Three Documentaries by Werner Herzog

Tao Lin


The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner (1974)
How Much Wood Could a Woodchuck Chuck (1976)
La Soufriere (1977)

The three documentaries were on one DVD that I think I got off eBay and watched alone in my room sitting on the floor, wearing giant headphones, and eating steamed vegetables, I think, with my MacBook facing me on a chair. I watched the DVD late one night on a day when I had worked the morning shift, I think, at Angelika Kitchen, an organic vegan restaurant I worked at for around 10 months, and didn’t have work the next day. I remember feeling “somewhat confused,” or like I had currently put my worldview “on hold,” while watching it, in part because I believed to some degree that watching the DVD was irrelevant to my life, as a person with certain short/long-term goals who “feels unproductive” when not working toward those goals. While also believing to some degree that my “ideal” goal in life, what I often “reminded” myself was what I “finally” wanted, was to “be free” of goals or hierarchies, to one day be able to derive satisfaction outside of hierarchical systems, for example being able to experience the sensations that I feel, each moment, as “ends,” even if it seems “stagnant” from a hierarchical point of view. I watched the DVD sort of “suspended” between those two opposing beliefs. But in such a vague, pre-intellectual, pre-emotional manner that it mostly manifested as a low-level nausea or “mildly nagging” feeling of having forgotten something somewhat important like turning off the oven or responding to a time-sensitive email.

The first documentary was about the world championship of ski-jumping. People with skis went down a giant ramp on the top of a mountain. The ramp curved up and the people went into the air and then after a while landed more than 100 meters away, near the bottom of the mountain. The documentary showed many people falling when they landed. Then it focused on one ski-jumper named Steiner who seemed much better than anyone else. It showed him at the world championship talking about how he was afraid he would jump too far and hurt himself by landing in an unsafe area. He said he was afraid because other ski-jumpers who weren’t as good as him were jumping around 140 meters and the mountain was only designed to let jumpers jump around 165 meters. Then he jumped 169 meters, landing beyond where measurements were taken, causing the contest organizers to shorten the ramp to stop him from jumping too far. On his second jump he “handicapped” himself by starting even lower on the ramp than it had been shortened, something no one had done before, and then jumped something like 179 meters and hurt himself. His head was bleeding. He said the Yugoslavian judges should have shortened the ramp a lot more. Then he jumped again, while injured and with an even shorter ramp length than before, and went 166 meters. The farthest other people were jumping, using the entire ramp, was something like 140 meters. Steiner was so much better than anyone else that it probably seemed funny to most people instead of impressive.

The second documentary was about the world championship of auctioning cattle. It was about people who can auction really fast by talking really fast. A Canadian man won the world championship then kept saying “it was a goal in life” while grinning and seeming a little nervous or embarrassed maybe. I was honestly impressed by how fast they could talk. I thought about how a rapper should try to rap that fast in a song in order to seem original. It seemed extremely fast. They also moved their eyeballs really fast in order to see when anyone bid. I felt impressed in a manner that made me like everyone that was involved with the world championship of auctioning cattle, despite knowing almost nothing about their lives or personalities or worldviews.

The third documentary was about a town on an island in the Pacific that had been completely evacuated because a nearby volcano was going to explode. Werner Herzog and two cameramen went to the town and there was no one there. TVs and traffic signals were still on. The town had been evacuated very fast because in 1901 another town was supposed to evacuate, due to a nearby volcano that was going to explode, but the mayor convinced everyone to stay because they had already scheduled an election for that day and then the volcano exploded, killing 30,000 people. Werner Herzog filmed two goats walking in the middle of the street. He filmed them from behind as they walked toward something like a sunset. It seemed like a Disney movie. The tone seemed complex and made me feel a little confused. At one point they drove up a mountain, toward the volcano, and a sulfur cloud began to move toward them from above. Werner Herzog pointed at the sulfur cloud and said something or made some kind of noise and they began to run away, toward their car. It seemed scary and exciting. The camera was shaking and I could see the sulfur cloud moving toward them.

Then they found people who had not evacuated and interviewed them. One person was lying on his back under a tree with a cat. He seemed to be “chilling” “big time.” He said he was waiting to die and was not afraid. He said he had nothing. He seemed calm and maybe happy. The second person they found was walking around “aimlessly” on the street in the town. He also said he had nothing and was not afraid to die. He said something like “you can take me to the volcano and I’ll go with you, or I can walk back to my house and I’ll do that, it doesn’t matter.” At one point I think he said “what difference does it make?” about dying. When they first showed him walking around in the distance I recognized his style of walking as how I would walk around my subdivision in Florida in the daytime on Summer breaks between probably 3rd and 6th grade, sometimes carrying a stick, with no concrete destination or goal, yet still moving around and doing things. It seems difficult to remember exactly what I would be thinking about while walking around like that.

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