Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, California, is the home to the 4315th Training Squadron of Strategic Air Command (SAC). The 4315th performs a critical duty for the United States’ military—the training of the men and women charged with the upkeep and deployment of America’s nuclear arsenal. In 1987, Frederick Wiseman followed one class through the base’s intense fourteen-week training. Wiseman’s goal was not to document the procedural aspects of the training or the technical aspects of the job itself, however. His focus was instead on the vast implications of such an institution and the microcosmic world of those who exist in it.
Taken at face value, Missile lacks the narrative feel of Wiseman’s other works. No individual or event unifies the film’s scenes and it lacks conflict or resolution of any kind. This is a wildly superficial reading of the film, however. Missile externalizes its narrative; it exists only in the mind of the audience. Removed from the context of the viewer’s mind, the film documents a rather boring training class. Wiseman never fully addresses the immense gravity of the situation directly in the film, choosing instead to work with subtlety and implication. Missile documents men and women being trained to wield the most destructive force on the planet. This idea is unspoken but omnipresent, pervading each scene regardless of how mundane the matching onscreen action is.
Wiseman’s depiction of the training as a battery of efficient classroom instruction and simulations forces the viewer to face that chilling realization on their own. He very deliberately avoids any cinematic affectations that would color the scenes in any way: no dramatic close-ups, no quick pans, no forced perspectives. The only liberties Wiseman allows himself are brief cuts to the area surrounding the base: cars passing by, planes flying overhead. As the film progresses these become increasingly longer and more frequent. The journeys to the outside world begin to punctuate the instructions with a staccato rhythm, Wiseman’s subtle yet jarring reminder that the individuals inside the base’s walls could someday decide the fate of the world.
Wiseman’s cuts to the outside world are the only time that he breaks the film’s steady, calm tone, which mirrors the methodical detachment of those he documents. The trainers and students go about their tasks with an impressive attention to detail and a desire for absolute perfection. Wiseman depicts an admirable group of people, yet their blasé attitude toward their job is incredibly frustrating. The calm with which the instructor goes over the procedure for “turning keys” (slang for initiating a missile launch) is nothing short of disconcerting. Wiseman’s camera does not judge these individuals but still conveys the central ideological conflict of the film: we are dismayed by how unaffected they are by all of this. […]
Missile is a profound testament to Wiseman’s abilities. The film simultaneously embodies the ideals of objective documentary cinema and proves that true objectivity is impossible, a concept that Wiseman himself asserts. Missile at no point guides the viewer toward a conclusion on the proceedings or persons depicted, nor are Wiseman’s personal beliefs ever evident. It is, however, a construct; a work of film art created by an individual who has made a decision about what is and is not seen and the context in which ideas and events are placed. Wiseman’s editing does not add or take away any meaning from the events shown, however. He is inviting you to make a conclusion rather than providing you with one. (via)
Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow is that rare art documentary — one that places the art front and center, not as an adjunct to its maker’s biography. The artist in this case, Anselm Kiefer, doesn’t appear until 20 minutes into the film, and he’s always seen in interaction, mainly with the crew of assistants who help him produce and move his monumental canvases and sculptures.
Sophie Fiennes filmed the last two years of Kiefer’s decade-and-a-half project in the South of France, where he turned the site of an abandoned silk factory into a studio compound and elaborate invented world. As with much of Kiefer’s work, the effect is preindustrial and postapocalyptic. In Barjac, he built a city of ruins: a labyrinth of rough-hewn tunnels, an amphitheater and, most haunting, a set of towers inspired by the biblical story of Lilith (which gives the film its title).
With their emotional heft and gloom-steeped palette, the installations could be the sets for a Bela Tarr film. Like Tarr, Fiennes favors long takes. In slow, gliding pans, the camera beholds Kiefer’s artistic process and its results. A modernist score marked by metallic groans and discordant strings is perfectly attuned to the formal widescreen compositions.
Fiennes’ refusal to explain or question Kiefer’s work, to establish a context for it or clarify how it’s financed, will frustrate some viewers. But if she enshrines the art, she has at the same time memorialized an extraordinary undertaking, and created a film of hypnotic beauty. (via)
In Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, a 1979 documentary by Les Blank, the German director proceeds to cook and publicly eat one of his own shoes (not the Chaplin’s Gold Rush licorice kind) after losing a bet to his friend and future acclaimed documentary filmmaker Errol Morris.
Herzog had met Morris a couple years earlier at the Berkeley Pacific Film Archive. Morris, who had yet to make his first film, shared with Herzog a fascination with social outcasts and deviants and, inspired by Hitchcock’s Psycho, had flown to Wisconsin to conduct a series of interviews with the infamous serial-killer Ed Gein. Morris and Herzog had agreed to visit Gein’s hometown in the summer of 1975. There, armed with shovels, the two intended to secretely visit the local cemetery to determine whether Gein, as legend had it, had dug up his own mother in the course of his gruesome activities. Herzog showed up but Morris flacked out and stood him up (Herzog didn’t open the grave).
The two however remained in contact and the next year Herzog invited Morris to join his crew on the set of Stroszek. Morris used the modest salary he received there to fund another speculative research (the Ed Gein project was for all intents and purposes dead an buried…). But that one too was eventually abandonned as Morris embarked in yet another project, this time about California pet cemeteries.
It was around that time that the bet was made. Tired of watching his friend wasting aways his potential, Herzog promised to eat his shoe if Morris ever managed to follow up on one of his projects and actually made a film. And Morris did.
And that’s how one day in April 1979 —the day of Morris’ Gates of Heaven local premiere—, Herzog found himself landing at SFO airport (supposedly wearing the shoes he was wearing when he made the bet) and heading to Chez Panisse, the famed Berkeley restaurant (and has it happens, the hangout for the Pacific Film Archive crowd). There, Herzog set out to cook the shoe under the supervision of the restaurant co-founder Alice Waters, while the rest of the kitchen staff was going about their evening business. The reconstituted recipe is as follows
Unlace and stuff each inner cavity with a whole head of unpeeled garlic, two peeled red onions, and several bunches of parsley. Season with a dozen or more generous shakes of hot sauce. Reinsert laces and use them to truss shoes. Place the stuffed shoes in a large metal pot. Add equal parts liquid duck fat and hot water to cover shoe tops. Add up to a dozen whole sprigs of rosemary and additional hot sauce if desired. Salt to taste. Cook over moderate heat for approximately five hours.
Waters recalls how the stewing shoe “smelled absolutely horrible” and that five hours of cooking did absolutely nothing to soften the leather. Herzog had to take poultry scissors to the upper to manage to cut it into edible pieces, he wisely discarded the sole explaining that “one does not eat the bones of the chicken.”
At the public shoe-eating, Herzog suggested that he hoped the act would serve to encourage anyone having difficulty bringing a project to fruition. “I thought film could cause revolutions or whatever and it does not. But films might change our perspective of things. And ultimately in the long term, it may be something valuable. But there is a lot of absurdity involved as well. What we do as filmmakers is immaterial. It’s only a projection of light and doing that all your life makes you just a clown. It’s an almost inevitable process. To eat a shoe is a foolish signal, but it was worthwhile. And once in a while I think we should be foolish enough to do things like that. More shoes! More boots! More garlic!”