Monday, September 17, 2007

Explaining

At one point in Werner Herzog's documentary, My Best Fiend, about his intimate and troubled relationship with Klaus Kinski, he explains the beginning of his artistic fascination with the actor. As a boy he saw a German drama made after the war about the Nazis, where Kinski played a sadistic officer. While his performance was good, one particular shot captivated Herzog and burned itself into his imagination permanently: a single moment of Kinski sitting down after having just ordered the execution of some of his own soldiers.

For Herzog it held a strange power. In My Best Fiend, he plays the scene and explains his fascination. When the shot is over, Herzog immediately repeats it, and then repeats it again, and then again. He stops talking over the footage and allows the very ordinary moment grow into something memorable. It really doesn't, though. Rather than some hidden interest emerging, the shot just grows more and more ordinary with repetition. With each playing, I began to think less about Kinski and more about Herzog's own puzzling fixation.

Looping this banal moment demonstrates a key attribute of a kind of madness: in its details it is specific and personal, with its own inexplicable logic, a unique world of its own. The world of the madman is self-enclosed, self-sufficient, and deeply incomplete, despite its sense of self-satisfaction. Madness insists on its own correctness. Madness is unwavering in its dedication.

Madness and greatness are intertwined in Herzog's movies (the ones I've seen, anyhow). The madman has a clear vision of something profoundly flawed and deeply believes in its perfection. Often he pulls other, far more ordinary, people into the abyss with him, less gifted people who sign up for their own reasons but rarely are mad in their own right. The madness remains compelling because it might just contain true greatness. The madman believes that in his scheme he might have found the diamond in the rough, the secret cure, the gambler's long-shot. He has have achieved a counter-intuitive glory, which has been long overlooked by the mediocre. There is no greater beauty than showing ordinary dirt dwellers that they were wrong after all. True greatness is in diving down to go up. The gutter is a stairway to heaven, and the dead-end is a wide and endless highway which opens up only when a person steers toward it at top speed. Even failure contains greatness: grandeur and grand failure are both grand.


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