; and they are happier on that day than they have ever been before.

This immediately made me think of a couple passages from Walt Whitman, and some words from the movie director Werner Herzog. First, here is a quote taken from a scene in Les Blank's Burden of Dreams (a documentary about the making of Herzog's movie Fitzcarraldo) where Herzog gives his classic outburst against nature:

[In the jungle] there's a lot of misery, but it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery; and the birds are in misery: I don't think they sing — they just screech in pain.

Next, here are three lines from When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd — Whitman is speaking about the song of the hermit thrush:

...the singer so shy to the rest receiv'd me,
The gray-brown bird I know receiv'd us comrades three,
And he sang the carol of death, and a verse for him I love.

So, for Herzog, the call of jungle birds is a screech of pain; whereas Whitman translates the hermit thrush's song as a carol of death; and Socrates says the swan's song is a happy prophecy. A few more lines by Walt Whitman's poem Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking give his reaction to the song of a mockingbird whose mate has disappeared:

Demon or bird! (said the boy's soul,)
Is it indeed toward your mate you sing? or is it really to me?
For I, that was a child, my tongue's use sleeping, now I have heard you,
Now in a moment I know what I am for, I awake,
And already a thousand singers, a thousand songs, clearer, louder and more sorrowful than yours,
A thousand warbling echoes have started to life within me, never to die.

I find it interesting to see the different interpretations that people have made of birdcalls (or cries, or songs, or what you will). Surely there are many more examples of this type of thing — these are just the first few that came to mind...

Further reading

Here are some extra words spoken by Plato's Socrates in Phaedo, translated again by Hugh Tredennick and Harold Tarrant:

It is quite wrong for human beings to make out that the swans sing their last song as an expression of grief at their approaching end; people who say this are misled by their own fear of death, and fail to reflect that no bird sings when it is hungry or cold or distressed in any other way; not even the nightingale or swallow or hoopoe, whose songs are supposed to be a lament. In my opinion neither they nor the swans sing because they are sad.

Also, Herzog's speech from Blank's film is here. (I'll try to embed it below — I hope that you can see it from where you're sitting.)

P.S. (More Herzog)

The following is a comment that I posted on one of the social networks — I was replying to a question about the movie director Werner Herzog — I am pasting it here below for safer keeping. Although lengthy for an online text, it has a simple purpose — I tried quickly to list his movies that I like the best.

As for Herzog, yes, he's been my favorite (along with Luis Buñuel and David Lynch) for a long time.... But I'm very bad at dates and history and those kinds of relations — and please remember that my taste rarely coincides with that of The People, and I always feel inadequate about recommending anything — but I always enjoy hearing the opinions of others... so, for the sake of displaying my own personality, here are the Herzog movies that have meant the most to me:

First of all: Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) has been my favorite film for a while. It's rugged & maniacal — Kinski plays a character who reminds me of Captain Ahab from Moby Dick: a doomed quester.

Land of Silence and Darkness is a documentary about those who are deaf and blind. (Herzog denies that he makes documentaries, so I just use the term for the sake of convenience — he says ALL films are fictional in some way, so that the term 'documentary' is misleading — and I agree with him.) It is presently my favorite of his movies — it's at once completely devoid of sentimentality, yet devastating in the way sentimental films often are: I cannot watch it without weeping: it gets me closer to the strange and scary heart of pure being and sends me into a questioning reverie.

Here I stop to admit I'm such a believer in Herzog that I would declare every single film on his lengthy discography to be worth watching — all of them: the so-called fiction feature films, the so-called documentaries, and the shorts — ...I've not yet seen a movie of his that I didn't think was excellent. So, having given that blanket approval, here is a short list of the ones that seem strong, exceptionally poetic, or bizarre in that good way that I love:

Fata Morgana (1972)

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)

Stroszek (1977)

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

The Wild Blue Yonder (2005) — [I really love this experimental film: it stands out strongly: I consider it a weird success.]

And his recent film with Nicolas Cage, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) is wonderful, in my opinion. I make special note here because I think others disagree, especially Cage-haters: but I am no Cage-hater: I love the man because I remember him only for his best work. (By the way, this is a little off the subject, but another of my favorite Cage films is Adaptation (2002) directed by Spike Jonze from a Charlie Kaufman screenplay.)

Lessons of Darkness (1992)

My Best Fiend (1999) [this one takes as its subject the actor Klaus Kinski — it displays the actor's working relationship with Herzog — and since it contains so much footage of Herzog's other films in which Kinski starred, I waited until I saw all those movies before watching this one: I'm glad I did that, but others might not be as finicky as I am in this regard.]

Grizzly Man (2005) — this one is easily available and rightly popular.

Finally, I will mention another film that was not directed by Herzog but in which he has an acting role — I think it is one of the best films in the universe: Julien Donkey-Boy (1999) by Harmony Korine — I cannot praise that film enough — it is extremely experimental and successfully so.

I stress that the above titles are arranged in no particular order, and directly below is a close-up photo of leaves.

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