The Saddest Music in the World
It seems somehow appropriate that the beginning of Werner Herzog’s sublimely and disturbingly absurd Fata Morgana (meaning “a mirage” thoughoften given the English title Lessons of Darkness) has begun with a comic miscue.
As Lotte Eisner begins reciting the beginning of the Mayan creation myth that serves as the sole narration for the film’s opening section, it becomes clear that the English subtitles haven’t been switched on. Suddenly, someone at the front of the cinema sprints madly to the back. In a moment, “English” is switched on and the packed Tuesday late night audience at the Bloor has a good laugh.
Those who momentarily fear they may have missed something important are soon put at ease. This film isn’t the kind of thing that plays by the rules. There’s no point in trying to make sense of it. Like Lucky’s diatribe in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Herzog’s film is a patchwork of inspired nonsense. For those who pride themselves on their grasp of ironic detachment, Herzog takes the art to a whole new level. In a way that only a mad old Teuton could, Herzog is the master of being both detached and entirely genuine at the same time. Fata Morgana is an ode to our broken, post-everything world. It is his attempt to fashion images that convey Herzog’s idea of the beauty and absurdity of a world where shards of past dreams lie about like meaningless clues to a game no one has the rules to.
In 1969, Herzog and his team went to the Sahara and filmed mirages and images of decay and hopelessness. Later, after filming the fiction featureEven Dwarves Started Small (1970), they cut together a film that serves as a picture of hopelessness so dark and funny I left the Bloor feeling high anddarkly depressed at the same time. Somehow though, the latter feeling fed the former and I went to bed laughing.
The film begins with images of such bleak misery that you feel Herzog is straining to make some political point. “How many shots of grizzled animal carcasses and bleak desert expanses can we possibly besubjected to?” you ask. Slowly though, the Mayan creation narrative is replaced by the director’s own voice as he strings together an increasingly absurd script. Suddenly, a sun-saturated German is holding a frenetic desert lizard, telling the camera about life in extreme heat. What results from that point on is Monty Python’s FlyingCircus meets Baraka.
Along the way, Herzog finds the film’s most enduring image: that of a stone-faced man and wife, the former on drums and the latter on piano. They repeat the same heinous song ad nauseum, as though in someairport lounge just south of hell. The man’s vocals are so muffled you can’t begin to tell what language he’s singing in. On the film’s DVD commentary (which Ruthless Reviews suggests we allcheck out), Herzog describes the song as the saddest he’s ever heard. Apparently, the suggestion is that this is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but with these two playing the Super Bowl.
Is Fata Morgana a documentary? No, not really. But it does raise an interesting question (and one I’ve been pondering quite a bit of late): what exactly is a doc?
Everyone thinks they know what a doc is. But how is what John Haslett Cuff has done in Actuality: The Art and Life of Allan King (showing again at the ROM on May 5 at 1:30pm, check the Hot Docs sked) any way similar towhat, say, Sayaka Ono has done in The Duckling?
Haslett Cuff shifts between King’s present and past work, examining how the man has used filmmaking as a way of wrestling the most defining issues in his ownlife. As he filmed Dying at Grace, King was watching others approach dementia and death as a means of preparing for his own. When he needed to examine the break-up of his own marriage, he made The MarriedCouple. When he wanted to explore his own journey through earlyadulthood, he made Warrendale. Cuff’s film walks alongside King ashe makes Dying at Grace, asking the man to meditate on his timepursuing what is universally agreed to be “more affliction thanprofession.” If only the CBC’s Life and Times programs were thisimpactful, touching and intelligent.
Ono’s film (part of the festival’s Made in Japan series), turns the camera on her own struggle to break out of the prison of being whatshe calls “a good girl.” After having been sent away to aauthoritarian, mildly socialist Japanese kindergarten at the age offive, Ono suffers from severe abandonment issues. After more than fifteenyears of submitting to what she believes her parents want her to beand do, Ono, a film student, decides to act out the way she was neverable to in her youth. She confronts her family(everyone from the brother who molested her in her youth, the brothershe now secretly loves, and the parents who she feels abandoned her) oncamera. More than a solid sense of Ono’s story, the audience walksaway with having experienced a misery so deep and undefined it nevereven settles into something that can be discussed and mulledover. The Duckling is awkward, artless and raw in every sense of theword. It uses the camera as a weapon and a therapeutic tool: itspresence shames the family she seeks acceptance from and offers avessel in which Ono can pour her misery.
The difference between Cuff and Ono’s films is the difference betweenfeature magazine profile writing and diary scribbling. Herzog’s FataMorgana, meanwhile, is somewhere between “The Wasteland,” Fear and Loathing in LasVegas and Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky.
That variation is part of what makes the documentary genre so intriguing. When you take a good look at it, the doc is a lot like the Democratic Party in the US: there’s very little holding it together.In the end though, that’s what makes a festival like Hot Docs such apleasure to blow your week on.