Sunday, August 24, 2014

Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe

In the late 70s, Werner Herzog got so pissed off with kindred spirit Errol Morris not completing a film project that he made a bet: if Morris finished ‘Gates of Heaven’ and got it shown on the big screen, Herzog would … well, the clue’s in the title.

Thus it was that Herzog ate his shoe in front of a live audience at a screening of Morris’s film while Les Blank turned up to make a documentary about it. Herzog and Blank were already renowned documentarians at this point (Blank would later make ‘Burden of Dreams’, about Herzog’s arduous ‘Fitzcarraldo’ shoot) while Morris had just taken his first step along the road that would lead to ‘The Thin Blue Line’, ‘The Fog of War’ and ‘Standard Operating Procedure’.

The nexus of eccentric talent distilled into the twenty minutes of ‘Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe’ would be astounding even if the film was in any way conventional. Which it isn’t. ‘Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe’ is bonkers on many levels, beginning with its title.

The film opens with Herzog disembarking from a plane and offering a laconic wave to Blank’s camera, as if cheerfully acknowledging the absurdity of the undertaking. This to a soundtrack of ‘Old Whisky Shoes’ by the Walt Solek Band. In a car from the airport, Herzog muses in typically deadpan fashion on the interrelatedness of filmmaking and gastronomy. As usual with Herzog, you get the sense that pearls of wisdom are being formed in an oyster of satire.

The nature of the bet is only briefly touched on, with Herzog claiming encouragement of a protégé (it has been suggested that it was more in the way of a sarcastic aside, made in despair of the likelihood of Morris ever completing a project). Various other bits of business fill up the twenty minutes. There’s the culinary preparation, to start with: Herzog stews his shoes for five hours, having packed them with garlic, rosemary, red onions, duck fat and salsa. (Disclaimer: The Agitation of the Mind does not condone the consumption of footwear and accepts no responsibility for readers who attempt this recipe.)

There’s Herzog discoursing on Morris’s fully-formed maturity as a filmmaker on the basis of just one feature; and Herzog discussing earlier crazy escapades, such as jumping into a field of cacti on the set of ‘Even Dwarfs Started Small’. Clips from this film, as well as ‘Gates of Heaven’ and Charlie Chaplin in ‘The Gold Rush’ intersperse the interviews. The boots Chaplin eats in that film were actually crafted from liquorice. Herzog, however, munches on the real thing, cutting up one boot – he promises to eat the other if Morris’s film gets picked up by a major studio – with scissors and slowly chewing his way through the small pieces, washing them down with beer. The previous paragraph’s disclaimer still applies, by the way.

In all honesty, the shoe-eating is something of an anti-climax. Blank doesn’t linger on it, except to record Herzog’s caveat that he will not be eating the sole since one does not eat the bones of a chicken. Coming from a notorious hater of chickens, this comment tells its own story.

What really lingers in the mind from ‘Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe’ is his impassioned declamation (another word would be “rant”) on the inadequacy of images, particularly in advertising and commercial cinema. He calls for a holy war on bland and meaningless images. Yes, you read that right. A holy war. But then again this is the man who, in the Faber & Faber title ‘Herzog on Herzog’ warns that our grandchildren will blame us for not throwing hand grenades into TV studios because of adverts.

Herzog doesn’t want to see the Marlboro Man toking on a cigarette. Herzog wants to see something new; that redefines sensory perception. So when, at the end, he calls for “More shoes! More boots! More garlic!” it’s not because he’s developed a taste for Clarks’ finest – it’s a battle cry to the directors and film students and dreamers of the world to get behind him and take a different view and create images that will form a new filmic vocabularly. The shoe-eating was just to get their attention.

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