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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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What price masterpiece? Werner Herzog (Part 2)

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"For me, the border between feature films and documentaries has always been blurred. 'Fitzcarraldo' is my best documentary and 'Little Dieter Needs to Fly' is my best fiction film. I don't make such a clear distinction between them -- they're all movies."

-- Werner Herzog, interview with Index Magazine, 2004 - - - - - - - - - -

"Aguirre, the Wrath of God" was the first Werner Herzog film I ever saw, back when it was released in the United States in 1977. It was one of the first films I ever reviewed, too (for my college newspaper, the University of Washington Daily). All I knew about Herzog at the time was what I'd read in an extraordinary profile by Jonathan Cott in the November 18, 1976, issue of Rolling Stone, which portrayed Herzog as a mad visionary in search of new images, not unlike the obsessed outsiders at the heart of his movies.

I couldn't stop staring at the haunting photograph that surrounded the article, from (as I recall) such films as "Signs of Life," "Even Dwarfs Started Small," "Aguirre," "Kaspar Hauser" and "Heart of Glass." They certainly didn't look quite like any movies I'd seen before. And essential to the spectacle was the knowledge that Herzog had gone to remote and exotic places in order to capture these images and bring them back into the cinema. They were unquestionably photographical realities (imagine Herzog speaking that phrase), not optical tricks created in post-production. The boat in the tree in "Aguirre" -- the one the feverish characters could no longer recognize as real -- was an actual boat in an actual tree, not a miniature or a matte painting. Even the photographic effects -- the time-lapse clouds flowing through the mountains like a river around boulders in "Kaspar Hauser" "Heart of Glass"; or the high-speed "ski-flying" (high-altitude, long-distance ski-jumping) footage that allowed Walter Steiner to float through the air in "The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner" -- were actual recordings of real-world phenomena.

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