“Trying to cherry-pick from David Lynch is a bad idea,” my debating partner insisted shortly after Inland Empire opened at the Music Box. “You may have your favorites, but it’s all the same movie.” If that’s the case, I argued back, then what about Werner Herzog: couldn’t you say the same of him? Yet at some basic level, distinctions have to be made, between this Herzog and that one, if only in terms of relative success at treading the same oblique territory: this archetype realized more fully in x than in y, and so on.
Well, talk about serendipity: this week, through February 22, Siskel Film Center is screening Herzog’s latest (not counting Rescue Dawn, which isn’t yet in release), the semi/quasi/crypto “faerie land” documentary The Wild Blue Yonder, to provide a critical case in point. Local critics haven’t been kind, and it’s not hard to see why. Haphazardly throwing together large chunks of drab utilitarian footage (NASA astronauts lounging around in space, etc) with weird, hallucinatory views of antarctic undersea fauna and interpolated shots of Brad Dourif doing his maniacal best to bring Klaus Kinski back to (not of this) earthly life—obviously Herzog misses that guy a lot—the film is nothing if not its own unearthly mess.
And yet: those undersea probings beneath the polar ice may be the most discombobulating stretches of film—alienating, if not literally alien—in the whole Herzogian corpus, a planetary vision from “beyond the galaxy” that makes otherworldly use of our own sublunar world. It’s almost as if Herzog’s been mainlining D’Arcy Thompson for the better part of a lifetime—which in fact he probably has—those eternal recurrences of form and theme around which our sensory universe coalesces . . . or so the theory runs. And here they are again, the primal shapes and images: the slurry of bubbles and fins moving upward into the liberating dazzle, a kind of cosmic release for striving spermatozoic travelers—not unlike the waterfall plunge in The White Diamond, except in the opposite direction, where “black hole” destiny awaits the descending phallic shaft as birds swarm vertically upward from the “kingdom of the swallows.” Movement and countermovement: gotta know what to look for—as well as intuit how to watch it—in order to mine these archetypal lodes. Which is why such characterizations as “Discovery Channel fodder” and “more worthy of a team of eager, promising neophytes on their first assignment for an undergraduate filmmaking course” seem so incredibly off the mark.
But “is it any good”? Well yes, well no, and I guess it all depends. Not something I’d care to stick a “must-see” label on . . . except not to see it seems almost criminally neglectful. So: better to take your chances and go . . . and yes, you all know who you are.