Popsicle #33: Jack Reacher and Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe

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Confession: I’ve probably read a half dozen of Lee Child’s pulp fiction novels featuring his drifter protagonist Less Child. I honestly couldn’t tell you which of the eighteen novels I’ve read or, for that matter, recount any of the plots. For me the books are just a warm bath of masculine escapism.

One of the reasons I took on this weekly Popsicle assignment was to break the habit of reading this kind of stuff. So when I learned that there was going to be a Jack Reacher movie starring Tom Cruise, I definitely planned on skipping it.  But last week I was confronted with the choice of watching the movie during a long flight to Bogotá. While I’m committed to raising the bar on my cultural consumption, I’ve also made the decision to forgo watching serious films on airlines. I still haven’t forgiven myself for watching The Tree of Life over the course of two separate transatlantic flights.

So I watched Jack Reacher. The movie was entertaining, but like the books, also forgettable. What I do remember was that Werner Herzog played the bad guy. Werner Herzog! Why would the greatest living filmmaker appear in a summer Hollywood blockbuster?

The answer is that Herzog has always been open to surprise and contradiction. “I invite any sort of myths [about myself],” he once said, “because I like the stooges and doppelgangers and doubles out there. I feel protected behind all these things. Let them blossom!”

After seeing Herzog on the screen, I was hungry for more, so I decided to watch Les Blank’s film, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. The back-story of the film is legendary: Herzog promised he’d eat his shoe if Errol Morris completed his film Gates of Heaven. While I initially thought it would be a one-liner, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe ended up being a brilliant portrayal of Herzog’s iconoclastic genius.

The film starts with the sound of switching television channels with this voiceover by Herzog:

If you switch on television it’s just ridiculous and it’s destructive. It kills us. And talk shows will kill us. They will kill our language. So we have to declare holy war on against what we see every day on television. I think there should be real war against commercials. Real war against talk shows. Real war against Bonanza and Rawhide.

The film then goes on to describe Herzog’s support for Errol Morris’s movie and, as promised, shows him eating his shoe. While chewing, Herzog is asked what the value of film is for society. His contradictory answer is fascinating:

I think it gives us some insight. It might change our perspective and ultimately it may be something valuable. But there is a lot of absurdity as well. As you see [pointing at his shoe] it makes me into a clown. And that happens to everyone. Just look at Orson Wells or even people like Truffaut. They have become clowns. What we do as filmmakers is immaterial. It’s only a projection of light. And doing that all your life makes you just a clown. It’s illusionist’s work. It’s embarrassing to be a filmmaker.

The day after eating the shoe, Herzog is interviewed again. And again he contradicts himself:

A civilization is going to die out like dinosaurs if it doesn’t develop an adequate language or adequate images. I see it as a very dramatic situation. We have found out that there are serious problems facing our civilization like energy problems or environment problems or nuclear power and overpopulation. But generally it is not understood yet that a problem of the same magnitude is that we don’t have adequate images. That’s what I’m working on: a new grammar of images.

Throughout this short film Herzog whipsaws between fierce conviction and comic ambivalence. Perhaps it is this unstable dualism that has kept his vision so vital. I love that he can star in a Tom Cruise movie (and compare it to Melville!) while simultaneously directing documentaries about death row. Now the only question is which Herzog film I’ll watch next: Stroszek or his new web documentary on texting while driving.

7 Replies to “Popsicle #33: Jack Reacher and Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe”

  1. Funny. I watched Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe last week. I decided it was time to buy my own copy of the Criterion Collection’s Burden of Dreams dvd and it’s one of the bonus videos that come with the package. It’s a great film although, being a director of tv commercials (and jazz films), I was dismayed by Herzog’s quote about the ad business. I guess the one saving grace is that Errol Morris has spent the last 20 years financing his documentaries by shooting tv spots. Anyway, thanks for spreading the word. Any combination of Werner Herzog, Errol Morris and Les Blank is good for the soul.

  2. I recommend Herzog’s “Encounters at the End of the World” or if you haven’t seen it “Fitzcarraldo” with Klaus Kinski.

  3. Were you present at the Walker when he gave his “Minnesota Declaration?

    Minnesota declaration: truth and fact in documentary cinema

    1. By dint of declaration the so-called Cinema Verité is devoid of verité. It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants.

    2. One well-known representative of Cinema Verité declared publicly that truth can be easily found by taking a camera and trying to be honest. He resembles the night watchman at the Supreme Court who resents the amount of written law and legal procedures. “For me,” he says, “there should be only one single law: the bad guys should go to jail.”

    Unfortunately, he is part right, for most of the many, much of the time.

    3. Cinema Verité confounds fact and truth, and thus plows only stones. And yet, facts sometimes have a strange and bizarre power that makes their inherent truth seem unbelievable.

    4. Fact creates norms, and truth illumination.

    5. There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.

    6. Filmmakers of Cinema Verité resemble tourists who take pictures amid ancient ruins of facts.

    7. Tourism is sin, and travel on foot virtue.

    8. Each year at springtime scores of people on snowmobiles crash through the melting ice on the lakes of Minnesota and drown. Pressure is mounting on the new governor to pass a protective law. He, the former wrestler and bodyguard, has the only sage answer to this: “You can´t legislate stupidity.”

    9. The gauntlet is hereby thrown down.

    10. The moon is dull. Mother Nature doesn’t call, doesn’t speak to you, although a glacier eventually farts. And don´t you listen to the Song of Life.

    11. We ought to be grateful that the Universe out there knows no smile.

    12. Life in the oceans must be sheer hell. A vast, merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger. So much of a hell that during evolution some species – including man – crawled, fled onto some small continents of solid land, where the Lessons of Darkness continue.

    Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota April 30, 1999 Werner Herzog

    Words to live by. And if you haven’t seen it already Stroszek should shoot right near the top of your list of favorite Herzog films- Herzog in Wisconsin! You’ll never see the Dells the same way again.

  4. Don’t you think Herzog was in a Tom Cruise movie for the money? Like Cassavettes in Rosemary’s Baby or the tv shows he acted in (Rawhide, The Lloyd Bridges Show, Columbo, etc.) He used the money from acting to make his own films.

    r

  5. I saw Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe in the 80s and it immediately became my touchstone, my measure, of creative commitment. Not only the fact that Herzog is eating his shoe to keep a pledge meant to spur on Errol Morris’ urge to make a movie. But also his admonition to do whatever it takes to make our work–steal the film, steal the camera. And “adequate images” became my secret personal measure of my own work. Thank you for reminding me of all that, Alec.

    By the way, have you seen The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser?

  6. But your recognition (which I don’t remember) of his ambivalence about being responsible for saving us from being dinosaurs and the utter clownishness of being a filmmaker, that is important stuff. Are we in fact called to be “fools,” and what does that mean?

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