Archive for April, 2007

Travelling on Foot

Cover of Herzog on Herzog, showing tight head shot of the director

In my teenage years, desperate to bridge the gap between hope and fear, I would walk long distances. When I “should have been studying”, I would walk for hours. Perhaps, if I had been more willing to participate in team sports, I might have been too sore and weary to be so deeply troubled by hopes and fears. Yet I didn’t walk to become sore and weary so much as to escape from home, from school, from the Catholic Church. I had discovered the pleasure of solitude.

When I was a photographer, many of my self-assigned projects required walking. Sometimes I would travel light, with a Leica and two or three lenses. At other times, I would do it hard, lugging a 4×5 view camera, tripod, light meter, and film holders. I got the best results with a Hasselblad, 60mm and 100mm lenses, and a portable flash.

One successful project, inspired by a few Walker Evans pictures I’d seen, involved taking close-up pictures of the ground. I chose three outer Sydney suburbs — Campbelltown, Penrith, and Windsor — drawing circles 1.4km, 1.0km, and 0.7km in diameter respectively around the geographic center of each suburb on Army survey maps. I then plotted equidistant points around each circle: 7 for Windsor, 10 for Penrith, 14 for Campbelltown. Each weekend for months I would take the train to one of those suburbs, walk systematically around the perimeter I had established, and take photographs at the various plotted points. I lit the debris on the ground with a ringflash which, together with the 100mm Planar lens, produced a shadowless, flat picture plane in which every twig, pebble, cigarette butt, and blade of grass had equal weight.

In my heart I always knew that the pictures turned out well not because of my technical expertise but because of the distances I’d walked.

There’s no substitute, I had read somewhere (and discovered for myself), for being in and moving through the landscape.

After a long sojourn, I’ve recently come back to walking. Needing a new pair of trainers, I bought a pair of Garmont hiking shoes instead. And I started reading Herzog on Herzog, which had arrived in a recent Amazon order.

A couple of days ago I read Dave Rogers’ post (in which he wrote: I’ll walk Bodhi the usual amount today, something approaching ten miles or so), followed his pointer to Ethan Johnson’s weblog entry, A Man Who Walks, and thence to an earlier post about walking as a strategy for losing weight:

Here’s the news, for anyone who wishes to hear it: I don’t believe that weight loss solely through dieting is the answer. If you don’t make any other change to your lifestyle, you will see benefits (by and large) by walking 30 minutes a day, every day. As improvements are made, your brain and body will conspire to build momentum (and burn Omentum) and devise other ways to increase your activity and fitness level. I’m finding it harder to sit around idly, and prefer to be active. I walk outdoors at least once a day, but usually twice. I’m finding that walking allows me to think more clearly (and deeply) versus vegging out in front of the TV or reacting to the various stimuli available online.

That my (imagined) motivation for walking differs from Dave’s or Ethan’s matters little. Walking the dog, walking to lose weight, walking to make pictures… ultimately, our walking is a means of — as Herzog puts it — moving through [our] own inner landscapes.

Herzog on Herzog comprises a series of interviews, conducted by Paul Cronin, in which the legendary German filmmaker offers innumerable insights into the making of his extraordinary films and attempts to dispel the quite astonishing number of myths, rumors, and downright lies that have accumulated around Herzog over the course of his career.

I have seen many of Werner Herzog’s films at the cinema, starting with Signs of Life in 1971. A little over half of the 54 films he has made are available on DVD (I currently have 24 so I guess you could call me a fan). Reading Herzog on Herzog has then been an unalloyed pleasure. I vaguely knew that, on hearing of Lotte Eisner’s illness, he walked from Germany to her home in Paris but I didn’t realize that walking is fundamental to Herzog’s way of being in the world. Here are some excerpts…

The Importance of Travelling on Foot (p280)

Has travelling on foot always been very important to you?

Humans are not made to sit at computer terminals or travel by aeroplane; destiny intended something different for us. For too long now we have been estranged from the essential, which is the nomadic life: travelling on foot. A distinction must be made between hiking and travelling on foot. In today’s society — though it would be ridiculous to advocate travelling on foot for everyone to every possible destination — I personally would rather do the existentially essential things in my life on foot. If you live in England and your girlfriend is in Sicily, and it is clear that you want to marry her, then you should walk to Sicily to propose. For these things travel by car or aeroplane is not the right thing. The volume and depth and intensity of the world is something that only those on foot will ever experience.

Walking to Lotte Eisner (p281)

Your friendship with Lotte Eisner was so strong that when she fell ill you refused to let her die. You said German film just wasn’t ready for her death, that it still needed her. Was this the reason why you walked to Paris to see her, a voyage you wrote about in your book Of Walking on Ice?

In 1974 we German filmmakers were still fragile, and when a friend told me Lotte had suffered a massive stroke and I should get on the next plane to Paris, I made the decision not to fly. It was not the right thing to do, and because I just could not accept that she might die, I walked from Munich to her apartment in Paris. I put on a shirt, grabbed a bundle of clothes, a map and a compass, and set off in a straight line, sleeping under bridges, in farms and abandoned houses. I made only one detour to the town of Troyes because I wanted to walk into the cathedral there. I walked against her death, knowing that if I walked on foot she would be alive when I got there. And that is just what happened. Lotte lived until the age of ninety or thereabouts, and years after the walk, when she was nearly blind, could not walk or read or go out to see films, she said to me, ‘Werner, there is still this spell cast over me that I am not allowed to die. I am tired of life. It would be a good time for me now.’ Jokingly I said, ‘OK, Lotte, I hereby take the spell away.’ Three weeks later she died.

When you travel on foot with this intensity, it is not a matter of covering actual ground, rather it is a question of moving through your own inner landscapes. I wrote a diary of the walk which I pulled out during the shooting of Nosferatu and decided to publish as Of Walking in Ice. I actually like the book more than my films; it is closer to my heart than all my films together, I think, because of the many compromises that filmmaking always entails.

Travelling to Film School, Alone, on Foot (p15)

Tell me about your ideal film school.

…vitally, aspiring filmmakers have to be taught that sometimes the only way of overcoming problems involves real physicality. Many great filmmakers have been astonishingly physical, athletic people. A much higher percentage than writers or musicians. Actually, for some time now I have given some thought to opening a film school. But if I did start one up you would only be allowed to fill out an application form after you had travelled alone on foot, let’s say from Madrid to Kiev, a distance of about 5,000 kilometers. While walking, write. Write about your experiences and give me your notebooks. I would be able to tell who had really walked the distance and who had not. While you are walking you would learn much more about filmmaking than if you were in a classroom. During your voyage you will learn more about filmmaking than if you were in a classroom. During your voyage you will learn more about what your future holds than in five years at film school. Your experiences would be the very opposite of academic knowledge, for academia is the death of cinema. It is the very opposite of passion.

I’ve written previously about the physicality of taking pictures (requiring a kind of athletic grace more akin to sports than making art) so Herzog’s words came as an affirmation. I sit in front of a computer too much. I’m better off walking — where I can think, feel, be in the world, make pictures, write essays in my mind…

Next on my reading list, after Herzog on Herzog: Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking.


As I sat in the theater a few nights ago with my friends, G and P, desperate for 300 to end, I kept thinking of John Robb’s description of the film as absolutely amazing… So unrelentingly great that it has earned a permanent place in my top 10 movies of all time.

Wherein lay the “greatness”, I wondered, and how had I managed to miss it?

Good works of art frequently provoke polarized responses. For example, James Rocchi’s review, cited in John Robb’s comments:

There are many reasons to see 300. Maybe you’re a 14-year old with a love of violent entertainment. Or you’re a classics professor who longs to get a splitting headache. Or possibly you’re an experimental gay pornographer, and want to see the newest techniques in ab-oiling. Perhaps you’re a special effects aficionado who’s curious about the state-of-the-art in faux decapitations and digitized blood spray. Or you’re a big fan of Frank Miller’s work, and Sin City just didn’t sate your appetite for writhing, speechless women, mutilated giants and two-dimensional tough guys. Speech pathologists may go to 300 to witness how the two-syllable word ‘Sparta’ can be quadrupled in length and extended even moreso with each bellowed repetition. Or, finally, maybe the phrase ‘moving pictures’ has always seemed a bit contradictory, and a movie that unfolds with the glacial pace of a series of oil paintings in a series of nearly-still images sounds soothing.

And this riposte, by Hale Seighton, in a comment on Rocchi’s review:

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, so here’s mine: You’re an idiot. That’s a pretty lame reason to deter people from seeing this. Because it’s a big-budget action movie!? Obviously you aren’t the target demographic and you’re apparently far superior to the troglodytes like me who occasionally enjoy a mindless action flick with a laughable plot… Maybe you should pull the coat rack outta yer hiney and just try to enjoy the visual effects, the character design, the art direction, jeez, at least the oiled muscular guys or any of the other things the film is actually good and are pushed in your face. Not everything can be a German art film with French subtitles.

I’m definitely not the target demographic but I occasionally enjoy a mindless action flick with a laughable plot. Apart from The Departed, the American film I enjoyed most last year was Snakes on a Plane.

John Robb conceded that Rocchi’s review was pretty funny, then added:

It’s certainly not fare palatable to the refined, urban ‘intellectuals’ who, by and large, make up the vast bulk of movie reviewers. It’s very visceral and therefore totally opaque to those that either lack or have lost the requisite nature.

By “requisite nature” I assume he means the capacity to respond emotionally or instinctively rather than intellectually.

I’m a “refined, urban intellectual” (or at least I’d like to think I am). Yet visceral films are not at all opaque to me. Among my favorites:

So I have no difficulty enjoying and appreciating films in which blood gushes, limbs are hacked off, and people are beaten, shot, impaled, pierced by arrows, or blown to smithereens. But I prefer that the violence serves to illuminate character or drive the narrative. A verbose description of the character development and narrative arc in 300 would fit on an arrowhead. Apart from a couple of moments of genuine emotion late in the film, all that I could perceive was unrelenting violence filmed with technical bravura.

Admittedly, I was briefly captivated by Larry Fong‘s silvery, desaturated images, the artful slow- and stop-motion photography which faithfully replicates Frank Miller’s two-dimensional graphic novel, and the remarkably effective use of bluescreen filming. But Zack Snyder’s more-is-more aesthetic philosophy proved simultaneously exhausting yet emotionally unsatisfying.

As the battle progressed, I began to wonder how just 300 Spartans managed to hold off a force of Persians estimated by contemporary historians to number about 200,000. The image that came to mind was of John Wayne killing fifteen Indians without reloading his six-shooter. So I was relieved to find an explanation by Professor Ephraim Lytle:

according to Herodotus, Leonidas led an army of perhaps 7,000 Greeks. These Greeks took turns rotating to the front of the phalanx stationed at Thermoplyae where, fighting in disciplined hoplite fashion, they held the narrow pass for two days.

The film reflects historical reality in one regard: Spartan women enjoyed greater autonomy and influence than in any other Greek city-state. But, given the film’s breathtaking indifference to any kind of political correctness, it seems reasonable to conclude that the commanding presence of Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo does not demonstrate deference to the new orthodoxy that all works of fiction should feature strong female characters but is simply a cynical manipulation of that part of the female audience who desire something more ideologically satisfying than 300 oiled muscular guys.

More troubling is the central deceit upon which 300 depends: the unrelenting heterosexuality of the Spartans.

Pederastic scene: erastes (lover) touching chin and genitals of the eromenos (beloved)

It’s not as though I expected any kind of accurate depiction of homosexual relationships between the Spartan soldiers. 300 is, after all, a Hollywood movie produced by a homophobic culture and aimed, as the Cinema de Merde review points out:

primarily at boys aged 14-25. The bulk of this movie is made up of shots of muscled men wearing leather thongs. More than that, the primary theme of the movie is the glory and admiration of masculinity. And a lot of 14-25 year old boys can be made distinctly uncomfortable by spending two hours admiring muscle guys in leather thongs. Therefore, if the studios want this movie to succeed with its intended audience, they need to find a way to make it really, really NOT GAY.

Asked about the 60 million dollar budget, Zack Snyder explained: I wanted to make an R-rated movie and I wanted to make Frank Miller’s version of 300 with no stars. You present the studio with that formula and they go, ‘That’s a lose/lose/lose situation.’ I’m proud that they gave me that much money.

An R-rated movie based on Frank Miller’s 300 with no stars and a special emphasis on the pederasty that was codified into Spartan law. Sounds like a lose/lose/lose/lose situation. No money for you.

But I wish that the Spartan heterosexuality hadn’t been fabricated at the expense of demeaning homosexual relationships:

  • the Athenians ridiculed as “philosophers and boy-lovers” (whereas as Professor Lytle writes, while the Spartans were defending the pass, a vastly outnumbered fleet led by Athenians was holding off the Persians in the straits adjacent to Thermopylae); and
  • Xerxes, the Persian king, depicted as an effete homosexual with eye shadow, facial piercings, and a ton of bling (rather than a general capable of raising and leading an army of several hundred thousand).

Why am I bothered by this? Isn’t it, after all, just a mindless action flick with a laughable plot? Because I’ve always loved stories that depict a struggle against insurmountable odds, because the Battle of Thermopylae is a great story about the nobility of defeat, and because 300 is such a mediocre rendering of that story.

In his Variety review, Todd McCarthy suggests that 300 could have used some overhead or otherwise orienting shots to clarify the geography, just as some visual grace notes expressing genuine human emotion, rather than just macho belligerence, would have helpfully expanded the film’s range of impact.

Two scenes towards the end of the film bear out that view, offering a glimpse of how, with more intelligent direction, 300 could have been infinitely better: the grief and regret expressed by Artemis, Leonidas’ loyal captain and friend, at the death of his son is deeply moving, as is the overhead shot of the slain Spartans, its flattened perspective momentarily turning the scene of carnage into a still, elaborate fresco.

There are other films based upon the Battle of Thermopylae, including The 300 Spartans (which Frank Miller says changed the course of [his] creative life when he saw it as a seven year old boy in 1962) and Go Tell the Spartans (a low-budget 1978 film about American military advisors in the early days of the Vietnam War). I have both on order.

Hello world!

It’s been two years to the day since my last post.

I’d intended to come back to weblogging before this–especially since Dave Rogers predicted that I would “post something” before the end of 2006. For, even though I wasn’t writing for my own weblog, I never stopped reading weblogs. In fact, weblogs have been my primary source of information since I stopped reading newspapers, listening to the radio, and watching broadcast TV after the Federal election in October 2004.

Much of my spare attention since I stopped weblogging has been taken up with watching (and thinking about) movies and–since July last year, when I bought a Ricoh GR Digital camera–taking (and thinking about) photographs. In the limited time that was left, I installed (and played with) WordPress and worked at redesigning the templates and stylesheets.

A couple of weeks ago I was drawn to comment on a post of Tim Bray’s about high-end digital compact cameras. Tim’s subsequent description of my “paean to the Ricoh GR Digital” as “the most interesting part of the conversation” was flattering but his stout defence of DPReview (at which, in his words, I’d “sneered expressively”) and his stated desire that a camera’s output “approximate what [one’s] eyes report to the brain” demanded a response.

A short comment about the damage done by sites like DPReview which fetishize the technical aspects of photography grew into a longer argument that photography has hardly anything to do with literally transcribing how our eyes and brain perceive the world. I caught myself thinking: “This should be an essay, or at least a weblog post.” That was the moment that I knew I’d relaunch the weblog.

Whereas the previous incarnation, The Heart of Things, dealt with subjects ranging from CSS to the Iraq War, this time I’ve decided to restrict myself to the things which lie closest to my heart: photography, the cinema, and (indirectly) the Japanese language. We’ll see how it goes…