Thursday, October 27, 2005

Even Dwarfs Started Small (Herzog, 1970)

You have to hand it to Werner Herzog. When his films fail, they do so spectacularly. The 1970 film, Even Dwarfs Started Small, employs an all-‘little person’ cast in order to enact a chaotic, allegorical film about … something. Some say it is a film demonstrating the self-defeating tendencies of the revolutionary. Others claim that it is a statement about mankind’s incompatibility with the very systems that it has created for itself. This is all very well and good to discuss in an academic fashion when attempting to discern the motivations of one of the world’s greatest filmmakers; however, the actual experience of watching the film is one of extreme tedium and being subjected to fairly run-of-the-mill button pushing.

Herzog does not do much to inform the viewer about the particular location and setting for the film; but, from what I can gather, a small group of little people have decided to revolt against an authority figure of some kind. This authority figure has taken one of their own hostage in an effort to protect himself. Although we never see people of conventional height, the size of the beds, doors and cars would seem to suggest that somewhere in this strange fictional universe they do exist. The rebels spend most of the film giggling and committing destructive acts of increasing intensity. They play mischievous tricks on the blind. They set fire to flora and torment fauna. When they run out of rocks to throw at their enemy, they start throwing chickens. Did I mention the giggling? At least two characters giggle in virtually every moment they appear on screen, which after 90+ minutes becomes maddening to say the least. The mob commandeers a car and then sets it in motion so that it will circle a continuous loop. Herzog shows the car circling over and over and over and over and over again. By the time the merry band of pranksters trot out a crucified monkey – where they found a monkey, I have no idea -- the pseudo-symbolism registers as not resonant, but desperate.

Is the film exploitative? That’s difficult to say. I would defer to someone who was actually a little person to judge whether or not Herzog’s depictions are hurtful. I will say however that the film relies rather heavily not on script, character development or other technical accomplishments, but instead the spectacle of a rambunctious group of little people making mayhem. I am reminded of Peter Dinklage in Living in Oblivion complaining about being put into a filmed dream sequence – Oh make it weird, put a dwarf in it! Like Tod Browning’s Freaks, it places the viewer in a rather uncomfortable position. How are we to process the filmmaker’s themes when it involves necessarily accepting the notion of little people as damaged, incomplete members of society? I struggle to find any substantial reading of the film that does not in some way make that assumption.

Werner Herzog is a director whose body of work I greatly admire. He is one of the greatest artistic risk takers of which I am aware. Grand disasters like Even Dwarfs Started Small are bound to happen when your mind works the way his does. I do not think any less of him for having made this film. On the contrary, it is fascinating to see how he has harnessed his early desire for provocation and emerged as a director who can ride lightning like nobody else. Still, Even Dwarfs Started Small is the kind of film that is more fun to brag about seeing after the fact than it is to actually experience.



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