Academic journal article CineAction

A Form of Proto-Cinema: Aesthetics of Werner Herzog's Documentary Essayism

Academic journal article CineAction

A Form of Proto-Cinema: Aesthetics of Werner Herzog's Documentary Essayism

Article excerpt

Looking at the thirty-thousand-year-old drawings found in the Chauvet Cave, Werner Herzog, in his Cave of For gotten Dreams (2010), guides the audience with his voice-over to imagine the Palaeolithic period. He presumes that "the play of light and shadow" from torches had an effect on these images. He also reflects on the aura of the cave by sharing with the viewer that his team "were overcome by a strange irrational sensation as if [they] were disturbing the Palaeolithic people in their work [...] It felt like eyes upon [Herzog and his team]." Rather than pursuing an objective documentary truth, Herzog, throughout the film, questions how to contain the Chauvet cave visually by using film as medium. Early in the film, he points out that these animal figures were drawn with eight legs, suggesting movement: "For them, the animals perhaps appeared moving, living [...] almost a form of proto-cinema." (1) For Herzog, these drawings felt like "frames from an animated film." This statement reflects the filmmaker's attempt "to expand cinema beyond its historically developed language and modes of looking", which, as Koepnick suggests, "complicate[s] what we today should consider an image in the first place." (2) We borrow Herzog's use of the term "protocinema" to refer to his pristine, unique, original form of essay filmmaking that centres on his cinephilic, performative engagement with documentary as genre.

This discussion capitalizes upon the various aesthetic aspects embedded in Herzog's filmmaking--from the on-screen (re)presentation (3) of his documentary subjects' urge to create and re-invent, to his off-screen interventional address at the filmed material. We discuss the ways in which Herzog turns the seemingly factual things he documented into questions and uncertainties through a series of artful acts and "proto-cinema" gestures. What make this transformation possible especially in the films Grizzly Man (2005), Encounters at the End of the World (2007) and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) are the filmmaker's persistent interventions--both as director and as participant observer--in the pro-filmic events as well as his stylised touches to the narratives during post-production including his editing decisions, use of sound and voice-over narration. The subject matters that these documentaries originally deal with multiply and turn into remote questions that are not merely voiced by the filmmaker's on- and off-screen comments, but also implied through his aesthetics of filmmaking. Rather than reinforcing a documentary truth claim, Herzog's subjective interventions in each film create an alternate narrative of questions and uncertainties that challenge and co-exist with these otherwise participatory documentaries. The story of Timothy Treadwell's passionate bonding with grizzly bears in Grizzly Man, the encounter with the travellers and inhabitants of Antarctica in Encounters at the End of the World, and the pro-filmic enactment of witnessing the Palaeolithic drawings of the Chauvet Cave (and its enthusiasts) in Cave of Forgotten Dreams go beyond documentation in Herzog's narration. The filmmaker's essayistic approach here transforms documentary spaces and settings into sites of cinephilic encounters and explorations.

Recalling the "formal-essayistic modes" that Timothy Corrigan identifies in his quasi-historical survey of the essay film--namely (i) "expressive portrayal," (ii) "travel/ogue," (iii) "diaries," (iv) "editorial" and (v) "refractive cinema [as filmic interrogation]" (4) --we argue that Herzog's filmmaking relates to these modes in an oblique--if not ambivalent--way. Despite Herzog's insistent refusal of such distinctions between documentary and fiction, the wider context of these films' circulation as documentaries also reflects this ambivalent position. In this paper, we explore the aesthetic intricacies of Herzog's documentary essayism and argue that it is primarily Herzog's subjectivity as a filmmaker and as a cinephile that defines his essayistic approach. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.