Wednesday, January 18, 2006

It's All About Sole: Herzog and the art of the funny making

In The Village Voice's Take Seven poll, I declared that Grizzly Man proved Werner Herzog would make the coolest host ever for America's Funniest Home Videos. The sublime short Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, included on the Criterion Collection DVD of Burden of Dreams, affirms my belief that Herzog is one of our most underrated comedic talents.

In most of his films (or at least, most of his films that I've seen), Herzog walks a very fine line between philosophical insight and grand pretentiousness. Talented filmmaker that he is, Herzog never seems to fall into the abyss of self-important silliness. But the raw materials of his cinema — grand pronouncements on God and nature, impossible quests, people scaring the shit out of horses on rafts — are the stuff parodies are made of.

This was almost certainly what Herzog and collaborator Zak Penn were thinking when they made Incident at Loch Ness, a mockumentary with Herzog playing himself on one his dangerous film shoots. Penn's screenplay goes way over the top, throwing in all sorts of elaborately contrived shenanigans that don't jive with the pseudodoc format. Herzog, playing it totally deadpan, has the right idea. But, surrounded by silliness, he has very little to work with.

If Penn had studied Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, he would have gotten a much better sense of why Herzog can be so funny. In it, Herzog is settling a score with filmmaker Errol Morris, who he encouraged to make his pet project by vowing to eat his shoe at a screening of the film should it ever be completed. So director Les Blank follows Herzog as he prepares to eat his shoe, the very same one he wore when he made the bet, at a screening of Gates of Heaven at the University of California.

In a scant twenty minutes, Herzog — keeping a straight face while saying the most ridiculous statements — delivers an impossible number of hilarious lines. Some highlights (and remember you have to say them like a philosophical German lunatic in order to get the full funny):

On his lifestyle now that he's a famous filmmaker:

"A grownup man like me should not spend a week without having cooked a big meal. And that bothered me a lot, so I should go more into cooking."

Explaining to the Gates of Heaven audience why they shouldn't be concerned for his health:

"You can have this same experience every single day. You just drop in at Kentucky Fried Chicken. I've survived so many Kentucky Fried Chicken, so it won't do harm to me."

When he's accused of self-destructive tendencies:

""It's not self-destructive to jump into a cactus."

On why he ate the boots he wore when he made the bet instead of tennis shoes:

"I don't like cowards!"

And this, I assure you, is the tip of the iceberg. Rent or purchase the DVD to hear more, like when Herzog says we must declare war — "real war" — on Bonanza and when he describes the permanent damage to his "knee sinew" caused by an altercation with a group of little people. If Arrested Development ever gets picked up for a fourth season, I propose Herzog as the addition to the writing staff that will really put them over the top.


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