By far the best film of 2005 was Werner Herzog’s mind-altering Grizzly Man. Those who disagree should go out and rent it again. Good, huh? I know. I liked it too. Herzog has no qualms about wading through the detritus of film history in order to find images that capture the dizzying boundary between mankind and the infinite, the totality of possibility that film can capture more completely than any other medium. Or so Herzog would have us believe. Grizzly Man collects the footage of Timothy Treadwell, or Lancelot of the Bears, who spent 13 years living in Alaska amongst grizzlies before getting himself ate up. The film probes questions of communication, love, loneliness and beauty while serving up some of the more gorgeous shots of nature I have yet seen. Herzog’s new film, The Wild Blue Yonder, nearly overtakes Grizzly Man in its ambition to stimulate the viewer’s sense of man’s task of being in the universe.
Our minds are conquistadors, rape-thrilled conquistadors forcing into submission any stimulus that presents itself and rendering impotent the splendor of existence as soon as it is perceived. We entrap, extract and utilize. As smart-guy Martin Heidegger puts it: “The revealing that rules in modern technology is a challenging, which puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy that can be extracted and stored as such.” Landscapes are either possible ore depositories or profitable tourist sights. A lovely mountain is not celebrated for the splendor of its being, but for its being usable, by us, as a pleasant thing to look at. This does not sit well with Werner Herzog.
In the opening of The Wild Blue Yonder, Herzog makes liberal use of early 20th century footage of man’s first flight. While the primitive aeroplanes are interesting, it is the image of hundreds of screaming onlookers that struck me. Flying was once, not so very long ago, a complete and utter brain-shatter that made grown men tremble and children pee. Flying! Like a goddamn bird! Last week I sat on a jumbo-jet, a hulking mass of steel that hurtled across the stratosphere above the United States, and napped. I also read my magazine, and once I chortled at Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties. Appreciation, or the art of living consciously and respectfully, is so difficult in our age of stimulation and consumer-appeasement that we must be taught, slowly and with great care, how to look at things. Treadwell, for all his madness, knew how to look at grizzlies and foxes, and his lesson is invaluable. In The Wild Blue Yonder, we follow a dive team beneath the polar ice cap and a NASA team into outer space in a film with the subtitle: A Science-Fiction Fantasy.
The plot is rough-shod and secondary. There are a group of aliens on Earth who have been here for ages. They landed and set up a government and shopping malls and planned to create a satellite colony as their home-planet, the Wild Blue Yonder, fell into waste after they had depleted it. Humans discovered their ship at Area 51, yet when they examined it some people were infected with alien particulate matter. Those humans that were infected went off into space to find a new planet to live on. They land at the Wild Blue Yonder. They come back to Earth and civilization has collapsed somehow. Yeah that about sums it up. The shots of space travel utilize the found footage of the NASA mission, while the shots of the Wild Blue Yonder use that of the polar dive. The plot is all related in short segments of Brad Dourif as an alien monologuing from a deserted California town. The plot, again, is incredibly unimportant. Like in Herzog’s The White Diamond, the “project” of the film is negligible, while the experience of seeing it is marvelous. Dourif rants and raves convincingly about the course of human history, his hysterical, prophetic eyes glaring straight into the camera, but the real meat of the film is the extended footage of space travel and sub-polar exploration.
The shots of the space shuttle emphasize the loneliness of detached humanity. Dourif reminds us as we watch that this is a team of infected humans searching for a new home amongst the stars, and intersperses the scenes with interviews with (real life) scientists proclaiming the vast distance of any inhabitable planet. The images are wondrous in their own right. Much more chaotic than anything in 2001 or any other film of that ilk, the lazy progression of plastic sacs, interlacing tubes and discarded clothing across the frame seems forlorn, every object out of place or abandoned. The effect is achieved almost completely with music (Herzog relies heavily on chanting and string instruments), yet one cannot help but feel that there is an intrinsic element of the perverse or unnatural in space travel. In one particularly effective moment, two emaciated astronauts strap themselves to the wall of the shuttle and zip themselves into oblong black sacks. The effect is chilling. Herzog keeps these scenes quite long, and the audience is free to think out the meta-implications of such loneliness, such affecting instances of decrepitude.
Some thoughts I thunk:
Are we not all lost in space?
Is the gradual withering of the body evidence that corporal existence was a misstep?
Where do astronauts store their pee?
Why does NASA not hire prettier astronauts?
When the “space explorers” arrive at the “alien planet” (what a goofball), we enter under the polar ice cap. In one great scene, Dourif narrates that the explorers encountered the animals from his planet, but had forgotten how to communicate. At that moment in the film a great jellyfish cruises by the divers, pauses for a moment in front of one of them, and floats on by. The music is overlaid by a nonsensical blather (or perhaps some South American dialect, who can tell), and the feeling of contact is palpable. As Dourif waxes about alien creatures and the beauty of the Wild Blue Yonder, the divers poke and prod at creatures that look like sacs of goo. Dourif, the conscientious alien, claims that the “explorers” do not respect the creatures, and indeed the divers’ scientific inquest into the biological life beneath the ice-caps (shots of divers sticking flashlights into jelly-monsters and translucent fish) seem suddenly monstrous. It is a completely successful inversion and a masterful play on the footage being used. Again, the shots are nice and slow, and the mind can reel from conservationism to communication, from the morality of science to the ephemeral nature of beauty. It’s all fun.
As you might have realized, the film is different from Grizzly Man in that the narrative is not the motivational element, and The Wild Blue Yonder, while nearly primal in its beauty, might bore those who don’t like slightly boring movies. But if you are the type who likes your movies fast-paced and filled to the brim with vigorous interest and flashy tittilation, I have one aphorism to impart: Life is always interesting to he who likes being bored.