Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Influencing Comics #2: Tom Hart on Mamet and Herzog

David Mamet and Werner Herzog are the Apollo and Dionysis of movie-making. Forgive me, I'm pitting them against each other partially because they've each created works I adore, but also because Mamet himself has in essence already done so.

Mamet's book, "On Directing Film" has been passed around by cartoonists and teachers since its publication because the book is so clearly dedicated to telling stories. Mamet goes out of his way to insist that the filmmaker's job is to construct a situation where the viewer constantly wants to know what happens next. The purpose of every scene, every dialogue, every "shot", is to further the drama. Mamet calls Dumbo a perfect movie, rates Frank Capra among the best movie makers, and thinks the function of most actors is to say their lines and little else. He's not at all wrong, if you subcribe to Mamet's value system: that the drama is the thing. Keep the viewer on the edge of their seat. They want to know what happens next. Your job is to keep them interested. They want to piece together your story if you respect them, they want to watch the arc of the characters as those characters fall apart or come together.

Mamet has little use for anything that distracts from the director's elucidation of the drama. He doesn't even like actors to act. To be a filmmaker is to be a crafter of dramas and stories that the viewers engage in, through the power of dialogue and shots that are conceived, staged, filmed, and wrapped up.

I love Mamet's book. It's an arrogant, self-satisfied book, so laser-focused on telling a story that anyone in any medium will benefit from it. In detailed conversations with students and illuminating supporting essays, he describes what kinds of shots and scenes move a story forward, and which ones don't. If scenes and shots don't move the story forward, they're of no use.

In my mulitple readings of the book, I can only recall him mentioning one director by name who represents the type of filmmaking he has no use for: Werner Herzog. He says: "... listen to the difference between the way people talk about films by Werner Herzog and the way they talk about films by Frank Capra, for example. One of them may or may not understand something or other, but the other understands what it is to tell a story, and he wants to tell a story, which is the nature of the dramatic art- to tell a story." Mamet finishes this line of thinking with "The only thing the dramatic form is good for is telling a story."

I'm not sure what Mamet's even trying to say in the first part of that excerpt, but I know what he's missing in the second part: film isn't merely a dramatic form. It may be partially that, but it's also a visual form. This is what Herzog understands (and maybe Mamet, in a rare bout of inarticulateness is trying to say this when he says "understanding something or other".)

Herzog, meanwhile, has consistently made movies -dramas, in fact- with vivid, stunning imagery, powerful performances and real moments that barely seem like they could have been caught on film at all. To Mamet's eyes, Herzog may frequently deviate from his story, or horror-of-horrors, not know his story before hand, but in fact, Herzog's story has always the gigantic, grand story of being earthbound and alive. His movies will dwell, linger on images much longer than any dramatist would allow. He stages and shoots accidents, finds resonance in side action, and used as his primary actor a man who was barely controllable on or off camera.

Herzog wasn't, like Mamet, interested in "telling a story", as much as getting the story to stand still long enough to be appear on film. Even in his filmed fictions, Herzog shot them like documentaries and was interested in finding the the human stories within their core. Unlike Mamet's, Herzog's scripts were often only a few pages long, vague outlines of scenes that need to happen. Herzog stages the scenes, creates the conditions for the scenes to unfold and films them. Herzog needs actors: Klaus Kinski's unpredictable nature made his rage and mania on camera more powerful than you could write or predict beforehand. Where Mamet would use dialogue and a careful organization of shots to make his points, Herzog would create conditions to get his actors to be human on camera.

Herzog has shot at least as many documentaries as he has fiction films. In both, he's looking for stories and imagery. In his late-career manifesto he says:

"There are few images to be found. One has to dig for them like an archaeologist. One has to search through this ravaged landscape to find anything at all... I see so few people today who dare to address our lack of adequate images. We absolutely need images in tune with our civilization, images that resonate with what is deepest within us... to find images that are pure and clear and transparent."

Mamet has said that one should never "rush immediately to visual or pictorial solutions." Herzog is not guilty of this. Where Mamet finds a Dionysian joy in writing the dialogue, in the crafting of language that illuminates his structured, mechanistic list of shots, Herzog is looking with his camera for what he calls "ecstatic truth." The solutions Mamet talks about are to the problems of drama, but those are not Herzog's main concerns.

I adore both creators. Everyone I know has a favorite Mamet line or two of dialogue. (" Put that coffee down! Coffee is for closers!") But I'll pick up Mamet's gauntlet and be a "person talking about the films of Werner Herzog and the films of Frank Capra":

Capra made some powerful, humane stories that linger long in the public imagination. In my casual conversations full of subjectivity and laziness, I'd call Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life "pretty great." But in the same context, to talk about Herzog, particularly Signs of Life, Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, Stroszek, Nosferatu and most of his documentaries, I start talking about being confronted, overwhelmed and devastated by emotion, imagery and yes, story of human struggle and potential.

All my career I've obsessed with a dichotomy between what I call drama and poetry. The inclination more towards story or towards imagery that exists outside of it's dramatic context .

The Mamet/Herzog polarity is this same dichotomy. "What Happens Next" vs "Ecstatic Truth." As a creator, I value both, I need to understand both, but I have always wound up running to the latter side. All my career, as creator and audience I've found myself drawn to where the rage, the physicality and the beauty goes untethered. I love messy, reckless creators whose highs are gigantic peaks and whose lows are sometimes Icarus-like failures. Werner Herzog, Kate Bush, Jack Kirby, Philip K. Dick.

These artists traffic in what I'm most interested in, things that there aren't premeditated shot-lists for: poetry, power, ecstasy and the unnamable, dormant forces within us waiting to be released.

c.2009 Tom Hart

Tom Hart is creator of Hutch Owen graphic novels and comic strips, critically acclaimed by The Comics Journal, Time.com, Publishers Weekly and the Library Journal.

He has taught for 8 years at School of Visual Arts, and in that time has taught at Parsons, Education Alliance, Young Audiences, the 92nd St Y and numerous places across the country and all over New York City.

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