Moments of Ecstatic Passion

Just last week I was able to hear Werner Herzog in conversation with film students at UMass.

What was so cool was Herzog’s advice to film students to read, read, read the world’s great literature. Here’s his “Rogue Film School” reading list.

•    Virgil: Georgics
•    J.A. Baker: The Peregrine
•    Hemingway: The Short, Happy Life of Frances Macumber
•    Diaz del Castillo: The Conquest of the New Spain
•    Warren Commission Report on the assassination of JFK

Interesting assortment, no?

Someone asked why his films featured only, or nearly only, male characters. He spoke about screenplays he’s written with female leads that he hasn’t found funding for yet. I noted to myself that the film industry is still predominately a “white guys rule” world. Though women are up and coming, especially in documentary.

Discussing his Antarctic film Encounters at the End of the World, he described the impossibility of explaining the enormity of the continent. Making that film, he realized you don’t explain the world in film, you name the glory. He showed a clip where that seemed to happen. Here’s the trailer, which opens with a Russian song that “names the glory.”

The books on his reading list are all about naming the glory.

His remarks on editing struck a chord with me, as I spend most of my writing time selecting what works, cutting what doesn’t. Most of what I write ends up on the cutting room floor.

Here’s his process. He goes through all footage with editor in a sitting or two, and keeps a log with rough time indicator. He notes what’s there and puts ! or !! or !!! by footage times that he thinks are really good. Three exclamation points for footage that he feels life wouldn’t be worth living if he left them out.

Then he selects only the footage with the exclamation points and makes that into a film. He says the best footage will fit together. You don’t have to worry about preparing an arc before hand, or outlining. What is most important is the tone of a film, and using only the footage that “names the glory” keeps the tone consistent.

The most important thing for a filmmaker is to know “the heart of man.” Life experience tells you where to look, what to ask your subjects, how to find “moments of ecstatic passion,” “moments of illumination.”

He doesn’t think of himself as an artist, he thinks of himself as a soldier.

True enough. To be a filmmaker–or a writer–one does have to combat all the obstacles the world imposes, including critics and the demands of an overly commercialized market place. In the process one suffers wounds the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” At times one must make tactical retreats. And then again one “takes arms against the sea of troubles” and moves forward.

Yeah, Shakespeare had that “moments of ecstatic passion” thing down pat.

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