05 December 2006

The White Diamond

After reading Tom Bissell's appreciation of the films of Werner Herzog in the December Harper's, I decided to use the wonders of Netflix to catch up with Herzog's documentaries, because though I revere many of his feature films, of the documentaries I had only seen Grizzly Man and My Best Fiend: Klaus Kinski.

Now I have added The White Diamond to that list. It is an astounding film, strange and powerful, filled with rich imagery and immense, subtle depths of emotion and philosophy. It presents many of Herzog's favorite themes and character types, making it feel like a cousin to Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, but it is a gentler film, more hopeful and less corruscating in tone, but no less powerful in its portrayal of obsession, vision, and nature.

The White Diamond tells the story of Dr. Graham Dorrington, a British aerospace engineer who created an airship to fly over the canopy of the rainforest in Guyana -- rainforest canopies have been mostly unexplored territory, and are thought to be places of tremendous biodiversity. Herzog explores Dorrington's reasons for taking on the project, which stem from his association with Dieter Plage, a wildlife filmmaker who died in 1993 in Sumatra while flying above the rainforest in a craft Dorrington had built for him. Herzog shapes the story to portray Dorrington's quest as the dream of an obsessed man, the sort of dream common to many Herzog protagonists.

Of course, any story leaves things out and trims ragged edges into cleaner cause and effect relationships -- reality contains too many details to be reduced to anything other than itself -- but Herzog is particularly known for sculpting his documentaries, and in a BBC interview, Dorrington addresses how that tendency affected The White Diamond:
BBC Four: Herzog is famous for fabricating certain elements in his documentaries. Did you experience any of that?

Graham Dorrington: As the film went on I did repeat phrases that Werner used. I balked at one point when he wanted me to talk about curses, but he would often insist on a particular wording. For instance, the scene with the champagne bottle at the falls was all his language although the idea was mine. Also, some things were acted. The argument with Herzog in the film is completely fake -- pure acting. Why did I do it? Because I said to Werner that if I was going to do the film then we'd have to do it 100% his way; it would be no good for him to tell me how to design an airship and I couldn't tell him how to direct a film. So the argument was set up, but it did underline the feelings of a lot of people about who was really in control. On the other hand, there is a scene at the end where I had to think very intensely about Dieter Plage which brought back a lot of sadness and was very genuine.
This is a different approach from the cinema verite style of many documentarians -- filmmakers who would be horrified to stage any scene -- but it highlights the difference between journalism and art. Journalism seeks a mythical objectivity, with journalistic documentaries pretending their severe selection of materials to be somehow beyond the influence of any particular point of view, while art is (I'm tempted to say by definition) raw material shaped by perception. (I don't mean to denigrate journalism here -- just because absolute objectivity is impossible doesn't make it a bad ideal to strive toward.)

Herzog's mastery is shown in his ability to distinguish between good material that is raw and good material that needs to be shaped. The staged argument is convincing, and as Dorrington says, it efficiently conveys a conflict of ideas that, in the messier reality outside the film, would have come out in more fragmentary, less open ways. It helps viewers discern the characters' motivations and priorities. The scene where Dorrington talks about Plage's death is left raw, mostly a single shot with very few edits, because part of the film has been building up, through careful hints and shards of information, to that climactic moment, and it is as powerful a monologue as I've ever seen on film, an agonizing and cathartic moment of shared, tortured humanity.

And then there is the beauty. Herzog has not made a nature documentary. With The White Diamond, the place he depicts is intimately connected -- indeed, interpreted -- by the people who are a part of the story. We see the rainforest through their differing perceptions of it. By the time we are released into our own consciousnesses and given imagery without commentary, we glimpse the animals, the plants, the trees, the water through many different points of view -- through the view of personal, natural, and cultural histories, none of them complete, all of them full of possibility. The White Diamond is certainly an incomplete and perhaps even misleading portrayal of the "real" Dorrington, but it is much more than merely a portrait of a person -- it is an evocation of the mysteries Herzog has himself been obsessed with for his entire career, the unsolveable, fascinating mysteries of desire, dreams, and nature.