Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Sci Fi Through Space/Time: The Wild Blue Yonder

A shameful admission before begin. The Wild Blue Yonder is the first movie I have seen by Werner Herzog, even though I have Rescue Dawn somewhere in this house, not to mention a Herzog/Kinski boxset that has been touched by me only to move it from house to house. Pitiful. Until I saw this movie, the only experience I had of Herzog was to experience what Klaus Kinski thought of him, as expressed in his demented, perverse, brilliant autobiography. Apologies for the long quote, but really, if you're going to quote Kinski, you have to quote a lot:

Herzog is a miserable, hateful, malevolent, avaricious, money-hungry, nasty, sadistic, treacherous, cowardly creep...

He should be thrown alive to the crocodiles! An anaconda should strangle him slowly! A poisonous spider should sting him and paralyze his lungs! The most venomous serpent should bite him and make his brain explode! No panther claws should rip open his throat--that would be much too good for him! Huge red ants should piss into his lying eyes and gobble up his balls and his guts! He should catch the plague! Syphilis! Yellow fever! Leprosy! It's no use; the more I wish him the most gruesome deaths, the more he haunts me...

His speech is clumsy, with a toadlike indolence, long winded, pedantic, choppy. The words tumble from his mouth in sentence fragments, which he holds back as much as possible, as if they were earning interest. It takes forever and a day for him to push out a clump of hardened brain snot. Then he writhes in painful ecstasy, as if he had sugar on his rotten teeth. A very slow blab machine. An obsolete model with a non-working switch— it can't be turned off unless you cut off the electric power altogether. So I'd have to smash him in the kisser. No, I'd have to knock him unconscious. But even if he were unconscious he'd keep talking. Even if his vocal cords were sliced through, he'd keep talking like a ventriloquist. Even if his throat were cut and his head were chopped off, speech balloons would still dangle from his mouth like gases emitted by internal decay.

The word on the street is that Kinski's autobiography was full of exaggeration, obfuscation, and insane bullshit, but even so, that's the kind of description that makes an impression on you. For some inexplicable and inexcusable reason I never got to see Herzog's work, but I made an effort for The Wild Blue Yonder, because the idea behind it, of a monologue delivered by an alien played by Brad Dourif, was immensely appealing. Perhaps I should have realised that this was to be one of Herzog's minor works, and an exercise in audience frustration, rather than his larger projects.

While I say minor works, I'm aware that the documentaries made between his major films are highly regarded, and that what might appear to be dashed off are done with intelligence and enthusiasm. At least, that's the impression I got from Wild Blue Yonder, which was simultaneously trivial and fascinating, though perhaps more for what it says about filmmaking and storytelling than I says about its subject matter, which is an amusing but slight satire on modern culture, environmental concerns, and the urge to explore our surroundings, with a possible side order of comment on the sci fi genre and its reliance on spectacle.

Made on a shoestring budget, mostly utilising bits of footage found by or donated to Herzog, Wild Blue Yonder is a long tirade delivered by an alien, relating an alternate history of earth. His race, escaping an ice age on their home planet orbiting Andromeda, arrive on earth with the hope of rebuilding their civilisation but instead fail because, in Dourif's words:

You see aliens as these technologically advanced superbeings who destroy New York city in two minutes flat. Well I hate to say it, but we aliens all suck.

Much of Dourif's tale is told in a rundown Midwestern town, with deserted streets, dilapidated faux-Grecian buildings, and decrepit trailers, standing in for the aliens' hubris-wrecked Babylon. The setting, and the tale told, are reminiscent of Nicolas Roeg's adaptation of Walter Tevis' The Man Who Fell To Earth, but Roeg didn't visualise the alien's arrival on Earth using old stock footage of crashing airplanes.

Herzog's reliance on found footage to relate his galactic tale is both frugal and, for a while, amusing, cleverly linking shots of NASA scientists examining a probe to the next part of his tale, as an Andromedan virus escapes from the Roswell UFO during its examination at Cape Canaveral, and infects the planet.

A spacecraft orbiting Earth contains the only uninfected humans left, and their fate depends upon leaving Earth's orbit and finding some way to travel across the galaxy to the home planet of the alien refugees, in the hope that they might find some way to build a new life there, with scientists desperately trying to invent methods of faster-than-light travel in order to speed up the journey.

This section of the movie is possibly the most problematic. Using footage of zero-G shenanigans from the STS 34 Space Shuttle mission, a long stretch of the short running time is taken up with mundane shots of astronauts sitting (well, floating) around, doing very little. The narrative grinds to a halt at these points, possibly to mimic the boredom of the astronauts, forced to play a waiting game while trying to leave Earth's orbit, but also, maybe, as a pointed antidote to the grandiosity of much sci fi. Just as exotic fantasies of interesting alien cultures are punctured by Dourif's resolutely unglamorous and self-loathing shlub, the wonder of space travel is presented as a flat, gray, nothing, a life of chores and boredom.

Scattered through these scenes are very entertaining rants from Dourif about the sins of humanity (breeding pigs and climbing mountains. It makes sense in the movie), weird alternate history interludes (Galileo's launch figures in), and occasional breaks for baffling interviews with astrophysicists discussing theoretical intergalactic space travel methods, including one really awesome one from Martin Lo, explaining his Interplanetary Network theory. Nevertheless, these interruptions, delivered with no concessions to layman speak, are so perplexing that I began to suspect Herzog was making a point about mainstream sci fi, replacing the genre's meaningless sub-scientific babble with actual science, in all its impenetrable complexity.

Eventually, using Lo's method of interstellar travel, which he refers to as chaotic transport, the astronauts reach their destination, the ice encrusted planet from which Dourif's ancestors travelled, and Herzog switches to footage of divers swimming under the ice at Murdo Sound, which was given to him by musician Henry Kaiser. With Dourif's narration describing his homeworld as one with a frozen blue sky and bizarre alien creatures, we see divers passing under a thick blue crust of ice, surrounded by unfamiliar underwater flora and fauna. Compared to the eventless middle section, this part of the film is fascinating and, again, playful.

The kicker, delivered in the final moments of the film, is that the astronauts, so isolated and harried by their desperate trip through space, return to Earth with good news about the possible relocation spot, only to find that Earth has been deserted long before, making their journey a useless one. Even worse, the remnants of the human race are now living in space and Earth has become a national park for holidays.

This, in turn, makes the entire film seem like an absurd and futile joke, and makes you wonder what the point of it all is. Is it a treatise on humanity's urge to trivialise the glorious? Some of the photography at the end is so beautiful it seems Herzog might be angered by the thought of his fellow man taking this beauty for granted. Harking back to the start of the film, the aliens' plans for their stay on Earth, which requires building a city featuring a mall, a court room, a Pentagon, in an effort to replicate Washington DC, all fail. It's likely this is a metaphor for the death of the American dream, and the way intelligence or wisdom can be ignored by many. One funny moment, with Dourif describing the alien lifeforms and their incomprehensible languages matches up with an image of a floating aquatic blob as a human language, possibly Farsi, bubbles up through the soundtrack. Is this just a silly joke? A comment on Western attitudes to foreigners, with a hint of war-on-terror criticism thrown in for good measure?

By film's end I was baffled as to what Herzog was aiming for. A lot of the voiceover (and the denouement) is pointedly satirical, especially about humanity's inability to take responsibility for the consequences of its actions. However, it also ends on a flatly ironic note, a Shaggy Dog tale ending that makes the journey as pointless as the one taken by the astronauts. After that, much of the movie seems purposeless. Long stretches of the film pass with little happening, leaving room for contemplation but it has very little (if any) narrative drive. It also makes you wonder if Dourif's alien is nothing more than a crank rambling about his conspiracy theories from the wreckage of his trailer park home, which makes the movie even more absurd, as if the faux-documentary is doubly faux. There are layers and layers of falsehood here, which suits a movie that takes existing footage out of context and creates something new from it.

Of course, trying to assign meaning to a film as blank and mischievous as this one is an exercise in futility. All of these interpretations could be correct, but I could theoretically micro-analyse the movie for years. From where I'm sitting it could either be a prank, a critique of a genre I love, or the most profound movie ever made. Of course, obsessively dissecting this movie might still be missing the point. Herzog might have merely been trying to create a poetic experience, a hypnotic fusion of image and sound, but on a subjective level I'd have to say it fails in that respect as well. The imagery in the final third of the movie is beautiful but grainy, and the mid-section is utterly drab, the only colour provided by many out of context displays of blurry cosmic events.

What makes those long narrative-free sequences in the middle bearable is the beautiful soundtrack by German cellist Ernst Reijseger and Senegalese singer Mola Sylla. Recorded prior to making the movie, it lives independently of the film, unlike something like Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi, which is as perfect a melding of abstract vision and non-diegetic sound as is possible. Wild Blue Yonder, perhaps intentionally, splits the visual content almost evenly between mundane and strangely beautiful, and not even the haunting soundtrack Herzog has presided over can make the dull half work as well as the other. If the movie sounds like hard going (and it can be), I recommend the soundtrack CD, Requiem For A Dying Planet, which has been stuck to my iPod for months now.

If the movie doesn't fully succeed as story or satire, it does make a strong case for cobbling together a narrative out of things that are available to you. Herzog was lucky enough to get hold of Henry Kaiser's footage (which he also used in his documentary Encounters at the End of the World), and the space shuttle footage, which comprise the majority of the film, and much of the film looks like stock footage from a library, acquired either for free or at least cheaply. The only expenses incurred, other than post-production and research, is getting Brad Dourif into the middle of nowhere for a couple of days, and hiring musicians and studios to record the wonderful soundtrack. For these, Herzog got some funding from Centre National de la Cinématographie, France2 and BBC Films. Well, I say BBC Films, but it was actually Nick Fraser and the Storyville guys, who are currently responsible for 90% of the interesting things coming out of the BBC, including James Marsh's super Man on Wire. I doubt BBC Films proper would never have any interest in funding Wild Blue Yonder now that they've rebranded themselves as The Keira Knightly Period Costume Factory in an effort to emulate the rest of the British Film Industry instead of supporting exciting projects like Morvern Callar and Last Resort [/rant].

As I said recently, the idea of cobbling together the resources to tell a story any way you can and using whatever means necessary to communicate ideas is very alluring. One way, the Michel Gondry way, involves making things and using your imagination to get around problems in a script already written. Herzog's idea (which is not solely his, but merely one he is using here) is to take found footage and construct a narrative out of it. Using free stock footage (available online), it's relatively easy to make a film telling a story you want. As I say, this is not a new idea; within the narrow parameters of my experience I've greatly enjoyed the work of Chris Morris, Armando Iannucci, and Adam Buxton, all of whom have used found footage for comical purposes, and of course Orson Welles' last movie, F For Fake, played with truth and falsehood by manipulating the real and unreal until the audience doesn't know which is which. Herzog has even used this technique before, in his 1992 movie Lessons of Darknesswhich re-edits footage from Operation Desert Storm into a reflection on faith, magic, and madness. Even so, it was not until I saw The Wild Blue Yonder that I realised how easy it could be. It was an exciting moment.

That's beside the point, though. Wild Blue Yonder, as a film, is not a success, being only sporadically entertaining, narratively simplistic, and thematically jumbled. As a reflective space to let your brain wander in, visually it's often too murky or drab, though the leisurely pace certainly helps generate a hypnotic state. It's more successful as a kind of cinematic prank, daring to corral unconnected imagery and playful ranting into a coherent, if ephemeral, whole. Nevertheless, throughout I kept wanting a little bit more; more narrative, more energy, more purpose (or, to make the project more of a joke, less purpose). There's a strong case that Herzog, seeking to confound audience expectation, has deconstructed the sci fi genre, showing the tedium of real space travel and the lies at the heart of the sci fi movie: they have alien worlds created in the heart of a computer, he has an underwater world that is as real as it is alien, but when seen in the context of the movie is as false as the CGI vision. That's possibly the most intriguing critique of the movie, but that means the film only works on an intellectual level. Having to sit and watch it is still an occasionally frustrating experience for this ADD afflicted film buff.

Falling between two stools, one of entertainment and the other transcendental art, Wild Blue Yonder ended up leaving me unsatisfied as a movie, even while it made my brain whir with excitement as a creative template. There's no way I could think ill of it, even if just taking it as a quirky curio starring one of the great character actors of our time in full flow, but I hesitate to recommend it either, simply because even after pondering it for months, I'm not sure what it set out to do or what it achieves. Maybe that was the point of it.

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