God’s Angry Man (1981)

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Directed by: Werner Herzog

I remember watching QVC as a child on Cable TV. Some heavily made up dame would be trying to sell a set of gardening shears. You couldn’t get these shears at your local Homebase or B&Q; these were top of the line product, a real bargain. Every item sold on QVC was top of the range, limited edition and a product you needed, if not your life was not complete. Nowadays whole channels are devoted not just to selling gardening tools and other apparently sought after ta’ but to whole lifestyle’s. Fitness fanatics and lazy lard arses are given an opportunity to buy a DVD box set that will transform them into cartoonish superhuman’s with pronounced abdominal muscles, this ‘Insanity’ workout will change their lives forever. The advert plays on a loop with glowing testimonies. Buy Buy Buy… all major credit cards are accepted.

In America church ministers preach on television, back in the seventies and eighties they would demand that their sofa bound congregation would send in cheques and dollars or else they would go straight to hell. The gullible parted with their cash, fearing the wrath of God’s angry man. Gene Scott was a flawed, oddly charismatic holy man. He had a programme on the Faith Broadcasting Network, which was like a cross between ‘The David Letterman Show’ and a paranoid schizophrenic having a conversation with a mirror. When Scott talks he rambles bitterly, mostly at the non-believers and those who he felt were trying to shut him down.

Due to the length of this documentary which runs under forty five minutes, we are provided with a tantalizing glimpse of a troubled man, but Herzog is unable to get under the skin of his subject. That is a great shame, but back in those days Herzog was not aiming for a feature length piece.

Herzog’s runs the footage of Gene Scott as he attempted to drum up donations from his faithful viewers, including very brief snippets from Scott off set and hastily edited interviews with Scott’s parents. Scott’s show is bizarre to watch. Strange clean cut music acts sing songs about Jesus and then Scott rattles the charity box. At times Scott literally waits for the money to roll in, staying silent until he hears word from his production team that someone has parted with their cash.

This one’s up on YouTube, so take a gander,

– RJW
5/10

God’s Angry Man on IMDB

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Wheel of Time (2003)

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Directed by: Werner Herzog

Whilst describing ‘Grizzly Man’ to a friend who hadn’t seen the documentary I stated that Werner Herzog is one of the finest documentary makers of all time. I fear I may have put the mockers on my own estimations of Herzog’s wprk before I had watched ‘Wheel of Time’, as it turned out to be one of the dullest documentaries I’ve ever seen.

I wondered whether I have a problem with Buddhism, or should I say the Westernized wishy washy Buddhism that I’ve encountered this year when on my own personal spiritual exploration. To give you a little context, I am currently studying on a University course that promotes the idea of personal development; part of my course encouraged me to explore my spiritual side. So, ever open to new ideas and experiences I decided a few months ago to visit my local Buddhist Centre in Norwich.

It was a Sunday, if I recall correctly around four o’clock in the afternoon. I remembered that I was a little hungover after an all-nighter, so perhaps I wasn’t in the best frame of mind. I turned up at the Buddhist Centre, sat awkwardly on a settee for a few minutes and watched several people, the regulars, walk in. It seemed everybody was hugging each other as they gathered. Being not the most tactile of people I shuddered. There was me, and two other first timers nervously perched on the settee. When the hugging ceased we were taken upstairs, politely asked to remove our shoes and told to grab a few red cushions from a cupboard. We then went into this large room and placed our cushions on the shiny wooden floor. I looked around and followed whatever the regulars were doing, piling my three cushions in an uneven fashion. A man wearing a white robe walked into the room. He lead the group in a nonsensical chant towards a picture of Buddha on the wall. They lost me from that point onwards.

Not willing to give up completely on Buddhism I attended a drop-in meditation at the Multi-faith Centre on my University campus. This was different, no chanting, no hierarchy, no cultish hugging rituals. We simply were encouraged to relax, and feel comfortable in our own headspace. I sensed from my experiences at the drop-in meditations that the whole purpose of Buddhism was not on the community or ceremony but to try and find some peace within your own mind.

Herzog’s ‘Wheel of Time’ covers the two Kalachakra initiations of 2002 that were overseen by the Dalai Lama. Focusing mostly on the first initiation that took place in Bodhgaya as opposed to the second which took place in a soulless exhibition hall in Austria. Thousands of Buddhists make the pilgrimages, several hundred thousand in the case of Bodhgaya. I think Herzog struggles to tell the personal stories of some of the pilgrims. There is almost an invisible barrier that prevents their spiritual consciousness translating over to film. Instead we observe the rituals, people gathering, people wandering, people getting animated and excitable, and that odd guttural chanting that was sampled on some of the tracks on the classic Beastie Boys album ‘Ill Communication’, but nothing springs to life for the uninitiated viewer other than a sense confusion. It is difficult to try and understand what’s happening.

The usual cautious Herzog narration permeates the documentary infrequently, and in ‘Wheel of Time’ the pictures fail to tell the story, and given that there is so much to be understood, not least for those not au fait with Buddhism, it seems Herzog got lazy. This could be due to Herzog’s reluctance to engage in the religious aspect of this subject. Unfortunately the director’s detachment could be misconstrued as a lack of interest in his subject. This is perhaps represented best by the tacked on coverage of the Dalai Lama’s trip to Austria.

– RJW

5/10

Wheel of Time on IMDB

Grizzly Man (2005)

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Directed by: Werner Herzog

There’s a moment in Grizzly Man when I welled up, and almost cried at the insane beauty of nature, as a fox climbs upon the roof of Timothy Treadwell’s tent. Its paw prints are seen from the inside, pitter patting down the the tent. Treadwell goes outside and is able to make contact with the fox. Over a few days the fox then becomes tame, trusting Treadwell, and following him around like a stray puppy might after being given a scrap of meat. The two play together, at one stage the fox even steals his baseball cap and flees back to its den, causing an exasperated Treadwell to yell expletives. It’s profoundly sweet, but something that should never happen in the wild.

Werner Herzog’s documentary is a powerful piece of film making put together from hundreds of hours of footage that Timothy Treadwell shot during his many expeditions to Katmai National Park in Alaska observing grizzly bears. Like another passionate and eccentric animal lover Steve Irwin, Treadwell would eventually run out of luck and feel the full force of the dangerous creatures he got so close to.

Herzog compassionately tells Treadwell’s story, presenting every aspect of a sad and lonely man who found his true calling in the wild. Treadwell was a man who related more to animals then he did to humans. Using testimonies from family and friends we were able to get a true picture of who Treadwell really was, and in terms of Treadwell’s own views, there is enough footage of him telling us exactly how he saw himself in the grand scheme of things.

The film does not shy away from Treadwell’s horrifically violent death at the hands of a bear that was likely starved after a harsh season when food stocks were especially low. We are told all the gory details by the pilot who discovered Treadwell and his travelling companion Amie Huguenard’s remains, and the brutal extent of the damage from a coroner who seems thrilled to be on camera.

Huguenard is a ghostly presence throughout the film. The true representation of the cost of human life, she isn’t really given a voice and this frustrates Herzog, because you get the impression that he worries deeply that Huguenard will be forever forgotten. There simply isn’t enough footage to tell Amie’s story. We only learn from a diary entry that she was scared of bears.

Wildlife experts and conservationists are unsympathetic about Timothy’s demise. They all more or less say that he got what he deserved. That man must respect nature’s boundaries and never try and befriend bears. Treadwell would get within feet of the bears, stand his ground and allow them to sniff his fingers, as if he was a confronted by a kitten and not a furry beast. Treadwell is brave, crazy brave, and there was an unhinged element to his personality which meant he was able to go where no man would dare to go.

Herzog’s skill as a documentary maker is simply that he captures honesty. In another director’s hands everything might have been sugar coated and over-sentimentalized. Several times he chimes in and contributes his own thoughts, an almost loose director’s commentary that filters in and out at appropriate moments. Towards the end of the film he says “And what haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food. But for Timothy Treadwell, this bear was a friend, a savior.”

– RJW
8/10

Grizzly Man on IMDB