Saturday, July 27, 2013

Happy People -- A Year on the Taiga

Happy People - A Year on the Taiga - On first glance, Happy People seems indistinguishable from a PBS Nature documentary or something on the National Geographic channel.  The film chronicles the activities of sable hunters embarking into the wilderness from a tiny, isolated village in central Siberia.  The pictures are mostly prosaic, You-Tube videos that show you how to split wood with wedges, set deadfall traps, protect the rotor-props of your boats against rocks, clean a northern pike.  The 90 minute picture has lush Hollywood score and a highly conventional structure -- the cycle of the seasons programmatically depicted with Brueghel-esque detail on the activities necessary and appropriate to each time of year.  (This is a structure perfected in many old Disney documentaries.)  But the picture is a production of Werner Herzog and, about ten hours after seeing the film, it's eerie extremism detonates in your imagination.  Although infinitely milder and more benign, Happy People is stylistically a variant on Grizzly Man -- Herzog is shaping someone else's more profuse film into his own vision:  Happy People is Herzog's edit of a four-hour Russian show, presumably a TV series, equipped with his trademark dead-pan narration and, in fact, the picture is a work of thoroughgoing and anarchic extremism -- an ode to self-reliance that is not merely right-wing conservative but paleolithic.  Someone once asked Gary Snyder to identify when it was that human beings lived happily and in accord with Nature.  Snyder answer was something like this:  "The Paleolithic -- by the early Neolithic, we had already screwed things up."  Herzog's perspective is similarly radical.  The hunters of the taiga seem to live an ancient, primeval world -- although they own snowmobiles, they use them cautiously, in a strangely primitive way, forcing narrow tunnel-like passageways through dense forest.  These men build and temper their own skis and, at one point, Herzog says that they look like cavemen trudging through the wilderness on their stubby wooden homemade skis.  They are truly "happy people" in Herzog's view because they are wholly self-sufficient and isolated from a modern world that the film maker seems to despise.  These hunters, if interview statements are typical, reject domesticating animals for slaughter.  According to the ethic of a hunter, it is cruel and deceitful to feed an animal and raise it only to butcher the friendly beast.  "I couldn't kill my cattle," a hunter says, "because the animal would come to me hoping that I would pet it or give it a treat and instead I'm supposed to put a bullet in its head."  To the hunter, the sable are co-equals -- the hunter and his prey try to outwit one another and the sable fox knows to stay away from people; it's not deluded about the good intentions of human beings.  Thus, the community that Herzog celebrates (almost wholly lone men) lives according to moral principles that pre-date the domestication of cows and pigs -- the men work in solitude for half of the year accompanied by the only domesticated animal worthy of a hunter, big tough and hardworking dogs.  (One dog runs 150 kilometers without stopping beside his hunter's snowmobile -- another pooch dives into a river that is about a mile-wide and fierce with currents to chase a caribou; Herzog notes "the dog can't catch the caribou, but he must try.")  Ultimately, the film functions as an intensely romantic and bizarre critique of civilization.  A politician appears in the town and, in a classically Herzogian sequence, surrealistically delivers a stump speech to a dozen children on a muddy riverbank, buys votes with sacks of flour, and, then, serenades the townspeople and their dogs -- the sequence could be an outtake from Fitzcarraldo.  The native people have been reduced to penury and alcoholism.  An old woman makes enigmatic wooden dolls as protective spirits for her house -- but no one seems to know what the dolls mean or exactly how they protect the home. (In fact, a fire destroys one of the native drunk's home and he laments the loss of his "dolls" in that blaze.)  We see the old lady depart, presumably because she is terminally ill, by helicopter -- we don't know where she is going or why and Herzog's narration doesn't even mention these images, but the effect is suitably strange and dire.  In fact, Herzog doesn't explicitly articulate the dangers associated with these people's lives -- we see them confronting all sorts of deadly perils -- and makes no attempt to dramatize the risks associated with hundred mile hikes in minus 60 degree weather or crossing raging rivers a mile wide; this is implicit but never stated, an effect that makes the peril seem even more extraordinary.  When the ice breaks up in the river, a vast landscape of white surges north past the village, an astounding apocalyptic image.  Civilization in Herzog's eyes seems to be a detestable failure and the last people in the world preserving ancient values, the secret code of humanity, are these villagers surrounded by halos of mosquitos or trudging through the snowy frigid forests a belt of sable foxes frozen solid around their waists.

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