Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Wild Blue Yonder (Herzog, 2005)

Throughout his career, Werner Herzog has taken as one of his major themes mankind’s relationship to nature. Aguirre: the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo and Grizzly Man are connected by the fact that nature looms so large that it almost becomes a character unto itself. While men have their petty squabbles or chase after their futile dreams, nature looms in the background ready to swallow them up – not out of hostility, but simply as a way of keeping things tidy. With Grizzly Man, Herzog walked a very fine line in celebrating Timothy Treadwell’s existence, but also holding him up as an example of man’s folly. Now comes The Wild Blue Yonder, which playfully explores the same cosmic joke – that while humans consider themselves extremely important and special, nature really couldn’t care less.

How to describe The Wild Blue Yonder? Well, it all starts with found footage that Herzog has borrowed from a NASA space voyage, as well as underwater footage of divers beneath the ice of Antarctica. There are also scenes of real scientists explaining how it might be possible for humans to visit other planets. Herzog has underscored this footage with a bizarre combination of musical artists: a Viennese cellist, a Sardinian choir and a Senegalese vocalist. In a Q and A after the screening, it was revealed that Herzog had brought these musicians together and, without allowing them to rehearse together, recorded their improvisation in order to capture an otherworldly sound. The result is extraordinary, although you will simply have to hear it for yourself as it defies categorization. To tie all of this together, Herzog has written scenes for a character, played by Brad Dourif, who claims to be an alien despite the fact that he looks entirely human. He tells of his journey to Earth and how his people have unsuccessfully tried to colonize our planet. Dourif channels a wee bit of Dennis Hopper to create a character that provides fascinating perspective on mankind’s quest to conquer space, yet never strikes us as reliable in the least. Herzog leaves open the possibility that the narrator is simply a mentally disturbed human – Dourif himself was unsure of the exact nature of his character after the screening – and it is my opinion that that interpretation actually strengthens the underlying themes. You see, the ‘alien’ weaves a tale of how humans have discovered a way to reach his home planet, and provides a narration that twists the stock footage in order to fit this story. For example, we are told that the divers underwater are really penetrating the liquid helium atmosphere of this far off world and that the jellyfish that floats by is really a native life form. The scientist’s theories are incorporated into the narrative, although Herzog uses editing tricks to undermine their authority, such as waiting to make a cut after a speaker thinks he is done and relaxes into a goofy expression.

This all probably sounds a bit silly – and it kind of is – but there is a startling, haunting truth uncovered along the way. Herzog’s tone is not quite sarcastic – it’s not as aggressive as that – it’s better described as amused. He is amused that, despite our dreams about space travel and exploring the stars, the entirety of human existence has brought us infinitely closer to destroying ourselves that it has to beginning life elsewhere. For as far as we can see into the future … we’re stuck here. And so it’s time to make the most of it. The Wild Blue Yonder is often very funny, but it also contains long stretches without dialogue that allow us to contemplate our place in this universe. There’s an underlying sadness to this film which essentially finds humor in mankind’s insignificant flailing in a universe beyond our ability to comprehend. However, there is also comfort in the idea that there is a wealth of beauty to be found in the world we already know. There are still mysteries to be solved and improvements to be made. Though The Wild Blue Yonder will certainly not have the commercial success of a film like Grizzly Man, it has same level of insight into mankind’s relationship to the world it inhabits. It is a refreshingly peculiar cinematic experience and a worthy entry into Herzog’s exceptional filmography.



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