April 17, 2009

Herzogian


I've been getting into the writing of Geoff Dyer lately, the tough-to-categorise British author that we've just called "the thinking man's hedonist" in a Your Weekend interview (not online). Like Sebald, who he admires as a predecessor, Dyer's stuff occupies a zone between what we conventionally understand as fiction and what we conventionally understand as non-fiction, as in the very title of his new novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (why Jeff and not Geoff?, etc). But this is Sebald as a restless, 21st century itinerant, a guy you might meet at a ravers' hostel in Thailand, quoting Nietzsche.

After reading Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, I went back to an earlier book: 2003's Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It. This is the heart of his restlessness: funny and erudite travel essays on New Orleans, Rome, Detroit, Libya, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Amsterdam, Florida and, finally, the enlightening deserts of Nevada (he develops a Burning Man obsession). As a not very disciplined collector of film references in non-film writing, these essays were rich pickings too. Dyer is a hardcore fan of Tarkovsky's Stalker, which he also writes about here, and the final essay adapts Stalker's open-ended "Zone" as that place of chemical, spiritual or communal bliss a raver might get to; but the Zone also appears in his writing on Libya and Detroit.

The others:

An eroticised moment in Rome, mindful that Dyer once wrote a book about not writing a book about DH Lawrence: "Her hair was shadow dark and I was watching her eat a fig. I was eating one too. I was acutely conscious, obviously, of the Lawrence poem and the scene in the film of Women in Love where Alan Bates, who plays Birkin, quotes the poem. The experience came dripping in quotation marks."

Also in Rome: "One night I went with Nick to an open-air screening of De Sica's Bicycle Thieves. Neither of us had seen this masterpiece of neo-realism before, and it came as a major disappointment to both of us.
"'If it was meant to be so realistic, why didn't he just lock up his bike?' said Nick in the Calisto afterwards."

Meeting a woman at a resort in Ko Pha-Ngan, Thailand: "We both loved Voyager with Sam Shepard and Julie Delpy, a film regarded with derision by the few people who have seen it."

His use of Stalker and Women in Love are good illustrations of our use of film as memory, the ways we now order and measure and relate our experiences. Which Dyer fully understands -- see that "quotation marks" line -- and it's something that he does less self-consciously than, say, Douglas Coupland in Generation X. But the best examples of that tendency might be these:

In Indonesia: "We toiled up an Aguirre path to one side of the waterfall, in deep shadow flecked by gold light, scrambling upward, clinging to the roots of trees."

In Cambodia, where a boat is stuck in mud: " ... and the sunburned Germans Fitzcarraldoing succeeded in moving it, our old boat, first an inch and then several feet."

With these two, you have to know what he's talking about to know what he's talking about. He doesn't italicise these Herzog references, and they might be the most seamless references to life imitating film clips I've seen: all these backpackers, slackers and sunburned Germans are would-be Herzogs, looking for the most dangerous and difficult places, the peak experiences and some zone beyond materialism. But there's another thing: like Sebald and like Dyer, Herzog blurs that line between fact and fiction. In Aguirre, his extras really did trek up that mountain path; in Fitzcarraldo, they really did drag a boat over a hill. Real world events happen and are documented in the service of fiction. And his documentaries incorporate non-fiction elements. The start of something I wrote about Herzog in 2005:
Near the end of Werner Herzog’s 1972 film Aguirre, the Wrath of God – his first film with the unhinged force of nature that was actor Klaus Kinski – a demoralised, renegade band of Spanish conquistadors are drifting on a raft on the Amazon, their mission abandoned. They are silent and weak with starvation. They are hallucinating, or the natural world has gone as crazy and sick as they have. One crewman rouses himself from his stupor: “I see a ship with sails … in a tall tree … and from the stern hangs a canoe.” Unlikely, says a fellow crewman: “The ship is in your imagination. We all have the fever. It’s only a mirage.” As he keeps talking, Herzog’s camera turns around, from the raft back to the dense forest, and shows us the image of a ship, with sails, sitting high in the trees. The hallucination –if it is that – is shared by Aguirre (Kinski), the most deranged of all: “That ship is real. We’ll sail it to the Atlantic.”

At this point in the film anything is possible, but there’s still something breathtaking about seeing that ship in the trees. “We actually built a boat, partially in the treetop, which was 120ft high,” Herzog says on the commentary track of the Aguirre DVD. “It was heavy and huge.” All for a sequence that lasts about 30 seconds. And, as he says in the interview book Herzog on Herzog, “Who knows, it might actually still be up there.”