For the last ten days or so I have been thoroughly absorbed – mesmerized, actually – by a book of interviews with genius German filmmaker, Werner Herzog.
Exasperatingly eccentric and idiosyncratic, opinionated (in extremis), intolerant of mediocrity, steadfast in his philosophical and aesthetic beliefs, impassioned, fascinated with all that is beautiful in the world and in humanity, the visionary director of such masterpieces as Fitzcarraldo, Nosferatu and The Enigma Of Casper Hauser, is quite astonishingly brave, adventurous, and reckless, having made ravishing, death-defying films and documentaries on every continent, in locales and places ( and conditions ) I could barely dream of, infusing his works with a strange purity and mysticism – and, most importantly, beauty – in a way I find very inspiring.
Awe-inspiring, even. Daunting. The man is possibly quite mad, but for fifty years now he has been creating an astonishing body of work (only a fraction which we have seen, but loved) for its intuitive power, humanity, bizarre humour, fearlessness, offbeatness – sometimes, admittedly, certain films TOO odd; too slow, yet always with a sharpness and profundity you rarely encounter elsewhere.
Immersing myself in these cinematic travelogues – his commentaries on the films, and memories associated with them, I realize also how little of the world I have actually seen despite my relatively extensive travels : comfortably, unadventurously; always by plane; in recommended hotels, not shivering with snakebite delirium in the Amazon rainforest, capturing fleeting hallucinatory mirages in the Sahara, walking thousands of miles on foot ( he insists you should always do this to truly live) across Africa, Russia, Antarctica, India; the jungles of South East Asia…..
During the first, dazzling seconds of Van Cleef & Arpels latest addition to the Collection Extraordinaire that I smelled last night: Reve De Ylang, I had a momentary synaesthetic visual plunging into new terrain: a poisonous, elating tropical flower moistened with the pleasure of its own scent in the midst of one of these equatorial hidden places full of secrets and mortal dangers ; intense, enraptured bursts of ylang ylang, cardamom, citruses and saffron that put me immediately in mind of Kenzo Jungle L’Elephant, the kind of undiscovered flora that Herzog would incorporate into his visual and aural design before photographing the creature too close and succumbing, for some short moment, to an unhospitalized toxic reaction. Quickly, the perfume falls into a Venus fly trap of the cheapened neo chypre trope, with a torrid, chocolate patchouli heart and ending that I was personally forced to scrub off from the back of my hand, but still, it was quite an experience: a full spectrum of odours and colours; foliage; and tropical plumage.
Eau Papuagena is much more my kind of travel: arriving at a South American airport full of birds of paradise and other exotic succulents, showering and emerging from my Ecuadorian five star hotel showered and gleaming in a mind-zinging, hyperneroli, green mint citrus grapefruit flower extravaganza that achieves that alchemical magic of encapsulating pure sunshine, and boundless, mindless optimism, in a bottle. Like Neroli Portofino or the original Mugler Cologne, the main melody will probably eventually outstay its welcome, but for the man in the Panama hat and clean linens emerging into the deafening chatter of parakeets in the trees of the colonial town square, this bright extroversion of a citrus cologne floral – flashy, and uplifting – can do no harm.
Werner Herzog was born just after World War Two, and spent his entire isolated childhood of semi-poverty locked in his and his friends’ imaginations in a house hidden away – deliberately, by his mother -in the depths of a Bavarian black forest. It is interesting to me the fact that despite his innate thirst for grand adventure and ceaseless exploits in his poetic quest to capture as much of the unknown as humanly possible in his lifetime, with his fluency in many languages and absolute openness to all cultures ( the descriptions of all the locations he has been to in this book is quite dizzying to me, unhingeing), Herzog ultimately, despite living for the past twenty years in the USA, still has a very deep attachment and longing to his original birthplace, Germany, but particularly, Bavaria, in particular its classical music and literature, his European roots, despite all the wanderlust and conquests, ineradicable.
I sometimes wonder about this myself. Someone once described me as ‘an Englishman lost in Japan’. I am not entirely sure how accurate that description is ( both Duncan and I definitely WANT to live in a dream, I know that much ). It is undeniable, though, that I have never even attempted to ‘become Japanese’, and am probably seen by many as culturally inflexible ( I cannot, to this day, convincingly bow). I have started writing my second book on my experiences here, incidentally, sometimes in torrents;then it comes to a standstill, wondering if there are already too many predictable memoirs by ‘bewildered’ foreigners trying to make sense of what lies around them ( or beneath), and whether there is really any point to it all….
Certain things though, certain Englishnesses, like cream teas, rambling gardens, old houses, the smell of pillows and eiderdowns ( somehow they feel different in your home country) never lose their appeal. And thus my instinctive reaction to a new perfume, To The Fairest Cecile, in name reminiscent of A Room With A View, in scent a delicate porcelained posy of roses, bergamot and clove bud but which to me has the sugared almond eggshell cleanness of heliotrope and dreams of coconut, and a cerebral sigh – I know my limits. While Werner is out there taming wildebeests and risking life and limb over volcanoes or scaling fantastical mountains, I am timidly clean and comforted wearing this; under my duvet somewhere; half asleep; stirring in cotton, dreaming of England.
13 responses to “EAU PAPUAGENA by ELISIRE (2015)+REVE DE YLANG by VAN CLEEF & ARPELS (2019) +CECILE by TO THE FAIREST (2019)”
Beautiful writing, as always. I was motivated to comment because of your appreciation and descriptions of Herzog, plus your perfume associations. (Jungle l’Elephant –brilliant!) I immersed myself in Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed some years ago. And then a few years ago I attended a lecture he gave at a local college. He was witty, smart and surprisingly generous. I left left the lecture feeling high! I was buoyed by his commitment to living a creative life. His passion was contagious. He affirmed for me the importance of living one’s life authentically.
Thank you so much for writing this.
What you say here nails my feelings precisely ; I have felt DRUGGED while reading Perplexed – which cause the slightly off the wall, frenetic hysteria of the last two posts ( both of which were obviously rushed on trains or lunch breaks and which I thus hesitated to put up as I would have liked to extend / edit / cut / rewrite but posted anyway as they were as I am so caught up in his exhilarating sense of adventure).
How wonderful you got to go to that lecture. As you say, what I get ultimately from reading his interviews is the obstinate refusal to compromise on integrity; the insistence on an authentically lived life; the wonder of idiosyncracy and being true to your madness, the sense of quest and curiosity which I think is strangely lacking in a lot of people, and just the intuitive way he makes his weird and wonderful films.
What are your favourites?
I love Fata Morgana (1971). The themes he’d explore for decades to come are here: extreme environments and eccentric characters. It’s a mostly visual film and very hypnotic. But of the early well known films it’s Aguirre. It’s held up well over the decades. The part near the end when the Spanish princess(?) dons her royal finery and walks into the jungle grabs me at my core. Of the newer films I like Grizzly Man best. Again we see his favorite themes and this time he’s woven them Into a coherent narrative ordinary movie goers can enjoy. Don’t you love hearing his voice narrating the story?!
At the college where he spoke he screened The Wild Blue Yonder because he assumed–rightly–no one would have seen it. It wasn’t his best film but about ten minutes into it I found myself falling under his spell and feeling completely convinced it was a film that needed to be made.
I assume you’ve seen Les Blank’s documentary about the making of “Fitzcarraldo”, “Burden of Dreams”. It contains the iconic soliloquy about the vileness and obscenity of nature. Check out that part on YouTube if you haven’t seen the film.
What are your favorites?
Thank again for your thoughtful and beautifully written post. Just for fun I’m going to try pairing my perfume collection with Herzog films.
I was embarrassed to admit to myself that I was one of the people who couldn’t get past the airplanes taking off over and over again at the beginning of Fata Morgana (as he predicted one third of the audience would behave) but I have the DVD so would like to try it again. We watched Aguirre only recently for the first time, which was divine, but I think Fitzcarraldo is more exciting. My favourite is Bad Lieutenant. We saw it at the cinema in Tokyo (perhaps the first time I had seen a Herzog film), and we were REELING. Could ‘t stop talking about it all the way home. I find Nosferatu incredibly, chillingly beautiful as well. I want all of them now, actually, as his ‘documentaries’ are as amazing as his film. Grizzly Man was STUPENDOUS. I just feel that by seeing his films you perforate a layer that is usually closed over – the ice pure lake under everything.
I don’t know that I’ve seen any of his films, but the idea of walking thousands of miles in foreign places for some reason fascinates me, despite the fact that I could not envision myself ever doing such a thing, I love my comforts. Hence my love of travel diaries. Lately I’ve been reading the works of Sylvain Tesson, who has indeed walked thousands of miles in very foreign places. Your first reply to Susan nails it exactly: being true to your madness, the sense of quest and curiosity. I wish I had that and it fascinates me in others.
I think you would love this book then. Herzog writes some very interesting things about walking and landscapes, both internal and external.
Love Werner Herzog. I finally found the vid I was looking for, of Herzog playing back a recording of that crazy Klaus Kinski. Kinski is raving at him on it, and Herzog is patiently letting him rave. What was remarkable was the kind of bemused semi-affection he showed when he played it back, despite his admission that it wasn’t a whole lot of fun to have to endure at the time. Herzog seemed to be a relatively cool, mellow guy for all his genius, at least back when he was young. Maybe a little of Kinski rubbed off on him evenutally.
Grizzly Man got under my skin and stayed there. And Fitzcarraldo was one of those films a kid in her twenties could adore. All of us did. It was something we could see ourselves being a part of somehow. Ah, and then there is Nosferatu. Especially the original. Great piece, N.
Almost forgot. Here’s that Herzog vid:
Mostly, I found it really interesting to hear Herzog explain how Kinski’s hysteria translated into something extra when it came to shooting footage. And how, when the Quechua were witnessing Kinski’s screaming meltdowns, they were more afraid of Herzog’s silence. Just the way he describes it is so . . . Herzogian.
Love all the rest of this piece, about you. The last paragraph has stayed with me for these past several days.
Interesting. In what sense?
You know me and my Anglophilia. The images of rambling English gardens, etc. drive me crazy with that particular strange nostalgia for things I’ve seen in movies and read about but never experienced. Your description of To the Fairest Cecile is dreamy. And I can relate to creature comforts vs. harrowing physical derring do. I like to experience the former, live the latter exclusively vicariously through film and books.
And the words themselves were beautifully strung together.
How’s that? 😉
Well it is nice that what I was trying to conjure up was possible conjured : the Herzog book was amazing, but it is good to know the reality of your own limitations. And I don’t get homesick per se all that often, but there IS something about certain aspects of England – wood pigeons in summer and the light fluttering in bedrooms that I adore ( and slightly miss).
Even more, that paragraph took me back to all the years I would sit in the corner of the big couch in the living room and get lost in English fairy tales, knights in shining armour doing heroic things, dragons and poisonous snakes and dark castles and aspirational fair maidens, while I was safe and sound at home. Despite some shadows of bad family stuff lurking in the corners.