Thursday, October 28, 2010


I first encountered the films of Werner Herzog as a college student in the 1970s. His 1972 feature Aguirre, the Wrath of God was the first film I watched and I found it hypnotic, eccentric, strangely beautiful, and emotionally powerful. This was the first of 5 films he would make with the German Actor Klaus Kinski, and also followed a Herzog theme of an obsessive central character who is at odds with society or nature or both.

Herzog emerged from the New German Cinema in the 1970s which included the filmmakers Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Volker Schlondorff, and Margarethe von Trotta. They wanted to make films that were artistically interesting rather than films that were dictated by commercialism. Herzog has always made both narrative features and documentaries. 

The strength of Herzog's work is in the layering of image and music,  creating an emotional experience and drawing the viewer into the film. His characters or subjects are often eccentric individuals and there is often dark humor in the dialogue or narration.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God takes place in the 1500s and follows a group of Spanish conquistadors moving down the Amazon searching for the legendary city of gold, El Dorado. It is based on some historical facts, but works more as a metaphor for man's thirst for power, the need to conquer others, and the madness and folly of trying to dominate nature.

The film was shot in the Peruvian rainforest, and starts with a long shot of the expedition moving down a mountain in the clouds, set to the music of Popol Vuh. Herzog holds his images on screen longer than most filmmakers and this gives them a hypnotic effect. Throughout the film the camera lingers on images of natural beauty in the rainforest. 

Aguirre, becomes the ruler of what is left of the expedition as they move down the river, slowly starving and suffering from hallucinations. Kinski plays him with an intensity and snarl that makes him frightening and intimidating as he descends into madness. He is full of eccentric dialogue including - 

" I will produce history, like others produce plays."

"If I want the birds to drop dead from the trees....the the birds will drop dead from the trees..."

"The earth I pass will see me and tremble."

In the end it becomes clear they are on a river to nowhere and after all of the other men are dead, Aguirre is left alone on a raft of monkeys as the camera swirls around him.

"I, the Wrath of God, will marry my own daughter and with her I will found the purest dynasty the world has ever seen. Together, we shall rule this entire continent. I am  the Wrath of God.

This is one of many films that Herzog made in difficult and treacherous circumstances.

Fitzcarraldo, also made with Kinski in the lead is about a man who wants to build an opera house in a small city in Peru. To do so he needs a lot of money and wants to get into the rubber business. To deliver his product he has to haul a 300 ton steamship across a mountain to another river tributary. Herzog actually did this in the filming, creating huge problems and injured crew members. Kinski and Herzog also fought a lot on the set of this film, and some of it is documented in Herzog's documentary My Best Fiend.

Another early feature, Even Dwarfs Started Small, concerns the story of a group of dwarfs confined to an institution on a remote island. They rebel against the guards and riot in total chaos. The dwarfs gleefully break windows, set fires, kill animals, and crucify a monkey.

In 1974, Herzog made The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser about a  man in the 1800s who lived his first seventeen years of his life chained in a tiny cellar with only a toy horse to occupy his time, devoid of all human contact except for a man in black who feeds him. One day the man leaves Kaspar in the town of Nuremberg. He becomes a curiousity, and is exhibited in a circus before being rescued by Herr Daumer who attempts to transform him. He learns to read and write, and develops unorthodox approaches to logic and religion, but music is what pleases him most. He attracts the attention of academics, clergy, and nobility. In the end he is attacked and then murdered by the man in black. In this film he uses the non-actor Bruno S., who also appeared in a later film Stroszek.

Another major film of Herzog's from this period was Heart of Glass made in 1976. It takes place in a Bavarian town with a glass blowing factory which produces a brilliant red ruby glass. When the master glass blower dies, the secret to producing the ruby glass is lost, and the town gradually sinks into disorder and madness. During the filming, the entire cast performed while under hypnosis.

In 1979, Herzog made his remake of Nosferatu, inspired by the 1922 F.W. Murnau version starring Max Schrek. Again, Herzog uses Klaus Kinski in the lead role. It is strange and funny at times and contains some beautiful cinematography put to the music of Wagner.

As I stated earlier Herzog has also made many documentaries. Two that stand out are from more recent times - Lessons of Darkness made in 1992, and Grizzly Man made in 2005. 

Lessons of Darkness resembles an earlier work Fata Morgana  where the desert takes on its own voice. Lessons of Darkness concentrates on the imagery of the aftemath of the first Gulf War - specifically the oil fires in Kuwait - although the film never mentions any relevant political or geographical information. There are helicopter shots of the bleak landscape. Herzog's minimal narration reinterprets the imagery out of its documentary context into a poetic fiction. The workers are described as creatures whose behavior is motivated by madness and the desire to perpetuate the damage that they are witnessing. There is a science fiction quality to the film as if it is not earth but an alien planet.

Grizzly Man, chronicles the life and death of bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell. The film consists of Treadwell's own video footage of his interactions with grizzly bears in Alaska before he and his girlfriend were killed and eaten by a bear in 2003. There are also interviews with his friends and people from the area, as well as Herzog's commentary. Treadwell spent 13 summers at Katmai National Park and Preserve and over time believed he had become trusted by the bears as if he was one of them. He has names for them and got extremely close to them, even touching them at times. But many felt he was deluding himself and was putting himself and others in danger, which later proved to be true. He interviews himself at times and his mental state is cleary threatened at times. Herzog saw him as a disturbed individual who may have had a death wish.

There are many other wonderful films by Werner Herzog. These are just some that stood out for me. 

Werner Herzog has made films for over 40 years and they are some of the most interesting, innovative, and idiosyncratic works of cinema ever produced.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


"If a voice within you says you are not a painter, then paint my boy and that voice will be silenced."

In art school I read this statement in the letters of Vincent Van Gogh.

Vincent Van Gogh is one of my favorite painters and one of history's greatest artist. The Dutch post-impressionist had a huge impact on the modern movements that would occur in the 20th Century. He painted his world - the people and places of his own environment, in a style of slashing strokes of vivid color that created a highly emotional impact. Van Gogh suffered from anxiety and mental illness, and died unknown, at the age of 37, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

He produced more than 2,000 artworks, consisting of around 900 paintings, and 1,100 drawings and sketches. He didn't start painting until his late twenties, and most of his best-known work was produced in the last  two years of his life. Unknown and having nothing when he died, his work is now worth millions of dollars.

At one point, Van Gogh desired to be a pastor, and from 1879 he worked as a missionary in a mining region in Belgium. He sketched the people in the local community, and in 1885 painted his first major work The Potato Eaters. He used mostly somber earth tones and showed no sign of the vivid coloration that distinguished his later work. In 1886, he moved to Paris and discovered the French Impressionists. Later he moved to the south of France and was inspired by the strong sunlight he found there. During his stay in Arles in 1888, he fully realized his unique and highly recognizable style.

How his mental illness affected his art has been a subject of speculation and controversy. Some see the mental illness as an explanation for the electric color and vibrating strokes of paint. Others feel he was actually frustrated by his illness, as it made it difficult for him to work when he was having an episode.

In 1885, he lived in Antwerp and liked the bold color he saw in the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens and started collecting Japanese woodcuts and started incorporating them into some of the backgrounds of his paintings. During his stay there he started drinking absinthe heavily, and became ill and run down from overwork, a poor diet, and excessive smoking.

He travelled to Paris in 1886, and was exposed to the work of Monticelli, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cezanne, Seurat, Monet, Degas, and Pissaro, among others. In November of 1887, Vincent and Theo met and befriended Paul Gauguin. Van Gogh had become worn out from life in Paris, even though he had created over 200 paintings in his two year stay there.

Van Gogh moved to Arles hoping for refuge. He found it a strange and exotic place. In one of his letters he describes the people who all drank absinthe, as creatures from another world. He was inspired by the local landscape and light, and his paintings from this period were intensely colorful using yellow, ultramarine, and mauve. Paintings from this period included The Red Vineyard, The Night Cafe, The Postman, Van Gogh's Chair, Bedroom In Arles, Starry Night Over The Rhone, and Still Life: Vase With 12 Sunflowers.

After repeated requests, Gauguin finally arrived in Arles in October. During November they painted together but they argued about art all of the time, and Van Gogh felt an increasing fear that Gauguin would desert him. Van Gogh confronted Gauguin with a razor blade, but then in a panic left their quarters for a local brothel. He cut off the lower part of his left ear and wrapped it in newspaper and left it with a prostitute named Rachel. He told her to "keep this object carefully." Gauguin left Arles and never saw Van Gogh again. Van Gogh was hospitalized and when he returned home suffered from hallucinations and delusions that he was being poisoned. In March, 1889, police closed his house because of complaints by the townspeople who referred to him as the "redheaded madman." Two months later he left Arles for Saint-Remy-de-Provence.

He committed himself to a hospital that was a former monastery, 20 miles from Arles, located in an area of  cornfields, vineyards, and olive trees. Theo arranged for two small rooms - adjoining cells with barred windows. The second was to be used as a studio.

The clinic and the garden became the main subjects of his paintings. Some of the work from this period was characterized by swirls - including his masterpiece The Starry Night. He was allowed to take short supervised walks which gave rise to the paintings of cypresses and olive trees. This led to a shortage of subject matter, so Van Gogh did some work based on other artists such as Millet's The Sower at Noon.

In May 1890, Van Gogh left the clinic ot live near the physician Dr. Gachet and be closer to Theo. He did portraits of the doctor and also Wheat Fields With Crows an amazing work where he used a double square canvas to create a panoramic landscape. This is one of his last works and has a dark and turbulent quality. In 1986, the Met had an exhibition centered around the work from this period and I was able to see Wheat Field With Crows in person. 

It is a painting that can be interpreted in different ways. Some see it as an image of cosmic chaos projected through Van Gogh’s inner torment, a psychic graph of his imminent suicide. The troubled skies represent the tragedy of the modern world, it’s failures, despair, and the pathetic situation of the human condition. The suffering soul of man hanging and torn between two poles - one in contact with evil and the other reaching to the heavens. Even though he looked outside of himself for the subject of his paintings, the work expresses the terrible image of his soul. Ordered chaos, frustration, and the endless search, never arriving at any destination. 

Others saw the painting in a more positive light. Van Gogh believed in the restorative forces of landscapes, and the center path of the painting leads the eye through the field converging to infinity. The wheat is ripening under the menacing sky and the crows are flying away free and transcendent.

His depression got worse, and on July 27, 1890 he walked into a field and shot himself in the chest with a revolver. He was able to walk back to the Inn where he was staying, but died on July 29, 1890. Theo reported his brother's last words were " the sadness will last forever."

Vincent Van Gogh was a self-taught artist who created an amazing body of work at a frantic pace late in his life. The paintings are powerful, and haunting and reflect both the beauty and turmoil of life.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


I was totally into Rock and Roll the first 18 years of my life. In the early 1970s I started listening to the band Weather Report. The two main musicians in WR were Wayne Shorter and Joseph Zawinul. I discovered that both had played with Miles Davis. I started listening to Miles' electronic albums of that period including In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Live-Evil, and Jack Johnson. Through further research I started investigating Miles' earlier music which went all the way back to the 1940s when he played with Charlie Parker. This led me into a tunneling back through Jazz history and collecting Jazz records and cds. From 1974 through 1978, I almost exclusively listened to Jazz. Today, I have over 40 Miles Davis recordings and and few hundred Jazz cds. 

Miles Davis was one of the greatest and most influential musicians of the 20th Century. He was at the forefront of several major developements in Jazz, including Bebop, Cool Jazz, Hard Bop, Modal Jazz, and Jazz Fusion. Many great players rose to prominence as members of his groups including John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Gerry Mulligan, Wayne Shorter, Horace Silver, Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Joseph Zawinul, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, John McLaughlin, Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Dave Holland, Philly Joe Jones, Jimmy Cobb, Tony Williams, and Jack DeJohnette.

Miles came to New York from St. Louis in 1944 to study at the Julliard School. He immediately started looking for his idol Charlie Parker, and was involved in nightly jam sessions at Minton's Playhouse and Monroe's in Harlem. Other participants included Thelonius Monk, Kenny Clarke, and J.J. Johnson. He dropped out of Juilliard feeling the classes centered too much on classical European music, although he acknowledged his experience there gave him a good grounding in music theory that he would make use of in his career.

After playing at several of the 52nd Street clubs, MIles became a member of Charlie Parker's group after Dizzy Gillespie departed. He participated in several recordings with Parker, and on one cut Now's The Time he takes a melodic solo, whose un-Bop-like quality was a precursor to Cool Jazz. In 1948, his relationship ended with Parker over money problems and Parker's erratic behavior because of drug abuse.

In 1948, Miles grew close to the composer and arranger Gil Evans. A lot of young musicians would meet at his house including Max Roach, John Lewis, and Gerry Mulligan. They put together a nonet, and Miles took control of the project, working on compositions that emphasized a relaxed, melodic approach to the improvisations. Capitol Records gave them sessions in 1949 and 1950 that produced the recording Birth of the Cool, although it took a few years for its importance to become recognized.

In the early 1950s, Davis started having problems with heroin himself and finally kicked it in 1954 by going home to his father's house in St. Louis. During this period he made many recordings that often included Sonny Rollins and Art Blakey. In 1952 and 1953 he made recordings for Blue Note that produced a wonderful versions of Take Off, Weirdo, Tempus Fugit, and Well You Needn't. The musicians on these recordings included Horace Silver, J.J. Johnson, Percy Heath, Art Blakey, Jackie McLean, and Kenny Clarke.

He made several important recordings on Prestige as well, including Dig, Blue Haze, Bag's Groove, Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants, and Walkin'. With these records Davis went into Hard Bop that used slower tempos and a less radical approach to harmony and melody than Bebop, and used popular tunes as a starting point for the improvisations. Miles started using the Harmon mute at this time and his phrasing became spacious, melodic, and relaxed, especially on ballads.

Next came the first recordings of the first classic quintet that included John Coltrane on sax, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums. For Prestige they recorded Workin', Cookin', Steamin', and Relaxin' and his first recording for Columbia, 'Round About Midnight. They played Bebop, standards, and traditional tunes with Davis playing long, legato, and melodic lines that contrasted with Coltrane's high-energy solos.

In 1958, Davis added Cannonball Adderly on alto sax as well, and they produced the album Milestones that has an amazing piece on it called Sid's Ahead.

Also during this period Davis continued his relationship with Gil Evans and produced several albums with orchestra, including Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and my favorite, the beautiful Sketches of Spain.

In March and April 1956, Davis recorded what is widely considered his magnum opus and one of the most influential and popular Jazz albums of all time - Kind Of Blue. The line up included the pianist Bill Evans who along with Davis was interested in the Modal Jazz of George Russell. They prepared harmonic frameworks for the compositions that gave space for the improvisations. Both Coltrane and Adderly take amazing solos on Kind of Blue. The line-up also included Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums, as well as Wynton Kelly on piano on the tune Freddy Freeloader. The other four classics on this album are So What, All Blues, Blue In Green, and Flamenco Sketches.

In the early 60s, other albums that were made included Sometime My Prince Will Come and Seven Steps to Heaven along with several excellent live albums including Live at Carnagie Hall, and the two albums recorded at Lincoln Center - My Funny Valentine and Four and More.

In 1965, the second great quintet came together featuring Wayne Shorter on sax, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. They did a live performance at the Plugged Nickel in Chicago, where they played many of Miles' standards but broke away from the original framework of the songs and played them at a break-neck tempo. This recording wasn't released until many years later. During this period the group released several studio albums including ESP, Miles Smiles, Sorcerer, and Nefertiti. Shorter and Hancock were now writing some of the compositions and the band was known for its" freebop" or "time no changes" approach to improvisation. They abandoned the more conventional chord-change based approach of Bebop for a Modal approach.

Other records included Miles In The Sky and Filles de Kilimanjaro that introduced electric bass, electric piano, and electric guitar and pointed to a more rock influenced music that was soon to come. At this point Chick Corea and Dave Holland came into the band.

Miles Davis constantly changed and he had become aware of the music of Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, and James Brown. He expanded his band with more players and incorporated funk and acid rock into the jazz, which led to a new music called Jazz Fusion. He added Joseph Zawinul and the guitarist John McLaughlin and produced the stunningly beautiful In A Silent Way, followed by the intense and groundbreaking Bitches Brew. This music was controversial and shocking for jazz purists and some critics accused Davis of selling out. I find this period of his music amazing and innovative. There are still great solos, but now they are taking place within long form grooves of layered shifting funk. He had also become aware of the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen which led to this new music that was heavy, dark, intense, and space-like.

Other recordings from this period include Jack Johnson where McLaughlin shines, On The Corner, Dark Magus, Get Up With It, Agharta, Pangaea, and The Cellar Door Sessions, that included great work by the McLaughlin on guitar and Keith Jarrett on keyboards. There are also some unique and intensely emotional sax solos by Gary Bartz on these recordings.

In 1975, I hitchhiked with a friend of mine from Tulsa to St. Louis to see Miles Davis in concert. The group was the same as the ones on Agharta and Pangaea - Miles on Trumpet and Keyboards, Sonny Fortune on sax, Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas on guitars, Michael Henderson on bass, Al Foster on drums, and Mtume on percussion. They played one long endless groove with Miles often bending over to play his trumpet into a mike about 2 feet off the ground. It was a dark, intense, emotional experience I will never forget.

A few months later Miles Davis left the music scene and withdrew into his apartment on Riverside Drive. He was tired, unhealthy, and his mental state was precarious. He lived like a hermit for the next 6 years.

In 1981, he re-emerged and started recording again, working with younger upcoming players. For me, this final period is not as interesting, but did produce some nice work including the albums Aura and Tutu. 

Miles Davis died in 1991. He created a body of work that was constantly evolving, building, and reacting to what he had done before. He created music in 6 different decades. Miles Davis was one of the most innovative, influential, and respected figures in both the history of music and jazz. 

Monday, October 4, 2010


One of the first books I read that had a major impact on me, and introduced me to the power of literature was Kurt Vonnegut's SLAUTERHOUSE-FIVE. I read it for the first time as a teenager a few years after it was published in 1969.

SLAUTERHOUSE-FIVE, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death combines elements of autobiography and science fiction and makes an anti-war statement while being both funny and tragic. 

Vonnegut was a soldier and prisoner of war during WWII. He was captured during the Battle of the Bulge in December, 1942. He was sent to Dresden, and  experienced and survived the fire bombing of the city in February, 1945. Slaughterhouse-Five was the name the Allied POWs adopted for the name of their prison. Vonnegut recalls that the remains of the city resembled the surface of the moon and the surviving POWs were put to work gathering the bodies of the dead civilians. Their remains were incinerated into ashes by German troops using flamethrowers. 

The book explores fate, free will, and the illogical nature of human beings. The central character, Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time, randomly experiencing the events of his life. This allows Vonnegut to create a non-linear narrative where Billy travels both forward and backwards in time, where he experiences past and future events out of sequence. These events include his war experiences, his mundane life after the war as an optometrist in Ilium, New York, his survival of an airplane crash, and his life on Tralfamadore a planet where he has been taken by extraterrestial aliens. He also knows how and when he will die, because he has already experienced it in his time travels.

There are many memorable characters including Paul Lazzaro, a slimy car thief from Cicero, Illinois who vows to kill Billy someday, because he feels Billy is responsible for another soldier's death. There is also Edgar Derby who befriends Billy, but experiences an ironic death after the massacre in Dresden. Montana Wildhack is a film actress that is also abducted by the Tralfamadorians and put with Billy on the planet where they have sex and produce a child. Characters from other Vonnegut books also make appearances, including Howard Campbell who was the main character in Mother Night. Kilgore Trout, a science fiction writer, who will be the main character in Breakfast of Champions, and Eliot Rosewater from the book God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.

While on Tralfamadore, Billy is exposed to their ideas about time and existence. They don't believe in time as we know it. They believe everything exists simultaneoulsy. It is, it always has been, and it always will be. While war is a product of human senselessness, it is also inevitable. You can't explain the unexplainable. So it goes.

SLAUTERHOUSE-FIVE is an early example of a postmodern or metafictional novel. It combines autobiographical elements from Vonnegut's life with science fiction ideas. While it is clearly written, it is disjointed and discontinuous, giving it an overall structure of disorder. It is a beautiful book that makes a strong statement about the absurdity of existence.