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Mad for Art

Examining Werner Herzog, the director who ate his shoe

German film director Werner Herzog has a couple of reputations. He is an important artist, and he is also a prankster in the style of Dennis Rodman -- or, one might say, Rodman is a prankster in the style of Herzog, since the director prefigured the sports star by a couple of decades. Just as Rodman pushes the envelope in search of publicity by wearing a wedding gown in public and posing for Vanity Fair covered only by a strategically placed basketball, Herzog pushes the envelope by drawing as much attention to himself as to his movies. He eats his shoe (albeit a shoe boiled almost to aspic) in a 1979 documentary, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. For his 1974 movie Heart of Glass, a strange and dreamlike work, he floated a story that he'd had the entire cast and crew hypnotized during shooting.

In both men's cases, the grandstanding postures have sometimes threatened to overshadow their original reasons for fame: Rodman is the best rebounder in basketball, and Herzog is considered a big dog in the New German Cinema -- not as big a dog as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, maybe, but certainly an important auteur.

This week, Houston film fans will have a chance to examine the different faces of Herzog in person. Today and Friday, he'll be visiting town under the auspices of the Goethe Institut Houston. To prepare for his arrival, in mid-September the Institut, along with the Museum of Fine Arts film department and the Rice University Media Center, began a Herzog film series that will continue through December 7. (For details on upcoming films, check the box on this page.) Herzog himself will speak before tonight's Scream of Stone and answer questions following tomorrow evening's Lessons of Darkness.

Those movies, one fiction (Stone) and one documentary fact (Darkness), were both made at the start of the '90s, and mark two poles of Herzog's art. Unlike many filmmakers, he's floated between fictional works and documentaries for most of his career, using the techniques of one to confuse expectations for the other. In recent years, he's spent less time on made-up life than on filming the real thing (and directing opera, another passion); 1991's Scream of Stone was the last fictional film he made, though he's done three documentaries since.

One could, and many have, simply learn the correct pronunciation of Herzog's name and go forth armed with the knowledge that using the term das neue Kino in certain coffee shops would help you get laid. But that's not really art appreciation, is it?

Last Saturday, Herzog fans were treated to one of his earliest efforts, Even Dwarfs Started Small, the movie that really put Herzog on the map. But this Friday's documentary could have a local appeal that reaches beyond area Herzog admirers. While ostensibly about the hellish aftermath of the Gulf War, it's really about Texan oil-well firefighters from the firm of Boots & Coots.

Shot during 1991 and '92, the 52 minute Lessons of Darkness is presented in 13 short segments. The first few are about devastation, both personal and environmental. We see women (not identified) who lost sons and husbands to soldiers. (What country's? We never know.) We see earth and sky as ash and soot, and gray dust contrasts with slick spills. As the camera swoops over the vast pools and their black reflections, Herzog, in an English voice-over, explains that none of the liquid in this dark sea is water; it is all oil. That level statement is presented with his elegant cinematography, a view that perfectly mocks coastal wetlands at sunset. It packs a punch, takes your breath away, gets to you. And Herzog is just warming up.

Herzog sets the scene, giving one a sense of place and history mostly by using his camera well. He's shooting from above (helicopters, even), shooting from ground level, using 360-degree pans and tracking shots that go on for days -- and you don't have to notice. Herzog might employ operatic extremes in his plots, yet his technical work is always mature and professional. What he does with all this camerawork is make sure that the audience is able to see what needs to be seen.

We see it. His camera flies over the landscape. To grand music we see the stagnant clots of oil and tire tracks everywhere, some looping like rivers and others crisscrossing one another to form geometric patterns on the burned earth. What does this mean? I don't think Herzog cares. They're just ... interesting.

We soon, however, get to what he cares about: cowboys. (Herzog has boasted of working as a "rodeo rider" after fleeing a brief stint at an American university.) The stars here are oil-well firefighters, the crazy men of Boots & Coots. These are the guys who mop up after the terror of war. With this crew of roughnecks riding into the terrible landscape with the heart and the means to restore order -- or else to play with fire -- Herzog is back on one of his favorite themes: what defines nobility? What defines lunacy? And is there a difference?

The firefighters have both genius and madness. Through a mirage of heat and against a sky of roiling dust and smoke, Herzog shows us these hardhats walking right into hell. Fires the size of skyscrapers burn furiously. A backhoe drives to the edge of the inferno and scoops out debris. In a ritual with the emotion and beauty of a ballet, the firefighters cool one another with low-pressure water hoses. Herzog presents not only the brute fact of this work but also conveys the feelings involved. These men display any number of noble qualities. They're stoic, earnest ... and sometimes whimsical. One guy sits on the ground, stuffs a hose down his suit and presents a vignette of well-earned rest that stops short only of swigging a cold beer.

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