Earlier today I wrote about Werner Herzog's new documentary, Lo and Behold. Readers should refer to my earlier observations before reading this note.
When I came downstairs from my nap this New Year's Day, I found my daughter tuned to Netflix and watching the Herzog documentary that I had seen the night before. I watched a few minutes with her, enough to understand, that I probably didn't do justice to this film in my previous comments. Herzog's grasp of film remains as strong and bafflingly imaginative as ever before. However, he has become an Old Master and, therefore, achieves his effects with far less fanfare and bravado. Any film worth seeing, probably, has to be watched twice or more before a fair assessment of the picture can be made. In most of my reviews, the film that I am assessing falls into a genre and is, more or less, like other specimens of its kind. Much of my analysis is simply an exercise in "compare and contrast" -- however, with one of the terms to which comparison is made suppressed. More innovative and imaginative films require more attention and there is a distinct risk that subtle effects will be missed. In a film like Lo and Behold, Herzog's effects are very subtle -- in fact, they are subliminal for the most part and can't be seen without watching for a second time with the eye specifically trained to look for technique and how technique embodies meaning.
My earlier description of the internet bullying episode involving the death of a young woman fails to do justice to Herzog's extremely nuanced and formalistic approach to this material. First, the sequence, entitled The Dark Side of the Internet, occurs after a very light episode: we see a computer and robotics expert of Indian or Pakistani origin fondling a small, cylindrical robot marked with an "8" that has been programmed to play soccer. The young man has said that the team's favorite player is number 8. The young man picks up the robot and shows it to Herzog. Herzog, off-screen, asks: "Do you love it?" Without any hesitation, the young man responds "We love it." The next episode will address love, particularly under the aegis of grief. After the intertitle, we see a posed tableaux. A man and his wife, both rather formally dressed stand behind a table in the formal dining room of their house. The color-scheme is beige, brown, and caramel. Flanking the husband and wife, there are two young women, probably in their late teens. The girls sit at the dining room table and are a little closer to the camera than the man and wife. On the table, there is an elaborate and symmetrical display of muffins, cupcakes, and scones -- identical, perfectly baked, items sitting on the table in three phalanxes, each about twenty baked goods. Again the colors are brown and caramel. We find out that this is an elaborate mortuary display because the people will be speaking about their dead daughter. Husband and wife talk mostly; the two girls don't speak (or if they do only for a few seconds). Herzog shoots the scene with powerful, if minimalist art -- he reverts to the master shot showing the motionless tableaux and the baked goods that no one is touching, that seem somehow sacrosanct. From time to time, he intercuts close-ups -- sometimes, he shows the person's face who is speaking; sometimes, he shows one of the young women listening to what is being said. The girls and their mother are clearly beautiful and proud of their beauty -- it's like a grief-stricken version of the Kardashian family and the appearance of these people seems distinctly southern Californian (although I don't know where the family lives.) Early in the sequence, Herzog pans down from the mother's face to her pale hands resting motionlessly on the table. At one point, he cuts away to an empty room that the dead girl loved -- the shot is completely still. The mother is heavily made-up; her eyes are embedded in spectral black make-up. The effect is gothic -- grief turned to some kind of horror. The black eye-shadow is jarring, particularly since the woman's hair and her features are pale and blonde. In my earlier note, I mischaracterized this scene. I said that it was staged in a lavish and well-appointed living room. In fact, the shot shows something more domestic and, therefore, more disturbing -- it's a formal dining room that now seems to be no longer used out of respect for one who is dead and can no longer come to the table. (In fact, Herzog drives home the point -- when he pans down to the mother's hand, a title appears next to the vacant chair, naming it for the daughter who has died.) Here is my point -- everything that Herzog accomplished in this scene was visible to me on first watching the movie and I admired the sequence and correctly defined its tone. But I didn't know how it was done. Now, looking at it again, I can see evidence of the filmmaker's superbly controlled art in every shot.