Pat Collins’ Silence: the sounds of wind, water, bird song, and the past conjure the spirit of place

Pat Collins’ <em>Silence:</em> the sounds of wind, water, bird song, and the past conjure the spirit of place

Two films with the same title were released in 2016. Martin Scorcese’s Silence (which I have not seen) received all the attention, but there was another Silence, directed by the Irish documentary film-maker, Pat Collins. An undemonstrative film, it will not be to everyone’s taste, being slow, meditative and melancholy, and having little in the way of a story. But I loved it and, thanks to MUBI streaming, I have watched it twice. Continue reading “Pat Collins’ Silence: the sounds of wind, water, bird song, and the past conjure the spirit of place”

Die Andere Heimat: a yearning to travel far from home

<em>Die Andere Heimat</em>: a yearning to travel far from home

Having already spent 54 hours in front of our TV screen watching Edgar Reitz’s monumental trilogy Heimat (more, in fact, since we watched the first two series twice), last week his four-hour prequel, The Other Homeland: Chronicle of a Yearning), arrived on virtually unheralded on BBC4, four years after its German release. Exquisitely photographed in crystalline monochrome with natural performances by its actors, many of whom had no prior acting experience, this masterwork from Reitz is absorbing, lyrical, both epic and intimate. Continue reading Die Andere Heimat: a yearning to travel far from home”

Bruegel in Vienna, part 2: Religion, politics and war

Bruegel in Vienna, part 2: Religion, politics and war

In the first part of this appreciation of the Bruegel room in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, I looked at Bruegel’s paintings of the seasons. This time I want to explore a group of paintings that share a preoccupation with religion, politics and war. Continue reading “Bruegel in Vienna, part 2: Religion, politics and war”

These books are made for walking: step one

These books are made for walking: step one

Paths have always fascinated me. Sometimes their imprint of human purpose on the landscape can be a mystery: why does this path exist? Who made it, and when?  Often paths lift the spirit with their sense of wilfulness – tracks left by those determined to make their way according to no rules.  I’ve walked for years now in our local park – the twice-daily dog walk – always entertained by how, in a landscape where planners have mapped out in tarmac or gravel where people should walk, foot-worn paths still weave anarchically but determinedly across the meadows and through the glades.  They are the tracks of kids on their way to school, routes to work, trails left by dog walkers like me seeking variations on a theme: short cuts, a path under the trees, a better view.  Paths like these emerge all over the place – across vacant land in urban areas, in suburbia, or across fields and moors.

Unofficial path in Sefton Park

Recently I’ve been reading several books that explore this fascination with paths and walking, and in the process I discovered that Robert Macfarlane has also shared this fascination with paths and trails of all kinds.  In his recent book The Old Ways, he writes:

Paths and their markers have long worked on me like lures: drawing my sight up and on and over.  The eye is enticed by a path, and the mind’s eye also.  The imagination cannot help but pursue a line in the land – onwards in space, but also backwards in time to the histories of a route and its previous followers.  As I walk paths I often wonder about their origins, the impulses that have led to their creation…

These books represent just a fraction of those that have added to the already voluminous literature of walking in recent years. Pathways is a historical guide to the origins of the paths that we follow through the land; Wanderlust, by Rebecca Solnit, is an erudite cultural history of walking; The Green Road Into The Trees by Hugh Thomson is a narrative account of his journey along the Icknield Way – a route followed, too, by Robert Macfarlane in his new book The Old Ways which I’ve read alongside his earlier The Wild Places.  Werner Herzog’s Of Walking In Ice is another proposition entirely: as you’d expect from the director of Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo it is as far from Macfarlane as you’re likely to get: an often bizarre stream of consciousness account of a pilgrimage he made in 1974, from Munich to the bedside of his close friend, film historian Lotte Eisner, near Paris. It was deep winter and Herzog believed that tramping through adversity would help the friend, that the sheer effort of the walk would bring her back to health.

Alongside these books, I’ve also been dipping into The Walker’s Literary Companion edited by Roger Gilbert, Jeffrey Robinson and Anne Wallace, which gathers together examples of fiction, essays and poetry on the experience and meaning of walking.  It’s a great compendium: rather than being arranged chronologically, the extracts are allowed to strike echoes off each other – Frank O’Hara nudging James Joyce and Elizabeth Bishop; Robert Frost strides alongside Wendell Berry and Walt Whitman; and Charles Dickens, John Clare and Matsuo Basho stroll along together.

What the latter book brings home is the degree to which the act of walking has inspired poetry.  Among contemporary poets, the work of Thomas A Clark is almost entirely concerned with, and inspired by, the thoughts and sensations arising from a walker’s encounter with the natural world.  His prose-poem ‘In Praise of Walking’, published in a little volume entitled Distance and Proximity begins with this walking manifesto:

Early one morning, any morning, we can set out, with the least possible baggage, and discover the world.

It is quite possible to refuse all the coercion, violence, property, triviality, to simply walk away.


That something exists outside ourselves and our preoccupations, so near, so readily available, is our greatest blessing.


Walking is the human way of getting about.


Always, everywhere, people have walked, veining the earth with paths, visible and invisible, symmetrical and meandering.

Clark’s poem is cited by Robert Macfarlane in the opening paragraph of The Old Ways:

Humans are animals and like all animals we leave tracks as we walk: signs of passage made in snow, sand, mud, grass, dew, earth or moss. The language of hunting has a luminous word for such mark-making: ‘foil’. A creature’s ‘foil’ is its track. We easily forget that we are track-makers, though, because most of our journeys now occur on asphalt and concrete – and these are substances not easily impressed.

‘Always, everywhere, people have walked, veining the earth with paths visible and invisible, symmetrical or meandering,’ writes Thomas Clark in his enduring prose-poem ‘In Praise of Walking’. It’s true that, once you begin to notice them, you see that the landscape is still webbed with paths and footways – shadowing the modern-day road network, or meeting it at a slant or perpendicular. Pilgrim paths, green roads, drove roads, corpse roads, trods, leys, dykes, drongs, sarns, snickets – say the names of paths out loud and at speed and they become a poem or rite – holloways, bostles, shutes, driftways, lichways, ridings, halterpaths, cartways, carneys, causeways, herepaths.

Many regions still have their old ways, connecting place to place, leading over passes or round mountains, to church or chapel, river or sea. …

Pathways by Nicholas Rudd-Jones and David Stewart (Guardian Books) is a book that provides answers to those questions about the origins of the pathways that weave their way across Britain’s landscape. It explores and documents twenty different kinds of route trodden by man or horse which now form the footpaths and trails followed for leisure.  Rudd-Jones and Stewart explain the histories of routes used for the transport of goods (ridgeways, packhorse trails, drovers’ roads, miners’ tracks and smugglers’ trails), pathways created to facilitate the exercise of power or define boundaries (Roman roads, dykes and Monks’ trods), and paths with a distinct spiritual dimension (processional ways and pilgrimage routes). They trace the course of  corpse roads, canal towpaths, seaside promenades, long distance footpaths and leisure trails, urban pedestrian ways, and municipal parks.

Each chapter provides a historical account of the origins and use of a particular kind of pathway, followed by the description of an example and an account of a walk along it undertaken by one of the authors.  Maps of these walks are included, but the size and weight of the book mean that it could not be carried on a walk.  However, the book has been published in collaboration with the walking world website, where maps of all the walks featured in the book, plus a huge range of other walks,  are free to download once you join by paying an annual subscription, currently £18. (There is a similar site – walkingbritain.co.uk – that is free, though the maps of the walks are useless).

Pathways is a beautifully produced book, lavishly illustrated with photographs, each chapter providing a succinct but informative history of one kind of trail that has left an imprint on the landscape.  The book leaves you more knowledgeable and with a deeper understanding of how these tracks across the terrain were created.  If you want to know more, each chapter has a useful guide to further reading.

Wanderlust: A History of Walking  is by San Francisco writer Rebecca Solnit and environmental activist who is the  author of books about art, ecology, politics, hope, meandering, memory and getting lost.  She is a cultural commentator and historian who respects no boundaries in the sources upon which she draws, meandering through disciplines as if the act of writing were an assertion of the right to roam.  She acknowledges her eclecticism at the outset of the journey:

This history of walking is an amateur history, just as walking is an amateur act. To use a walking metaphor, it trespasses through everybody else’s field—through anatomy, anthropology, architecture, gardening, geography, political and cultural history, literature, sexuality, religious studies—and doesn’t stop in any of them on its long route. For if a field of expertise can be imagined as a real field—a nice rectangular confine carefully tilled and yielding a specific crop—then the subject of walking resembles walking itself in its lack of confines.

Solnit begins with a chapter on ‘The Mind at Three Miles an Hour’ in which she explores the connection between walking and thinking, beginning with the Athenian philosophers — although no one really knows whether they walked to think — and moves on through Jean Jacques Rousseau, Kierkegaard and Wordsworth, who collectively promulgated the romantic idea of solitary rambling as a contemplative exercise.

There follows a diversion to ponder the significance of the Rubicon crossed by evolving hominids when they stood upright and began walking. Although human beings are usually viewed as unique in terms of consciousness, Solnit points out that it’s our bipedalism that makes us stand out:

the human body is …unlike anything else on earth and in some ways has shaped that consciousness.  The animal kingdom has nothing else like this column of flesh and bone always in danger of toppling, this proud and unsteady tower. … Even standing still is a feat of balance, as anyone who watched or been a drunk knows.

If walking came from evolution and necessity, Solnit says, it then went everywhere, usually looking for something.  With this observation she sets out on a quest to understand pilgrimage – one of the basic modes of walking ‘in search of something intangible’.  She follows a pilgrim route in New Mexico, musing as she goes on the essence of pilgrimage: the idea that there is a geography of spiritual power, that the search for spirituality can be pursued in the most material terms, through arduous physical exertion, toiling along a road towards some distant salvation. Pilgrimages allow people to bodily enter a story (most obviously as in the stations of the cross).  A path, Solnit suggests, is a prior interpretation of the best way to traverse a landscape, and to follow a pilgrimage is to accept an interpretation, to reiterate something deep, and think the same thoughts.

The activist in Solnit leads her to explore the idea that in the last 50 years or so pilgrimages have evolved into secular assertions of political and economic values.  She cites many modern variants that reflect a shift from appealing for divine intervention to demanding political change, such as the annual peace walk from Las Vegas to the Nevada Test site.

But Solnit pushes the analogy further, noting how, in actions like the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, the collective walk unites the iconography of the pilgrimage with that of the trade union march, appealing to the public rather than spiritual powers.  She traces the line of descent, from Gandhi’s Salt March in 1930 to Martin Luther King and the civil rights marches.  ‘Inspired walking’, she calls it, epitomised for her in Matt Heron’s photo of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march (below):

He must have lain low to take it, for it raises its subjects up high against a pale, clouded sky.  They seem to know they are walking towards transformation and into history, and their wide steps, upraised hands, the confidence of their posture, express the will with which they go to meet it.

Solnit also one of the strangest of secular pilgrimages – that of the film director Werner Herzog who at the end of November 1975, hearing that his friend, the film historian Lotte Eisner, was seriously ill and close to death, set off to walk several hundred miles from Munich to her hospital in Paris.  By enduring the pains and hardship of terrible winter weather he thought would avert her death:

I said that this must not be, not at this time, German cinema could not do without her now, we would not permit her death.  I took a jacket, a compass and a duffel bag with the necessities.  My boots were so solid and new that I had confidence in them.  I set off … in full faith, believing that she would stay alive if I came on foot.

[Diverting from the main track for a moment: I recently acquired as a very welcome birthday gift a copy of Herzog’s rare and difficult to obtain book.  First editions in English are priceless – this was a Canadian limited edition reprint of 2009. It’s a shorter read than Herzog’s walk – no more than 60 pages, almost the entire text of entries made in a notebook as he walked.  It’s quintessential Herzog – a stream of consciousness account of the hardships of the walk (those new boots – blisters, aching swollen legs, cold, and constant soakings due to inadequate clothing), the terrain, the people he encounters along the way, and the thoughts running through his mind. You can almost hear that inimitable Bavarian-accented English as you read.

There are constant flashes of Herzog the German romantic. On his second morning on the road he writes:

What a sunrise behind me.  The clouds had split open a crack; yes, a sun like that rises bloodied on the day of Battle.  Meagre, leafless poplars, a raven flying through missing a quarter of his wing, which means rain. … The village is dead silent, telling of deeds done from which it refuses to wake.

The Herzog who, when twelve and told to sing in front of his class at school, adamantly refused and was almost expelled for it, the Herzog who stole a film camera in order to make his first feature and later said ‘I don’t consider it theft – it was just a necessity’ – that Herzog is present in these pages.  He shows no compunction about breaking into barns or empty holiday homes for the night:

Beyond Volertsheim spent the night in a barn; all around there was nothing else.  What a night.  The storm raged so that the whole shake, which was solidly built, began to shake. Rain and snow came sprinkling in from the rooftop and I buried myself in the straw.  Once I awoke with an animal sleeping on my legs.

This is not an heroic account of a trek (in the manner, say, of a Macfarlane).  Along with his physical discomforts, Herzog’s words evoke the psychological disturbances and the intense loneliness that he experiences:

No one, not a soul, intimidating stillness. … I can see sheets of rain, and the annunciation of the end of the world is glowing on the horizon, glimmering there. … The universe is filled with Nothing, it is the Yawning Black Void.  Systems of Milky Ways have condensed into un-stars.  Utter blissfulness is spreading and out of blissfulness now springs the Absurdity.  This is the situation.  A dense cloud of flies and a plague of horseflies swirls around my head, so I’m forced to flail about with my arms, yet they pursue me bloodthirstily nevertheless.  How can I go shopping?  They’ll throw me out of the supermarket, along with the insect plague swarming around my head.  A flash of lightning bolts across the orange-black sky far below me, striking Francis the Miller, of all people, dead. … Is the Loneliness good?  Yes, it is.  There are only dramatic vistas ahead.  The festering Rankness, meanwhile, gathers once again at the sea.

Some three weeks after setting off, Herzog arrives in Paris.  In her hospital bed, he finds Lotte Eisner alive, though tired and marked by her illness (she lived for another nine years).  She smiles, and Herzog says, ‘Open the window.  From these last days onward I can fly’]

Returning to Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust:  she continues with an exploration of the idea of life as a journey – ‘a pilgrim’s progress across the landscape of personal history’ – delves into the meaning of labyrinths, and considers the place of promenades and the aristocratic garden walk.  She follows the trail of walking in literature in the footsteps of Dorothy and William Wordsworth, Henry Thoreau and John Muir, and evaluates the literature of the long-distance walk (citing, amongst others, one of my own favourites: Alan Booth’s account of walking the length of Japan in the mid-1970s in Roads to Sata: A Two Thousand Mile Walk Through Japan.

There are chapters on mountaineering, walking clubs like the Sierra Club, an public access to the land through the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932 (an excellent account). Then Solnit turns her attention to urban walking, illustrated by ambles through London (in the company of De Quincey, Dickens and Virginia Woolf), New York (with Whitman, Ginsberg and O’Hara) and Paris. Inspired by Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt, she ‘ran away to Paris’ in the 1970s when the city was still a ‘walker’s paradise’.  She inhabited the city like Arendt, ‘ strolling through it without aim or purpose, with one’s stay secured by the countless cafes which line the streets’.  She returned recently to find Paris ruinously changed by cars.

As well as the writers, Solnit also casts her eye over the artists who have walked and incorporated the experience into their art.  In particular, she considers the work of Richard Long, the contemporary artist most dedicated to exploring walking as an artistic medium.  She traces the way his work – from Line Made By Walking in 1967 –  aims to capture the way a walk can inspire and live on in the imagination: in Long’s own words, ‘a walk expresses space and freedom and the knowledge of it can live in the imagination of anyone, and that is another space too’.  Attesting to his significance, another ‘walked’ work  by Richard Long adorns the cover of Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways.

Richard Long: Line Made by Walking, 1967

In ‘Walking after Midnight’, Solnit explores the history of women walking the streets.  She notes that men have usually had an easier time walking down the street than have women:  ‘women have routinely been punished and intimidated for attempting that most simple of freedoms, taking a walk’. Solnit charts the threat of violence and harassment often faced by women exercising their right to walk in public spaces, and attitudes to prostitution – the oldest form of street walking.

Freedom to walk is, however, not much use without somewhere to go: with this statement of the obvious Solnit introduces a fascinating chapter on the ‘suburbanization’ of the American psyche, the way in which modern American suburbs have been built exclusively for the car, without sidewalks and in every respect hostile to the person intent on getting around on foot.  Bizarrely, she notes that as Americans – and residents of the developed world generally – have abandoned walking, so they have become addicted to the treadmill in the gym. On the treadmill a key element of walking, space – in the form of landscape, spectacle, terrain, experience – has vanished.

In The Green Road Into The Trees, Hugh Thomson describes walking the Icknield Way, probably the oldest pathway in Britain, from the Dorset coast to the Wash.  It’s a route also followed by Robert Macfarlane in The Old Ways and both were inspired in part by Edward Thomas’s account of walking the Way, Thomas figuring in both accounts. But though their paths and interests overlap, the sensibilities of these writers are attuned to different wavelengths. There isn’t, for example, an index entry for ‘pies’ in Macfarlane’s book: there are six in Thomson’s, and he doesn’t shirk the fact that his walk is an expedition from one great meat pie to the next.

Thomson is a travel writer, film-maker and inveterate wanderer: at the start of the book, he’s just returned from Peru. It is the rather weird strangeness of some sort of celebration in his local town that persuades him to set about exploring his own ‘complicated and intriguing’ country.

Needing a strong coffee and with no food in the house, I cycled to the local market town. The sound of Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’ being pumped out by a brass band could be heard for some way before I arrived. A celebration was in full swing. Red and white bunting hung from the church, matched by the small flags the children were waving and by the icing on the teacakes sold in the market place; near by was a puppet stall where Punch was setting about Judy with ferocity. The children watching had their faces painted to look like lions or tigers.

Tattoos snaked out of the busts and jeans of the farmers’ wives queuing at the ice-cream van, which had been painted in neon orange with a ‘chill-out’ logo, and was dispensing Skyrockets, Mr Magics, Daddy Cools and Blackcurrant Peep-Ups. A quiff-haired teenager ostentatiously did a wheelie right across the Market Square on his bicycle pimped up with double shocks and chunky chrome spokes. Oblivious to the fairground stalls and the noise, an elegantly overdressed older lady with sunglasses, light wool coat and malacca cane was stooping against the spring breeze, leaning into it.

The band had finished ‘Dancing Queen’ and were now playing a more stately jig. I noticed not so much the music as their hats: a pink stetson playing the guitar, a bowler manning the cello, a Pete Doherty-style pork-pie perched on the lead guitarist and there, on the drummers head, an unmistakable panama, just as I had seen and bought at a small market on the Ecuadorian coast only weeks before.

England has become a complicated and intriguing country. In truth it’s always been one, but perhaps I’m just noticing it more now. The familiar is looks very strange. … I am seized with a sudden desire to explore England.

Thomson is very good at bringing to life, light-heartedly and with good humour, the characters he meets along the way.  Take this encounter, for example:

In Peru I usually travelled with a mule –so that it could carry my kit as well as be company of a limited sort, but that wasn’t so feasible in southern England.

I had toyed with the idea of taking a dog along with me for the journey. Not that I’ve got one. But occasionally I had walked my neighbours’ sleek and beautiful rottweiler when at the barn. And my sister’s family had a parson’s terrier. Both were fine dogs. John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, when he crossed the States with his large poodle, was one of my favourite books and an inspiration for this journey; I grew up to John Noakes’s television programmes about walking the Cornish coast path with his border collie, Shep. And I was aware, not least because my children kept telling me, that a book with a dog in it would be commercially attractive.

But there were disadvantages. For a start, both candidate dogs had names I didn’t feel like shouting out across a crowded field of walkers: the rottweiler was called Portia (like naming a gladiator Phyllis); the terrier, even more improbably, was called Spartacus. More seriously, the way I was walking would not work with a dog – too many impromptu stops and starts and stays with friends. I met a lot of dogs along the way anyway – particularly at Iron Age hill-forts, where dog walkers were often the only other visitors. It made for a perfect constitutional circuit:  once round the earthworks of a fort and no need to scoop.

I was able to borrow a dog of my own just for a day though, as I passed Watlington, where my sister lived. Spartacus could come with me.

‘You can let him off the lead,’ said Alex, my brother-in-law, an incurable optimist, ‘but he may not stay with you.’

Within the next hour I had dragged Spartacus out of willow ponds, hedges and just about any cover that conceivably contained a rabbit. Dog-walking was the modern equivalent of medieval  falconry – it required the owner to be led into unknown territory that they would otherwise not investigate. This was fine if it was a local landscape that you were happy to explore; not if you had a whole country waiting for you to cross.

I sat down on a bench outside a pub when I got to the next village along the Icknield Way, Chinnor, exhausted by having detoured past so many rabbit burrows. A man joined me and we got talking, mainly about Spartacus, as an easy and obvious point of conversation. It took all of a minute before he made the usual joke about ‘I am Spartacus’.  I guessed he was about thirty-five, dressed eccentrically for the country, in pale tracksuit and trainers – more an urban look – and with an iPod looped to ostentatiously large and white Sennheiser headphones.  He was very tanned. He said he had just been on holiday to Tunisia, where the clubbing was better than Ibiza.

I explained that the dog wasn’t mine and that my travelling lifestyle made it difficult for me to have one. He was sympathetic.

‘I know what you mean. And to be honest, I always think, “who needs a pet when you’ve already got a penis to look after.” ’

It was unanswerable.

But it would be wrong to characterize this as simply a light-hearted read.  Thomson sees the England of the rural south through which he travels (so different to the England with which I am familiar) through eyes that are a bit rock and roll, a tad hippie radical. Indeed, if you read this book, please do not overlook the hilarious appendix, in which the Random House editor lists at length the various individuals and categories of people whom , he alleges, Thomson manages to insult (I don’t know whether this is genuine or not, but it’s a hoot).

More than this, though: Thomson brings erudition to his account.  Travelling along the Icknield Way, Thomson passes the great prehistoric monuments of Maiden Castle, Stonehenge and Avebury, before ending at the Wash near Seahenge. Thomson knows his history, is familiar with the latest archaeological evidence and the most recent scholarly conclusions.  He succeeds in digesting the scholarly sources to provide an informative and entertaining  guide to the context and origin of Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman, Anglo-Saxon (and more recent) structures along the route.

Recently I listened to the edition of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time on the Druids, in which, as usual, a group of top-rank academics discussed their area of expertise. After the programme, I went back to the book to check how Thomson’s account of the Druids and Stonehenge stacked up.  It is on the nose:

They have already started to arrive for the solstice, although there  are still some days before it is due.  Among  them  are  the Druids who lead the solstice celebrations. While New Age travellers fondly like to imagine that they are re-enacting Druid ceremonies at a Druid site, this is historically incorrect. The stones were erected many thousands of years before the Celtic prophet-priests became active around 500 BC. While perfectly possible that the Druids may have been drawn to the stones, they would have done so much in the same way as today’s New Age travellers – as pilgrims hoping to tap into the spiritual energy of their forebears.

I see the travellers’ vans lurking in lay-bys and along some of the sandy tracks that lead off the busy roads besieging Stonehenge in a pincer of tarmac: the A3o3 and A344 thunder by unbelievably close, the latter almost clipping one of the outer megaliths, the thirty-five-ton ‘Heelstone’. An unattractive wire fence separates the stones from the cars that stream past.

For Stonehenge represents all that is best and worst about England.  There is the sheer imaginative leap of the decision, whether taken in a day or over several generations, to turn a ring of wooden posts into a circle of gigantic sarsen stones with – the literally crowning glory – stone lintels notched and raised onto them: a triumph of spirituality, of engineering, of ingenuity and of the sheer bloody-mindedness that has distinguished much later English history.

This passage epitomises Thomson’s approach: accurate history, folded lightly into a sometimes humourous account of middle England now, spiced with political savvy and a sprinkling of righteous indignation over things being done to the countryside and aspects of the way we live now.

Next: Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places and The Old Ways

See also

Into the Abyss with Werner Herzog

Appearances can deceive: this fresh-faced, smiling young man is Michael Perry, settling down to be interviewed by film-maker Werner Herzog eight days before he was executed by lethal injection after having spent nine years on death row at Huntsville Prison, Texas, for the murder and robbery of three people.

I saw Herzog’s new film, Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life, the other night at FACT, where it was followed by a Q&A session with the director beamed from the Gate Picturehouse in London.  It soon became clear that Into the Abyss is not the polemical anti-death penalty campaigning film you might expect, but rather an exploration of the nihilism of the crime itself and the collateral damage inflicted on the families of both the victims and the perpetrators.  The abyss that Herzog peers into is not just the darkness that Perry faces on the gurney, but the abyss at the heart of human existence.

For this was a particularly pointless and brutal triple murder in the Houston suburb of Conroe, Texas, as Herzog’s film elaborates. In 2001, two teenagers in Conroe, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, under the influence of drink and drugs, murdered a middle-aged housewife, Sandra Stotler, in her kitchen while she was baking cakes. They wanted the keys to her Camaro. Then they phoned her stepson and his friend (with whom they were acquainted) to get the code that would enable them to drive out of the gated community in which she lived. They killed them too and disposed of the bodies. Several days later, after a shoot-out with the police, the killers were arrested, confessed and were convicted.

Although the film is not explicitly anti-capital punishment, Herzog makes it clear to Michael Perry that he opposes the convicted killer’s imminent execution.  But, he continues, ‘I don’t have to like you’.  Herzog’s conversations with those affected by the killing of three people, peels away layers to expose a blasted terrain of broken and impoverished families living in a chaotic and divided Texas community.  It is clear that Herzog’s main interest is in the social context of the crime and immense psychological burdens resulting from it.

Jason Burkett

Herzog subtitles his film ‘A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life’, partly because Perry was sentenced to death while Burkett was given life after his father, a habitual criminal and himself serving  a life sentence in the same prison as his son, moved  jurors to tears at his son’s trial with his recitation of his sense of failure and blame for Jason’s actions.  Indeed, Herzog’s interview with Burkett senior forms a powerful and appalling centrepiece to the film.

Herzog structures his film into six chapters, with each chapter’s title (for example, ‘The Dark Side of Conroe’ and ‘The Protocols of Death’) delineating a precise element of the tragedy.  The film begins, however, with a prologue in which the  chaplain at Huntsville talks about his job of accompanying prisoners to the gurney on which they’re strapped down to receive the lethal injection. In a brilliant stroke, Herzog conducts the interview in the cemetery where the unclaimed bodies of executed prisoners are buried with numbers instead of names on their crosses. The crosses extend in all directions as far as the eye can see, as if it were a First World War cemetery.

The chaplain, who has only 20 minutes to talk before he is due at the next execution, begins to irritate Herzog with his rather bland responses about the wonders of God’s creation, as revealed in the squirrels that playfully bound across his golf course.  ‘Please describe an encounter with a squirrel’, counters Herzog with the kind of questions that probably no other interviewer would dream of asking, following up with the perfectly reasonable query, ‘Why does God allow capital punishment?’  At this the chaplain – who has witnessed over a hundred men die on the gurney – breaks down.

In an epilogue to the film, the captain of the ‘tie-down’ team responsible for ushering condemned men from the cell in which they have (or may not have) consumed their last food and drink to the execution room where they are strapped down on the gurney talks about resigning his job after attending more than 120 executions.  He lost his pension as a consequence.  The deaths he witnessed were just some of the record-breaking 152 executions carried out while George W Bush was governor of Texas.  His testimony is heartfelt and moving, and is the only impassioned anti-death penalty voice we hear in the film.  He tells how he came to see the importance of living  your ‘dash’ – you know, the line between the date of your birth and the date of your death on your gravestone, the dash that represents your life.

In the main body of the film, Herzog focusses on the deep loss articulated by those on both sides of the tragedy. Lisa Stotler-Balloun, sister and daughter to two of the victims, talks of how it seemed she had lost everything after the murders, which were only a part of a sequence of tragic deaths that decimated her family in only six years.

But Herzog reveals the personal traumas on the other side, too.  Fathers and brothers of the perpetrators are themselves serving substantial prison sentences.  Those related to the killers or acquainted with them tell of being  arrested at a relative’s funerals, of being homeless and living in the boot of a friend’s car, of being unable to read, of life in trailer parks, with no job, of living for the next high.  Most poignant is Herzog’s conversation with Jason Burkett’s father, himself  jailed for life and almost certain to die behind bars. He talks about his deep sense of being a ‘total failure’, almost never at home when Jason was growing up, he recognises he was a lousy father and was totally to blame for his son running off the rails.

Catherine Shoard, writing in The Guardian, noted that:

The cumulative effect suggests a world in which murder, desperation and operatic levels of tragedy are workaday (one town is actually called Cut and Shoot). As well as losing her brother and mother in the attacks, one woman tells how she also lost almost every other member of her family (plus dog) in a variety of colourful accidents, suicides and slayings in the six years beforehand. She unplugged her phone soon afterwards: “I just couldn’t handle another call.”

Of course, it being Herzog, there is a certain amount of weirdness to be chanced upon.  A tree has grown up inside the  Camaro during the decade it has stood in the parking lot behind the police station.  A young man who knew the two murderers tells of a being stabbed by a neighbour with a 14-inch Phillips screwdriver that was thrust into his chest right up to the handle. He didn’t go to hospital because ‘I had to be at work in 30 minutes’.  Somewhat aghast, Herzog asks, ‘But you were OK?’  ‘Seem to be’, says the man, ‘So I was lucky there’.

In fact, this conversation seems to be a key element of Herzog’s theme that, amidst the tragedy of the murders and the execution, and the desperate lives of the residents of Conroe to whom he speaks, there is an ‘urgency of life’ to be found here, too.  The Phillips screwdriver man excuses himself in order to get to work on time.  He has turned his life around.  After years of drug dependency and petty crime, he is newly literate and speaks of reading, now, and writing.  Herzog congratulates him and asks if he writes often. ‘Not so much writing. Lotta sanding’.

Also very weird is the testimony from the member of Burkett’s legal team who is now his wife, having become convinced of his innocence by the appearance of a rainbow over the jail.  She suddenly reaches for her phone and shows Herzog the ultrasound scan of the child she’s carrying – Burkett’s child. With Burkett ineligible for parole until 2041 and the couple able only to speak to other through a plate glass partition, she hints at ‘contraband’ semen being smuggled out of the jail.

Whether you regard it as weird, also, that every person to whom Herzog speaks – including both murderers – evokes God perhaps depends on whether you are an American or not.  Roger Ebert noted this strange phenomenon too:

The people in this film, without exception, cite God as a force in their lives. The killers, their relatives, the relatives of their victims, the police, everyone. God has a plan. It is all God’s will. God will forgive. Their lives are in His hands. They must accept the will of the Lord. Condemned or bereft, guilty or heartbroken, they all apparently find comfort in God’s plan. What Herzog concludes about their faith he does not say.

In the Q&A afterwards, Herzog distanced himself from the gamut of documentary film-makers. Distinguishing ‘facts’ from ‘truth’, he rejects the conventional factual documentary as nothing more than ‘accountant’s truth’.  Instead, he insists that  there’s something much deeper: a deeper truth which his films – both fictional and documentary – have tried to reveal.  It is, he said, the truth that is revealed when reading a great poem: ‘you feel illuminated, you don’t have to analyse, you just know instantly because there’s an ecstasy of truth in the poem’.  It’s that ‘ecstasy of truth’ that he seeks through his films:

To get at that deeper truth you have to be inventive, you have to be imaginative. Otherwise you will end up with what cinema-vérité does – they are the accountants of truth. I’m after something deeper. I call it the the ‘ecstasy of truth’.

See also

Weetabix 3-D: before Avatar, before Herzog

Last week I posted this about seeing Cave of Forgotten  Dreams, the latest Herzog film, shot in 3-D.  Sitting in the cinema wearing the glasses re-awakened a childhood memory of collecting 3-D cards that were given away inside each box of Weetabix.  You looked at the images with a red 3-D viewer (above) that cost 1/6d (7.5p) plus a special offer token printed on the Weetabix box.  I remember my brother and I had a viewer each, and built up a collection of maybe a couple of dozen of the sets of cards given away with the cereal.  Considering that Weetabix was some 95% wholegrain wheat and barely any sugar or salt, that was some pretty healthy breakfasts we were eating back in the 1950s!

Sadly, our collection has long since disappeared –  now the viewers and cards have become collectors items.  They were produced by a company called Vistascreen, and Tim Goldsmith has a web page that tells the story of the business, which was finally sold out to Weetabix who continued the production of the viewers (in cream and then later in red) with their logo on the rear.

Someone else whose direction in life was determined by Weetabix 3-D was Queen guitarist Brian May.  Not only does he have a PhD in astrophysics, but he has also had a lifelong passion for 3D photography that began with those packets of Weetabix, as he revealed in a BBC interview  here.  A couple of years ago May published a book, A Village Lost and Found, based on 30 years of research, that resurrected exquisite stereo photographs from the dawn of photography taken in an Oxfordshire village in the 1850s. May supplied the book with a viewer, enabling readers to see T. R. Williams’ 1856 series of stereo photographs, ‘Scenes In Our Village’.

Happy days!  The 1950s weren’t so bad after all.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams: across the abyss of time

What constitutes humanness?
– Werner Herzog, questioning archaeologists in Cave of Forgotten Dreams

When he was 12, Werner Herzog was captivated by a book on prehistoric art displayed in a book shop window.  On the cover was a picture of a horse from the Lascaux cave.  He knew he had to have that book, and spent a long summer working to earn the money for it:

I bought the book, and since then a kind of awe has been inside me.

That sense of awe permeates Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog’s new documentary shot in 3-D during rare, privileged access to the Chauvet cave in the Ardeche and shown last night at FACT followed by a Q&A with the director via satellite link.  It is awe at the breathtaking quality and beauty of the prehistoric wall paintings discovered in the cave at Chauvet , and awe, too, at the ‘abyss of time’ (Herzog’s words) that separates us from the humans who created them 32,000 years ago.  They were nomadic hunter-gatherers living in groups of 20-25, sharing the terrain with Neanderthals – and animals, countless numbers of them. There was no agriculture, no metal-working. But they had fire, music, jewellery and art. They had imagination.

The cave at Chauvet was only discovered in 1994 when a trio of speleologists broke through a tiny opening and discovered chamber after chamber of spectacular prehistoric art, including images of many extinct species of Ice Age animals. The cave contains the oldest paintings ever discovered anywhere in the world, almost perfectly preserved following a rock fall which sealed off the entrance some 25,000 years ago.

It’s like a time capsule. It was completely sealed for more than 25,000 years. You’re stepping in and there are fresh tracks of cave bears and skulls and even a footprint of a perhaps eight-year-old boy next to the footprints of a wolf. This is sounding into the deepest recesses of the time when the human soul awakened.

Ordinary mortals will never see any of this, since entry to the cave is highly restricted, even to scientists and archaeologists.  Herzog received special permission from the French minister of culture to film inside the cave, and had heavy restrictions imposed while filming there. He was allowed to have only three people with him in the cave: the cinematographer, a sound recorder, and an assistant. Herzog himself worked the lights. The crew was only allowed to use battery powered equipment and used only lights which did not give off any excess heat. The 3-D cameras were custom-built for the production, and were often assembled inside the cave itself. Herzog was allowed six shooting days of four hours each inside the cave. The crew could not touch any part of the wall or floor of the cave, and were confined to a 2-foot-wide walkway.

I had to be professional. I had to do my duty. Only when we were leaving, I let the crew walk out and I stayed behind. For a few minutes, I was all alone there. It’s so silent you hear your own heartbeat. It’s very hard to describe. I can only say it’s a sense of awe.

Before filming Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog was sceptical of the artistic value of 3-D filmmaking. He retains that scepticism, but decided to use 3-D in his film to help capture the intentions of the painters, who incorporated the contours of the cave walls into their art:

When I saw the cave for the first time, it was clear this was the only choice. It was imperative. I was under the impression they are fairly flat walls with panels of images but the artists took advantage of the three-dimensional drama of the cave: a bulge in the wall would be the neck of a bison charging you, a niche would be used for a horse just peeking out cautiously, things like this.

Absolutely.  There is no sense of this being a gimmick.  There are no zooming, in-your-face special effects.  Only a perfect realisation of the sense of being there and seeing the art with its texture, surfaces and planes in a way that no 2-D representation can convey.

Herzog’s film offers a breathtaking and deeply moving record of the experience of entering the cave and exploring its three main chambers, which extend for 1,700 feet and contain 416 paintings.  But it isn’t, as some reviews have suggested, the only film of  the cave paintings to be made by a cultural commentator.  John Berger was one of the first people to visit Chauvet, and in 2002 he made a film, Dans le silence de la Grotte Chauvet, for ARTE France about the experience.  The text of his narration was published in his collection, Here Is Where We Meet, and, in edited form by The Guardian.  Berger also wrote about Chauvet in The Shape of a Pocket.  In both pieces, Berger addresses the mystery of this art and the people who created it:

The Cro-Magnon reply … to the first and perennial human question, “Where are we?” was different from ours. The nomads were acutely aware of being a minority overwhelmingly outnumbered by animals. They had been born, not on to a planet, but into animal life. They were not animal keepers: animals were the keepers of the world and of the universe around them, which never stopped. Beyond every horizon were more animals. At the same time, they were distinct from animals. They could make fire and therefore had light in the darkness. They could kill at a distance. They fashioned many things with their hands. They made tents for themselves, held up by mammoth bones. They spoke. They could count. They could carry water. They died differently.

[…]

The Cro-Magnons lived with fear and amazement in a culture of Arrival, facing many mysteries. Their culture lasted for some 20,000 years. We live in a dominant culture of ceaseless Departure and Progress that has so far lasted two or three centuries. Today’s culture, instead of facing mysteries, persistently tries to outflank them.

[…]

The time separating us from these artists is at least twelve times longer than the time separating us from the pre-Socratic philosophers.  What makes their age astounding is the sensitivity of the perception they reveal.  The thrust of an animal’s neck or the set of its mouth or the energy of its haunches were observed an recreated with a nervousness and control comparable to what we find in the works of a Fra Lippo Lippi, a Velazquez or a Brancusi.  Apparently art did not begin clumsily.  The eyes and hands of the first painters were as fine as any that came later.  There was a grace from the start.  This is the mystery, isn’t it?

Interpretations of the meaning of such paintings, the circumstances in which they were painted and whether the artists were male or female, have varied widely.  Some have seen them as being hunting magic, meant to increase the number of animals.  Others have argued that that the paintings were made by paleolithic shamans who would retreat into the darkness of the caves, enter into a trance state and then paint images of their visions, perhaps with the intent of drawing power out of the animal representations.  As as Chauvet is concerned, scientists speaking in the film to Herzog suggest that people did not live permanently in the cave but returned again and again, participating in some kind of spiritual pilgrimage.

Julian Bell wrote in his history of art, Mirror of the World:

Across this giddying, hard-to-conceive distance of 30,000 years, the assurance of Chauvet’s art leaps out with a power to seize the imagination….How these painters were seeing, how they were feeling their way into the energies of beasts!  As Picasso commented, visiting Lascaux in 1940, ‘We have learnt nothing’. […]

From its beginnings, European cave painting seemingly involved highly naturalistic effects. But that does not explain why people should have dragged themselves away from the sunlight down cold, dark and hazardous passages to practise it – often returning millennium after millennium to the same site. … On many cave walls the animal-drawing seems less an act of creating visible images than of people returning to add a trace to a site made significant by previous markings, which may be why some of them have become an unreadable tangle of superimposed scrawls. And yet… we see the habitual imagery of horses, bison and deer arrayed in more or less orderly formations. … Lit by lamps and torches, their pictures would have presented a flickering, unreachable spectacle to whoever peered up – a Palaeolithic equivalent to our present-day experiences of the cinema screen or the fairground ghost train.  Like these, the cave was a zone at a remove from everyday conditions. Those who entered it lived chiefly by hunting and hence on the move, following animals in their migrations. The major caves are mostly in valleys branching off migration routes, and people may have converged on them seasonally. Certain individuals must have led the way. In other words, the Old Stone Age had its specialists in art, if not its full-time artists.
[…]
But to return to the question: why did specialists take their art inside the caves? Answers have changed along with intellectual fashion, and some have been discarded. It was once thought that this was ‘hunting magic’, but the animals the hunters drew and the animals they ate prove not to match. One more recent line of research may have a bearing on whatever rituals the caves once witnessed. Their walls, like other Palaeolithic painted rock faces, often show isolated dot patterns, grids, zigzags and spirals. These look like shapes the brain’s visual system sends up, dancing before the eyes, when someone is in a trance through fasting or drugs. Starving the outward vision, therefore, was likely part of the intention when people took their leave of sunlight. Darkness encourages dreaming. In the torch’s flicker, living shapes would loom up, and it was all one whether they stemmed from the mind or the rock. Imagination was nature, and vice versa.

As one paleontologist, interviewed in the film remarks, these people were probably far more ‘permeable’ than we are today – their sense of being shifting between the spiritual and the physical, between their human identity and those of the animals around them.

As with other groups of cave paintings, there are no representations of  humans at Chauvet – apart from the image of a woman’s pudenda superimposed with that of a bison, painted on a limestone pendant projecting from the roof of the cave.  This shares physical characteristics with the Venus figurines found at sites across Europe, such as the Venus of Willendorf (below), that date from the same period.

The rock fall so perfectly preserved the cave at Chauvet that, quite apart from the paintings, there are other wonders.  Herzog’s camera showed us the the paw prints of cave bears, scratch marks they left and the depressions probably left as they hibernated in the cave.  There are over 150 bear skeletons, while at the entrance to the largest chamber there is a stone with the skull of a bear on its top surface. Some suggest that it must have been placed there deliberately and signify a form of relationship between man and cave-bear.

Fragments of carbon from the torches that lit the cave 30,000 years ao enabled accurate radiocarbon datings, and there are smoke stains from the torches and charcoal smears on the walls where torches were scraped to clean and re-ignite them. Recently footprints of a young boy were discovered alongside those of a wolf, possibly separated by thousands of years.  The boys prints are the oldest footprints of Homo sapiens sapiens discovered anywhere in the world.

Chauvet is one of the greatest and most sensational discoveries in human culture and, of course, what is so fascinating is that it was preserved as a perfect time capsule for 20,000 years. The quality of the art, which is from a time so far, so deep back in history, is stunning. It’s not that we have what people might call the primitive beginnings of painting and art. It is right there as if it had burst on the scene fully accomplished. That is the astonishing thing, to understand that the modern human soul somehow awakened. It is not a long slumber and a slow, slow, slow awakening. I think it was a fairly sudden awakening. But when I say “sudden” it may have gone over 20,000 years or so. Time does not factor in when you go back into such deep prehistory.
– Werner Herzog

As always Herzog seems unerringly to find characters who are slightly (or totally) eccentric.  Among the experts he consults in the film is an archeologist who used to be a circus juggler (only Herzog!), another who makes a 3D spectacle of himself demonstrating how to launch a spear with a paleolithic spear thrower (the bow and arrow had yet to be invented).  Then there is the experimental anthropologist who wears reindeer skins and plays The Star-Spangled Banner on his vulture bone flute, and the perfumer who uses his nose to sniff out caves.

There’s a typically Herzogian off-the-wall postscript, in which he tells of discovering just up-river from the Chauvet cave a nuclear power plant which supplies super-heated water to a nearby biodome.  There he found several radioactive albino crocodiles. Herzog muses on what they might make of the cave paintings. It’s quite mad, but somehow thought-provoking at the same time.

It’s a brilliant film.  I thought that Herzog only put a foot wrong once – when Jean Clottes, the lead archaeologist at Chauvet, turns to the film-makers and says, ‘Silence please. Please listen to the cave. You may even be able to hear your heartbeat’.  Instead of doing that, Herzog, perhaps mindful of the audience in America, his adopted country, adds music and a heartbeat.

The Q & A afterwards was hosted by The Observer’s Jason Solomons and was broadcast live across the country from Brixton’s Ritzy cinema. The questions – especially those from members of the audience seemed to reveal Herzog’s personality, philosophy and intentions more than any other interview with him I’ve seen.  Asked about his documentaries, Herzog argued that he was not interested in facts: while aspects of those films are ‘factually not correct’, they ‘touch a deeper truth’.

Herzog insisted that ‘the mystery that surrounds those paintings will be there forever’. Instead of attempting to offer theories about their origin, he was instead trying to evoke a spiritual response within his audience, encouraging them feel a similar sense of wonder to that experienced by those fortunate few allowed in the cave.

Herzog told us that he faced intense competition to shoot in the cave at  Chauvet.  He outflanked the opposition by offering to do it for a nominal one euro fee and donating the finished film to the French Ministry of Culture to use for  educational purposes (it will be available free to all French schools).

For me, one of the delights of Cave of Forgotten Dreams is Herzog’s narration: I could listen to Werner Herzog’s precise Bavarian accent for hours!  It seems I’m not alone.  Herzog revealed that he had just added his voice to a character in an episode of the Simpsons, while recently he was also asked to provide the narration for a 15 minute short, Plastic Bag, directed by Ramin Bahrani.  It can be seen on YouTube and is worth watching for its environmental message and its resonant last words: ‘I wish you had created me so I could die’.

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