A month or so ago, my friend Dawn Matheson sent me a link to a discussion between filmmakers Werner Herzog and Errol Morris that was published in The Believer. I only found the chance to read it last night, but it was well worth the time I made for it. Herzog and Morris are among my favourite directors, and their discussion, coming out of a long acquaintance, was both illuminating and intimate. The two comment on each other’s work, discuss their perspectives on certain general issues related to documentary filmmaking, and recollect the times when they had visited serial killer Ed Kemper and almost exhumed the mother of murderer Ed Gain. I have not read anything more entertaining in a very long while.
Morris is perhaps the most influential documentary filmmaker of this generation. His first film, Gates of Heaven, was unlike anything that had been made before it. The Thin Blue Line, one of his later films, was the first documentary ever to have a murder sentence reversed. I screened his Oscar winning The Fog of War at my Dinner and a Doc event a few months ago, a film that remains one of my favourites. His newest release, Standard Operating Procedure, which I have yet to see, looks at the photographs that were taken of the torture in Abu Ghraib prison. His subjects are varied to the point of eclecticism (from the forced move of a pet cemetary to the strange and remarkable life of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.), but all are characterized by a sense of narrative and story that distinguish them from most documentaries. They always bear several viewings.
Herzog is, if anything, even more eclectic in his work than Morris. He has directed countless films, both fictional and documentary, has published many books, and has also directed operas. His documentaries range from Grizzly Man, which is more or less traditional in form and is probably his best known work, to My Best Fiend, a personal and often surreal account of his volatile working relationship with actor Klaus Kinski, to Lessons of Darkness and Fata Morgana, highly imagistic and poetic works that rank very highly among my favourite films. Herzog is himself a figure of mythical proportions. Accounts of his exploits on the sets of his films, particularly early in his career, almost surpass believability. He is a person I would both love and fear to meet.
What I particularly enjoyed in the dialogue between these two personalities was the very brief exchange on what Morris calls “ecstatic absurdity”, which he says is something that he understands in Herzog’s films. Morris defines ecstatic absurdity as “the confrontation with meaninglessness,” and he goes on to say that Herzog’s work “could be considered an extended essay on the meaning of meaninglessness.” I think that this is a very useful way to talk about what Herzog does in many of his films, particularly the more surreal and imagistic ones, and it may also be a useful way to talk about Morris’s own work, though his films are not so obviously concerned with the absurd and the meaningless. Perhaps, at the risk of generalizing Morris’ phrase itself into meaninglessness, I might even say that any film worth the name, whether fictional or documentary, every work of art worth the name, any thinking worth the name, should be characterized by this ecstatic absurdity, by this confrontation with meaninglessness. Though it is not a confrontation that can ever be absolutely decided, a willingness to confront meaninglessness may define best what it is that I value most in art.