I think that this delicate line between reality, and fact, and truth needs to be more clearly defined. We have to redefine reality.1 – Werner Herzog
There are dignified stupidities. There are heroic stupidities. And there is such a thing as stupid stupidities. And that would be a stupid stupidity.2 – Also, Werner Herzog
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In 2005, German director Werner Herzog’s latest film Grizzly Man played for a single showing at Park Lane cinemas in Halifax. Later that same week, a party guest who hadn’t seen it wanted to know what I thought about it. I told her it was an interesting documentary about a man who abandons civilization to get a bit too close to nature, but where my excitement was somewhat hampered because that man was an idiot. She pressed further, asking if the crux of the story – the climax where this man is eaten by a grizzly bear – was terribly graphic. I told her it wasn’t, and that while there is a recording of the audio of the scene, there’s no existing video, and Herzog is tasteful enough to not even play the audio in the film.
A lack of interest suddenly fell over her face. She then inquired if the recording was available to listen to online, and I politely began my slow exit into another room.
Grizzly Man is a movie about the nature of truth. It’s about whether we can find truth, whether truth even exists, and ultimately, if it does, whether we even need it. Its subject, 46-year-old Timothy Treadwell, is like a cross between a ’60s hippie whose last LSD trip never quite ended and one of the sunbaked California surfers in the action movie Point Break who seek spiritual enlightenment through rejecting the daily work grind of human society.
Constructed largely of footage Treadwell shot himself, where he explores the Alaskan wilderness and ventures so close to bears that he’s named many of them (Mr. Chocolate, Rowdy the Bear), it isn’t just the elusive nature of his final death cries where the film withholds us from reality. His own perception of reality is skewed.
Treadwell is always performing for the camera, doing take after take, putting on a show. “I came, I served, I protected and I studied. And I promise, I’ll be back,” Treadwell monologues into his camera. “My hair!” he then exclaims upon checking his appearance, and deciding a second take is needed.
His effort to construct reality inevitably bends it.
The most compelling character in Grizzly Man isn’t Treadwell or the bears (most of whom keep their distance from the camera), but Treadwell’s “best friend” Timmy, a baby fox cub. And that’s because Treadwell manages to delude himself, and the audience, into viewing this wild animal as a harmless pet.
Inevitably, as David Letterman prophetically joked to him when he guested on The Late Show (in a scene removed following the theatrical release at Letterman’s insistence), Treadwell believed in universal connections between all Earth’s creatures a little too much, and met his tragic end.
Here’s what makes this all more or less interesting depending on one’s own feelings on whether reality can be subjective: Treadwell was a real person. His videos shown in the documentary are (though performative), as far as I can tell, real videos he made of his own volition. He also was truly eaten by a grizzly bear, along with his girlfriend Amie Haguenard, on October 6, 2003. But as a movie, there’s a contentious issue with its classification as a documentary: Some of Grizzly Man is not real.
“There’s something not right about that documentary,” filmmaker Jason Eisener (Hobo with a Shotgun) said to me following the release of the movie on sans-Letterman scene home video. He was referring to the theatrical performances that litter the film, from coroner Franc Fallico filling in Tim’s ex-girlfriend Jewel Palovak with information she already knows (“You knew Timothy for a long time. My understanding is that you lived together for three years. You were very close to him.”), to the dramatic perfection of Palovak responding to Herzog’s warnings about listening to Treadwell’s murder.
It’s the film’s most memorable scene and its exact midpoint: Herzog, with his back to the camera, listens to the audio recording of Treadwell’s death through headphones, while Palovak (in front of him) responds to the filmmaker’s hidden-from-camera facial expressions with her own visible ones. Herzog removes the headphones, and she breaks down.
“Jewel you must never listen to this.”
“I know, Werner. I’m never going to.”
“And you must never look at the photos that I’ve seen at the coroner’s office.”
“I will never look at them.”
He then hands her the tape and says, “I think you should not keep it. You should destroy it, because it will be the White Elephant in your room all your life.”
I have no doubt the emotions of the scene are real, but the drama is heightened. It fits too cleanly with Herzog’s thesis of reality as something that is individually perceived, and of truth as something that we are foolish to expect our minds to be able to grasp completely.
The staginess of certain moments isn’t just my hypothesis. Herzog has admitted as much, though often with a refusal to pinpoint which moments really happened and which didn’t. In his analysis, of course, we’re primitive just for asking.
As YouTube art critic Haven of Singles explains,
Only in some cases will he write dialogue for his subjects to say, but he’ll even do multiple takes of an interview or staged scene until he is satisfied. This is usually done for narrative purposes as a way to deliver exposition to the audience.… The most prominent use of his [methodology] is to evoke a theme or mood from his work.3
The same year, Herzog released another, though less popular (to the chagrin of partygoer gorehounds, it isn’t about someone being eaten alive) documentary called The White Diamond. The film takes place in Guyana, where a flight-obsessed engineer named Graham Dorrington has built a miniature white zeppelin he plans to use to explore the jungle treetops. The White Diamond is a more satisfying film than Grizzly Man, precisely because there’s never the suspicion that its dreamer subject is completely deluded or being exploited. Herzog seems to share Dorrington’s fantasies of seeing this planet from new angles.
And still, despite a lack of graphic man vs. nature comeuppance at its centre, The White Diamond shares a number of things with Grizzly Man. It’s about a person who exists outside of societal norms, and who steps past the boundaries of human knowledge to experience life and the world in a way that he sees as more desirable. (If either film were given the title of one of Herzog’s later documentaries, Into the Abyss, its meaning would not be lost.) Both films are punctuated with the interjection of Herzog’s identifiably accented and humorously profound narration. Also, and of course, The White Diamond has been revealed as a partial fabrication.
What’s interesting is that this information was withheld from both films’ marketing, and for months critics and audiences approached them as honest documentaries. When suspicions arose, and Herzog was asked to comment on these allegations of fakery, his response lacked both apology and remorse.
Speaking with critic Desson Thomson at the American Film Institute, Herzog explained,
[There’s confusion] about the distinction between fact and truth. There’s an accountant’s truth and there’s something much deeper, and you will find that in great poetry. When you listen to or read a great poem, it will occur to you very abruptly that there’s a deep enormous truth in this poem. You feel illuminated. You don’t have to analyze and you don’t have to read a lot of literature about this poem, you just know it instantly. Because there’s an ecstasy of truth in this poem, and in cinema you have this as well.4
In 1999, during a tribute to his work at the Walker Art Centre hosted by film critic Roger Ebert, Herzog released his Minnesota Declaration on “Ecstatic Truth.” The Declaration features twelve points, but the three that are most pertinent to the topic of this essay are:
1. By dint of declaration the so-called Cinema Verité is devoid of verité. It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants.
4. Fact creates norms, and truth illumination.
5. There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.5
In other words, Grizzly Man and The White Diamond are so truthful that the norms that make up the regular human perception of “reality” can’t recognize them as such.
In the nonfiction book world, Herzog’s defense would be inadmissible. Yet film audiences took his weird explanation at his word without much pushback. One reason for this, I suspect, is that Herzog is well regarded as a genius whose mere method of speaking wields eccentricity.6
Yet, the chasm between acceptable realities in movies vs. books is huge. Oprah Winfrey endorsed James Frey’s “memoir” A Million Little Pieces (2003) as part of her elusive Oprah’s Book Club, only to have its status as real-life narrative debunked in a Smoking Gun article called “A Million Little Lies.”7 It didn’t matter that readers loved the book; whatever wisdom it had was now discounted in the public’s imagination because these things didn’t really happen to Frey. He subsequently went back on Oprah’s talk show to apologize.
It’s impossible to see Herzog, or many in Hollywood, bending to apology or admission of wrongdoing over such revelations. This is because books and movies serve as different symbols in culture, bringing with them different expectations. Movies are the province of entertainment. Books are the province of knowledge.
There’s already a layer of non-reality in dramatic movies, where (often recognizable) actors are pretending to be people we know that they really aren’t, under circumstances of camera setups, lighting, multiple rehearsals, and internalized resentment that craft services forgot to remove all the non-red M&Ms.
Frida (2002) may stick to the facts of painter Frida Kahlo’s life story, but under that eyebrow makeup, we know she’s really Salma Hayek. Argo (2012) may be based on a real event, but leaving out the role of the Canadian embassy in rescuing US diplomats in Iran isn’t going to compel a country to derail Ben Affleck’s career. It doesn’t help matters that horror movies from Wolf Creek (2005) to the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) are promoted with an extremely tenuous “Based on Actual Events” tagline. This is accepted as probably a false claim without these filmmakers having to ask Oprah for forgiveness. Movies are fantasy. We understand this even of the “true” ones.
Things get murkier in documentaries, where there isn’t the distancing effect of dramatic artifice. Yet, as any film scholar knows, there’s no such thing as an objective documentary. All movies are manipulative. It can’t be avoided.8
The argument, then, becomes that to reach this ecstatic truth Herzog proposes, one must dig beyond the limits of one’s five senses, to examine how reality feels, which sometimes requires having a hand in reshaping it for an audience.
He isn’t unique in having this idea. “Advertising Worked on Me,” a Chuck Klosterman essay on the rock band KISS, states, “Throughout the last half of the ’70s, KISS operated as the biggest band in the world – although not because of record sales (groups like Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles sold way, way more). KISS just sort of declared that their enormity was reality and reality elected to agree.”9
The final album Chris Cornell recorded was titled Higher Truth (2015), where the title track concerns finding enlightenment beyond the surface: “You can fill the world with hate / I’ve seen it done before / And I know how it all works out / But I’ll take the truth.”
The movie Magnolia (1999) is a fairly realistic three-hour drama about the lives of people in San Fernando Valley too self-absorbed and isolated to know they’re craving human connection. Controversially, it ends with a rain of frogs. It’s the apocalypse needed to wake everyone up, to help them see beyond their neuroses. It’s also an abstract idea in a film that otherwise operates on realism, but the movie forces viewers to take it literally. As a mother and daughter seek shelter from the Biblical storm in an apartment, the camera zooms in on some words written in the bottom-right corner of a painting on the wall exclaiming directly, “But it did happen!”
It’s easy to cast this type of thinking aside as unsupported theism, but neither Klosterman nor Cornell nor Magnolia auteur Paul Thomas Anderson are extolling a religious message. Their spiritual belief (as professed) extends only to the limit that there’s a degree of truth that can’t be accounted for out of pure observational data. To present this more complete “ecstatic truth,” elements of which are emotionally experienced rather than witnessed – the way body language or a person’s bad mood can sometimes be – it’s sometimes necessary to move past observable reality.
During The White Diamond’s most dubious moment, in which Herzog seems desperate to expand viewers’ minds with freshman year stoner philosophy, the director pointedly asks the film’s Rastafarian chicken farmer Mark Anthony Yhap, “Do you see a whole universe in this single drop of water?” Yhap turns to look directly into the camera (Herzog’s surrogate position, meeting the audience’s eyeline), and responds with the dismissive, though equally pompous, “I cannot hear what you say, for the thunder that you are.”
Yhap was fed the response, and one need look no further for evidence than Herzog’s 1987 drama Cobra Verde about a Brazilian conquistador, in which a character says the same line.
Herzog, however, has no problem expounding upon it (as he did on movie blog Hollywood Elsewhere):
Whatever I can do to get beyond the mere facts … to get deeper into a story of a “documentary”… to grasp a truth in its ecstatic state, I will do.… What you and your audience also should be aware of is the fact that the drop of water was not water, but glycerin, which has better properties for filming. Klaus Scheurich, a very accomplished wildlife cinematographer, shot this drop of “water” with the inverted waterfall caught in it, and this – at first sight – looked like kitsch, but I got hooked to the image, and I was convinced that this water drop embedded in an environment of sheer fantasy would assume a different, a higher, an ecstatic quality.10
In his book The Thing: A Phenomenology of Horror (2014), writer Dylan Trigg attempts to contextualize this methodology with a quote Herzog falsely attributed in his documentary Lessons of Darkness (1992), “The film begins with a citation attributed to Pascal: ‘The collapse of the stellar universe will occur – like creation – in grandiose splendour.’ In fact, the quote is written by Herzog in order to set the appropriate tone for the film. On its usage he explains, ‘We are immediately in the realm of poetry … which inevitably strikes a more profound chord than mere reportage.’”11
The “realm of poetry,” Herzog is insisting, can get closer to true reality than simply recording facts. His thesis is intriguing, as it opens to a world of behavior, instinct, and emotion beyond the merely physical.12
Yet, there’s an obvious problem with this as well: Who counts as a poet, and then why should they earn our trust as journalists?
Both Grizzly Man and The White Diamond traffic in the idea of the “unknown” (of the penetration of worlds beyond those which we see and understand). They’re the perfect movies to incite this debate about their own duty to truthfulness, because they’re both about the effort to escape the known confines of knowledge by which humans abide.
This is exemplified in one of The White Diamond ‘s most lyrical passages. The movie’s cameraman ventures to film the inside of a cave hidden behind the majestic Kaieteur Falls. The director is informed by a local that the community has persevered on stories about what might exist inside the cave behind the waterfall, and it would be sacrilege to destroy that mystery through on-camera evidence. (“The whole essence of our culture tends to die away.”) Herzog agrees not to show the footage.
It’s a mirror of the scene in Grizzly Man where Herzog tells Jewel to destroy the tape. Often, both scenes argue, reality closes us off from enlightenment. Later, a group of swifts is seen flying in circles around the waterfall – experiencing the “truth” of the world beyond, which humans have decided is better left as myth.
The scene, however, like nearly all of those highlighting conversations with Yhap, is scripted. On one occasion this does bother me. Yhap’s best friend in the world is his polyamorous red rooster (with five wives). After Yhap takes the maiden voyage on the “White Diamond” airship, he expresses one regret: “I should’ve had my rooster here with me for the world to see.” On one level, his interspecies friendship with a rooster is of such importance to him that in some emotional way, I want to believe it’s true. On examination, I realize this doesn’t matter. Herzog (evolving from his earlier pronounced hatred of chickens) imagined the moment, which speaks the same truth of someone’s feelings about interspecies kinship as if the scene were factual.
The issue is one of non-transparency. Anybody can take the time to go online and research the events of these two films, but the movies themselves are presented as documentaries, which are understood to be honest. Knowing some of this stuff is fabricated, it’s hard to know if any of it is real.
And here’s my position on that: It doesn’t matter.
The counter-query to who gets to count as a poet capable of speaking for a deeper version of reality is (as writer Priscilla Page puts it in her essay on the themes of Blade Runner 2049) is “how we define what’s real, whether it matters at all?”13 I realize this is taking things into an abstract place, but forgive me, I grew up with science fiction movies that asked such questions and that imagined fantasy worlds that helped to develop my own understanding of truth. As long as I believe that a narrative carries truth, which I can internalize and learn from, it’s as useful as if it really happened.
This is where the dilemma comes into play: It’s noble to have methods of honesty and integrity in journalism, as an attempt to bring people the facts. It’s hard to argue with this, as it seems completely reasonable: Tell people what happened without prejudice, and let them draw their own conclusions. And yet, anything attempting to portray unobstructed, unadorned reality is false because the decisions on what elements to focus upon, as well as the angles of focus, are entirely left to human taste. Herzog’s objections to cinema verité are based in this. Every camera angle is a decision. Every edit decides what information is left in and what’s left out. Directors, like writers, are guiding the audience’s perception of their material even when professing not to be.
Has my understanding of life lost anything by not hearing the recording of Timothy Treadwell eaten by a bear? Or does a staged moment where Herzog tells Treadwell’s girlfriend to destroy the recording portray the awfulness of his death just as well?
We’re all trying to get closer to the truth, but all that exists are different versions of that truth, theoretical, personal, open to debate.
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Unless otherwise indicated, all images are screenshots from the films.
- “Herzog v. Huffman,” Hollywood Elsewhere, December 29 2005
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LIinkM8B4VU) [↩]
- Haven of Singles, “Werner Herzog and the Ecstatic Truth,” February 19, 2016
- American Film Institute, “Werner Herzog and Deeper Truth,” May 15, 2009 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1KQSgcAcNpo [↩]
- Ebert, Roger, “Herzog’s Minnesota Declaration: Defining ‘Ecstatic Truth’,” Roger Ebert.com, April 30, 1999
- “Look into the eyes of a chicken and you will see real stupidity. It is a kind of bottomless stupidity, a fiendish stupidity. They are the most horrifying, cannibalistic and nightmarish creatures in the world,” he famously says on the DVD commentary for Stroszek (1977), and it’s the type of observation so peculiar, it’s best to just assume it wields profound truth lest one follow the other possibility that it’s psychotic. [↩]
- http://www.thesmokinggun.com/documents/celebrity/million-little-lies [↩]
- In 2002, Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine became the highest-grossing documentary of all time, bringing heightened popularity to the format (it spawned such newfound interest in documentaries that it’s now only the 12th highest grossing). But Moore’s approach was different than previously acclaimed documentaries such as the court procedural Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996) or even the live footwear-consumption of Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980), where the outcome of those narratives was unknown at the time filming began. Moore ushered in an era of politically partisan essay films (An Inconvenient Truth, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) meant to build predetermined arguments. This doesn’t make them untrue, but they’re a transparently personalized interpretation of reality, no less biased or willing to manipulate audience perception than Herzog’s voice-over editorializing in Grizzly Man that counters Treadwell’s philosophy: “I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.” [↩]
- https://searchworks.stanford.edu/articles/egi__123435084 [↩]
- “Herzog v. Huffman,” Hollywood Elsewhere, December 29 2005
- Dylan Trigg book The Thing: A Phenomenology of Horror(Zero Books, 2014):
- Early in 2015, NBC news anchor Brian Williams was caught in a repeated lie that he was in a military helicopter that was shot down in the Iraq War. The supposed 2003 attack isn’t baseless, but it was the helicopter in front of Williams’ that was hit. The ensuing controversy didn’t end Williams’ career, but he was widely mocked, and suspended without pay. “How could this person, one of the elected spokespeople for the nightly news ‘truth’ ever be trusted again?” people wondered. It never occurred to the angry public that TV journalists are frequently reading news written and researched by others in the first place. Nor did apologetic Williams invoke the Werner Herzog response that may have saved him or at least potentially confused his critics: There’s a difference between reality and truth. So maybe if we want to cut to the poetic heart of the matter, he WAS in that helicopter. [↩]
- Page, Priscilla, “The Poetry of Blade Runner 2049,” Birth Movies Death, October 14, 2017