Sunday, November 8, 2015

#1,910. Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980)

Directed By: Les Blank

Starring: Werner Herzog, Tom Luddy, Michael Goodwin

Line from this film: "Errol has set a good example. He's a landmark now. And I'm very proud of it"

Trivia: Herzog once promised to eat his shoe if a certain young American film student went out and actually made the film he was always only talking about. The young student was Errol Morris, who met the challenge with his off-beat 1978 pet cemetery documentary Gates of Heaven

I love Werner Herzog. Aside from being one of the finest directors ever to step behind a camera, he’s also a true character, the kind of guy who marches to his own tune, thumbing his nose at convention. When he talks, you want to listen, and when he does something, no matter how outlandish it may seem, you sit up and take notice.

Take, for instance, the good-natured kick-in-the-butt he gave filmmaker Errol Morris back in the late ‘70s, promising the young hopeful that, should he complete his first film, he would eat his own shoe. Well, Morris did just that, directing the extraordinary 1978 documentary Gates of Heaven, and being a man of his word, Herzog, with the help of Alice Walters (chef and owner of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse), cooked the shoe he was wearing when he made that wager. Then, just before the premiere of Gates of Heaven, Herzog devoured it in front of a live audience. Along with honoring his pledge, he hoped this publicity stunt would draw attention to Morris’ film, which, at that point, had not been picked up for distribution (in front of everyone, Herzog promised he’d eat the other shoe if a Hollywood studio bought Gates of Heaven and gave it a wide release).

Directed by Les Blank, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is a 1980 documentary short designed to serve as a filmed record of the above, but like its main subject, there’s plenty of interesting stuff lurking just under the surface as well.

As always, Herzog is positively enthralling throughout Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, from his advice to other young filmmakers (he tells them to do whatever it takes to get their movies made, even if it means stealing a camera and breaking into the processing lab) to his views on the state of modern entertainment (“We have to declare holy war against what we see every single day on television”, he says. “I think there should be real war against commercials, real war against talk-shows, real war against Bonanza, Rawhide and these things”). Clearly, Herzog is a serious thinker, and he approached the cooking of his shoe quite seriously, too (he coated it in spices, then, following Chef Walters’ advice, boiled it for about 5 hours).

Blank does wander off the beaten path a few times throughout Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, showing clips from Gates of Heaven as well as an excerpt from Herzog’s own Even Dwarfs Started Small, for which the director made a similarly bizarre wager with his cast (he promised that, should they survive the shooting of that 1970 movie, he would jump into a nearby cactus field. They survived it… and he jumped). Yet, at all times, Herzog himself is the film’s biggest draw.

Werner Herzog is one of the cinema’s most consistently fascinating personalities, and even when you don’t agree with what he has to say, you can’t stop listening to him. So if, every now and then, he does something crazy like eat his own shoe in public, I say “What the hell”?

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