Tuesday, December 05, 2023

The enigma for criticism

To this day, I can learn only from bad films. The good ones I watch in the same spirit in which I watched when I was a kid. The great ones, even when I see them many times, are just an enigma. 

Werner Herzog describes a few "bad films" in his autobiography, all from his childhood, but neither names them nor the "great" films he's seen many times. The absence of titles enhances the aura of greatness as we are left to imagine numinous light oozing into each frame of an imaginary film. By naming, we focus on particulars: director, actors, subject matter, scenes, cinematography, soundtrack, awards, controversies; lyrics of the sirens' song drawing us to the innocent doom of criticism. But what else can be said about the greatness of enigma, the enigma of greatness?
If the lack of titles appears to be a cop out, as it does to me and David Trotter, with Herzog threatening to become "a dilettante of intangible sensations" as Charles Swann is described in Proust's novel, his legend as a filmmaker appears to depend on such reticence, with his career owing much to instinct and chance. The book is a catalogue of bizarre decisions, coincidences, and outrageous fortune, good and bad. On filming a prehistoric image in the Chauvet Cave discovered in 1994, he recognises similarities with lithographs made by Picasso in the 1930s, and asks: "are there images that slumber within us and are sometimes set free by some sort of jolt?". He believes there are, and "somehow all my works have pursued such images". He cites the 10,000 windmills in Signs of Life and the steamship being hauled over a hill in Fitzcarraldo.  

What is the value of such images? Again, Herzog doesn't specify, but it must be related to the concept of "ecstatic truth" he says requires another book to explain (another apparent cop out), but is, essentially, the shadowed illuminations of creativity, the familiar technique of defamiliarisation. If that is the case, what is the value of such truth?

"The image is always sacred", writes Jean-Luc Nancy, standing apart from "the world of things considered as a world of availability". For this reason, the sacred should not be confused with the religious. The religious is "the observance of a rite that forms and maintains a bond" while the sacred "signifies the separate, what is set aside, removed, cut off". Understanding the sacred in this sense is enough to excuse Herzog's reticence and to distinguish his films. The cave wall paintings in Cave of Forgotten Dreams are available to us in the obvious, visual way, but we're also set aside, removed and cut off. This is what distinguishes them.
The greatness, or part of the greatness, of an Aeneid, of a View of Delft, of a Don Giovanni, of a Ulysses, rests in the fact that they are, in an essential way, closed. By this I do no mean to say that these works of art are difficult, or obscure – what could be more limpid than the light that hovers over Delft? – but that they are mysterious at their core.
In historical terms, compared to cave paintings, the works John Banville cites in an essay were completed yesterday, and in naming them Banville tempts us toward the gossip of particulars, with greatness becoming a critical cliché. Once again, how can criticism look beyond them? The title of Blanchot's collection La Part du feu suggests it can by referring to the share of a work taken by fire, the uninhabitable side of a firebreak, and yet the essays focus on particular authors and particular works, and particular elements in those works, means either that the particulars are precisely what leads us toward what's closed, or to awareness that there is something closed. Herzog's images are also the result of extreme patience and tenacity with particulars: 
I never see the truth as a fixed star on the horizon but always as an activity, a search, an approximation.
The appearance of a new star fixed in the sky sets Karl Ove Knausgaard's novels The Morning Star and The Wolves of Eternity apart even as the content becomes increasingly prosaic: the latter has 400 pages dedicated to a short time in a teenager's small-town life. The star is closed to the characters, its presence looming without meaning over their local concerns. As such the star becomes an image of the novel as it relates to its content, which in The Wolves of Eternity gradually becomes the force generating its content, which, as I argued in my review of The Morning Star, correlates to the withdrawn presence of the Book in our lives.
Perhaps works become great by generating images their content dissimulates, and this is why they appear to be closed, mysterious at their core. A star is, of course, a fire.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous2:14 pm

    He's a force of nature because of the films he makes...a vast, uneven, quirky, hilarious, unsettling oevre. And at the heart of it is, as you say, an enigma ... named Kaspar Hauser. When I think of Herzog I think of Hauser.



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