Fata Morgana, or auto-criticism

I've always been a bit confused about writing, to be honest. I wanted to be a writer as a teenager and remember that one of the reasons I gave, when going to study English at university, was wanting to write myself. (That mightn't have been the best idea.) But I didn't really keep up the creative end of things, and writing became critical writing. All these years later, having gone through the process of finishing a couple of books at the beginning and end of this summer, I feel myself written out, and although I'm on study leave from teaching this term, I'm struggling to get it together. (Last one I had I wrote a lot.) I'm involved in a collaborative creative project that is going very well, and I wish I could devote more mental space to it. And yet here I am, writing, partly because I haven't posted up much recently, and partly because writing has become both a burden and a necessity. I feel my mind clotted with unwritten projects and ideas, and I always feel much better when I've written them; yet, because of the amount I've written in the last 12 months, I find it difficult to sit down and begin another article. I will, of course; deadlines encroach. (Or, rather, are missed with ongoing guilt, another ingredient in the writing recipe.)

Sometimes I wonder if it's simply a matter of input: I need to read more, watch more. Then I would have more to say. But we have a house full of books, and I don't have much time for tv. To try to write about something, last week I watched a couple of Werner Herzog documentaries. I've long been a fan of Werner, falling in love with the Kinski movies at the end of the 1990s when I was teaching European cinema (Aguirre: Wrath of God), but remember watching Fitzcarraldo lat at night on Channel 4 back in the 1980s. I love My Best Fiend (and the documentary that it draws from liberally for Fitzcarraldo, Burden of Dreams) and recently read Werner's published diary of the making of the film, which he wrote in microscopic text in a diary then couldn't return to for 30 years.

The films I watched were Fata Morgana, made in 1970, a documentary filmed in Africa that Herzog first conceptualised as a kind of science fiction film, and a kind of companion filmed after Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s, with apocalyptic images of oil-well fires and ruined landscapes, called Lessons of Darkness, which is more overtly framed as a voyage to an 'alien planet' which is clearly Earth. (I was reminded of Godard's Alphaville (1964), shot in Paris, or the passage of transition between worlds in Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972), filmed on a Japanese expressway.) These, then, are films that gesture towards sf as a genre of estrangement, but where Fata Morgana is mythic, with the German film critics Lotte Eisner reading from the Popul Vuh creation myth on voice-over, Lessons of Darkness is political, a stark representation of the ruination of Iraq caused by war.

Fata Morgana begins with shots of jet airliners, trailing plumes of black exhaust gases, coming in to land at an airport. Shot after shot presents planes landing, a deliberately alienating opening which emphasises the principles of repetition that will determine much of the editing. There are slight variations: crows wander the landing aprons and fields, and occasionally the tweeting of birds can be heard above the roar of the jet engines. Here, though, the intrusion of human-made technology into natural environments, a recurrent Herzog motif, is foregrounded. The planes, through shooting with long lenses straight down the runway, almost seem to descend vertically, falling to Earth but not seeming to approach, like alien craft. These are, of course, he planes that Herzog and his small crew would have used to travel to Africa: as ever, Herzog's own film, his own camera, is implicated in the horror of intrusion. Then music begins, there is a cut to desert and heat haze, and Eisner begins to narrate the Popul Vuh creation myth.

Fata Morgana, like Lessons of Darkness, is chapterised, again foregrounding its own textuality. The film begins with 'Creation', continues with 'Paradise', and concludes with 'The Golden Age'. There are strong similarities between the parts, but tonal differences largely produced though variation in soundtrack: Eisner's narration only takes place in part 1, while Herzog himself narrates in part 2 and there are interviews with a a German scientist (about lizards) and, untranslated on screen, with an African man wearing a military jacket, accompanied by a woman with a large radio carried around the neck. On the soundtrack, there is a shift to country-rock and, bizarrely, tracks by Leonard Cohen. Part 3 features a cabaret duo on a rudimentary stage, a younger man playing drums and singing (his voice amplified so badly that it is impossible to make out the words, and barely the tune) and an older woman at an upright piano. The structure of the film moves from the natural to the human in scale and focus; long tracking shots of the desert, with abandoned automobiles and tractor plant, a crashed plane. chain-links fences and desert shanty towns, desiccated carcasses of cows, give way to the human inhabitants, to children in groups watching the camera, to a boy with a large-eared cat (or dog?) held by the neck for an uncomfortably long time. 

This is, it seems, human life at the bare edge of existence, African people living among the abandoned detritus of Western technology, a technology also signified by the camera equipment trained at the landscape and people. The crew of the production also become visible later in the film, another way in which Herzog stitches his own operations into a history of colonialism; but the images bespeak abandonment and the failure of colonial dreams. As in the jungles of Aguirre or Fitzcorraldo, this is something irrecuperable about this 'landscape without deeper meaning', a space of such scale and endurance that human endeavour, particularly Western colonial endeavour, seems puny and temporary. A repeated shot of a Land Rover circling aimlessly in long shot, swimming out of the heat haze, signifies the impotence of human activity in relation to geological time and the space of the desert.

By the time of Lessons of Darkness, however, the desert is itself ruined by the disrupted extraction of material resources (i.e. oil) from under it. What appear to be lakes, reflecting the blue of the sky, are in fact pools of oil, 'treacherous' in appearance and ruinous to the ecology of the desert. The film has 13 parts, with titles in German though with a voice-over (by Herzog himself) in English, and begins with long, slow aerial shots over a desert city at dawn or dusk (perhaps Kuwait City). Part II, 'Der Krieg', shows night-vision footage of an air-raid: Herzog intones 'The war lasted only a few hours. Afterwards, everything was different.' Lessons of Darkness uses helicopter shots rather than tracking shots taken from a car or truck, and the smooth motion, steadicam-like, is alienating and eerie, emphasising the science-fictional scenario of the report from a 'planet in our solar system...' These shots are dominated by the pillars of fire that erupt from broken oil wells, sending vast plumes of black smoke into an apocalyptic sky. 

Signs of war, such as the concrete hangars penetrated by 'bunker-busting' ordinance, destroyed radio dishes and arrays, and most affectingly interior shots of a room which, as the scene develops, is revealed to be a torture chamber (a metal chair is wired up to a wall socket), turn the film away from an estranged 'report' into one of witness. The film shows interviews with two women, one in part IV, one in part VI; the first, who saw her sones taken and abused and then executed, is so traumatized that, though she wishes to communicate her experience, can only speak in rudimentary sounds which attest to the total disruption of language; and another, holding her young son on her hip, tells us that after soldiers dragged him from his bed and stood on his head, told her 'Mama, I don't ever want to learn how to talk', and refused to speak thereafter. Language, the accession into adulthood, is inextricably linked to trauma and horror.

Iraq becomes a hell. Sections VIII to XI concentrate on American firefighters and oilmen putting out fires, and then fixing the broken and gushing well-heads so that the oil no longer sprays across the the land and themselves (and thereby, of course, returning it to economic use). In section XII, after putting the fire out with explosive, the film shows footage of a worker tossing a Molotov cocktail into the black geyser, re-igniting it presumably to burn it away rather than despoil the land further); Herzog's voice-over calls this a form of madness, where the oilmen bring about the nightmarish conditions of oil-fires that they then have to put out in a cycle of terrifying work and conflagration. As the film ends, night falls, towers of flame barring the sky.

Lessons of Darkness does not offer the hope for endurance, either of nature or of the humans who exist in harsh desert environments, that underpins Fata Morgana. Its science fiction scenarios are apocalyptic, about endings rather than beginnings, the devastation wrought by human war irremovably traced across the landscape and the human psyche alike. The burnt-corked firemen, seemingly the agents of change or renewal, re-start the very blazes they put out. Herzog's diagnosis is bleak indeed: here the cycle is not natural (although the film approximates a diurnal cycle) but but produced by the machinery of war, the infernal technologies of the West, of which the cinema camera (and the night-vision scope) is a part.

Herzog, like Godard, does not spare himself or cinema itself in his own projects; he acknowledges that cinema is part of a technological apparatus of vision that is bound up with war and despoilation and horror (the kind of of argument that Paul Virilio makes in War and Cinema, or that Godard suggests in his Histoires du Cinema). And here I find that I am led back to the matter of the article I need to write, on cinema and spectacle and work, for which this blog stands in lieu, but the writing of which may help me to recover the practical means by which to produce it. Like Herzog, I'm caught in a cycle, the means of critique also being the means of oppression. Circles of thought and work, then, which may not be escaped, but which, through writing, may be turned to something else, hopefully of use.


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