Walking to Werner
Simultaneously insignificant cinema and minor ontology, why should a digi-film like Walking to Werner, a film about a budding filmmaker walking from Seattle to LA to meet Werner Herzog, concern us at all? If for no better reason than that it's a film not so much with its heart in the right place, but a film allusively showing us a soul looking for a place to reside. Now these are of course very different goals, with the former so often little more than a cinema of therapy, socially calibrated to remind us what it means to be a sensitive social being (Ordinary People, Magnolia, Marvin's Room, As Good as it Gets...), no matter the pain inflicted or received. A cinema of the soul, however, and especially the cinema of the soul Walking to Werner taps into, albeit almost accidentally, is much more interested in what it means to no longer have a social being, to go beyond the boundaries of an 'identity' and to find oneself occupying a physical experience. This is a physical existence one occupies to such a degree that it's not quite the transcendental notion of a soul leaving one's body (as we might choose to believe happens when we die), but that of the soul finding the body. This is very much a physiological spirituality, and has little to do with a prim, lazy Christianity where we do the right thing until our soul migrates from our corporeal self and flies wingward to heaven.
Now if we've suggested Walking to Werner functions as insignificant cinema and minor ontology, it lies in the film's visual un-ambitiousness, and its ontological shallowness. The digi-images rarely find an aesthetic equivalent to the sort of supra-social visuals of a Tarkovsky, Herzog, Sokurov or Dumont: it doesn't attempt to find those images that "sit deeply inside us" as Herzog once proposed cinema should seek. Equally, ontologically, the filmmaker-protagonist, Linas, Phillips, isn't really doing very much: he walks about twelve hundred miles in a couple of months, and does so with the intention of meeting up with Herzog at the other end. That Herzog actually won't be there when he arrives - he's off filming in Asia - makes Linas realize his walk is more intangible than he might have thought. It becomes an attempt to do something with his life, a bit like doing a charity walk for cancer, but as if the cure has been found shortly after you've set off. Why bother then? The answer is a little close to why not. Linas seems to be at a loose end, and has the air of a college grad with money from his parents' pockets and time on his hands. This isn't to judge Phillips; just to damn him with the sort of faint praise his mission demands. Especially when during the trip he comes across other walkers whose intense disintegration of self is palpable. There is the man who explains he more or less walks because he was too cowardly to kill himself. He says one day his life had lost all meaning and purpose and he didn't know how to get it back, but didn't know how to live either. Another man talks about losing his wife and kids: that he's been walking for well over ten years and will only stop if the pain starts to go away.
These are characters with stories to tell, and Phillips has enough good sense and respect to realize his own adventure is meagre next to the crisis ridden he comes across. But it's as if their crises, and their subsequent will-driven walks, serve as curious cheer-leading responses to his own wanderings. If they can do it from such a position of pain; can Phillips do it from a position of relative comfort and security? Phillips wants the desolated and the lost not especially because of the depth of their crises per se, but because they invigorate his own gesture towards will power. And yet can we say that the man who wanted to die, and the man whose family was murdered, have will at all? Have they not instead an almost automaton existence, where they exist out of a void, with the will long since lost and replaced by a pure form of existence? Thus where for Phillips he needs the will to finish his walk and gain some self-respect, proving that he's capable of doing something with his life, for the suicidal man and the one who's lost his entire family, this notion of self would seem feebly egoistical.
In this sense, many of the good deeds we do - the will driven actions; the charitable work - function as false ontology, as attempts at spiritual self-justification from a position of relative well-being. They would lack the sort of Sickness Unto Death Kierkegaard insists upon in the book of that name when saying "is despair a merit or a defect? Purely dialectically it is both. If one were to think of despair only in the abstract, without reference to some particular despairer, one would have to say it is an enormous merit." Kierkegaard believes "the possibility of this sickness is man's advantage over the beast...for it bespeaks the infinite erectness or loftiness of his being spirit." In this sense man transcends himself, goes beyond himself, and though of course there might be immense pain in the process (the sort of pain the two walkers we've invoked suffer), there is also a dimension to being that would otherwise be untapped. This is a spiritual potentiality - that, if we could remove the pain, it would be undeniably positive because it gives a new capacity to being.
This is something finally missing from Linas Phillips' journey, his self, and equally his film. Shane Danielson in his EIFF guide notes to the film is right to suggest that though "Phillips has taken care to fashion his journey as a spiritual quest - hungry young neophyte seeks audience with enlightened Master - it functions best as a portrait of American film school aspiration, pure career envy." Yet there is something interesting about the combo of careerism and the fractured selves Linas come into contact with along the way. It sub-textually brings out the limitations in the will if not underpinned by the sort of sickness unto death in Kierkegaard, or, for that matter the absurd choice available in another great theologian philosopher: Pascal. In his wager Pascal discusses the fact that if God does not exist then someone has lost nothing in believing him, but if he believes then there is the chance of gaining eternal life. Why not gamble on his existence?
These are two sides of the theological coin: one intensely pessimistic; the other full of optimism, but both moving towards the suggestion of a soul in man. As Pascal once said, "falseness of the philosophers who did not discuss the immortality of the soul". But does Phillips really want to talk about the soul? Not especially, but he does find himself pursuing a 'soul activity' - the walk, or rather the aimless walk. The walk without aim, the activity without a subject, an itinerary without a destination, or even - as we find in David Lynch's The Straight Story - a clear destination and purpose but with the most absurd method of getting there, all allow for the potentiality of the soul. Could we stretch a point and suggest this is neither Kierkegaard's pessimism, nor quite Pascal's transcendent optimism, but indeed a kind of health unto life, an attempt at avoiding the pessimistic sickness by irradiating it with insistent bodily health? The walker who lost his entire family is still working on irradiating that body, or rather using the body to irradiate the mind - the memory is still like a cancer in his brain.
Now earlier we proposed that so many of one's activities are will driven; yet this is not really the issue. Are we contradicting ourselves by now claiming a purposefulness to the walk? We think not; because the main point here is the place from whence the will comes. Is the will personal or public, internally motivated or socially and externally expectant? This is where Linas's failure lies: it seems on several levels, all of them 'superficial', to be an attempt at social integration. Initially it is about meeting Werner Herzog, an undeniably 'name' director, and Phillips' walking to him and possibly interviewing him ties in with Danielson's claim that it's "a portrait of American film school aspiration". But when Werner proves unavailable, saying when Phillips will reach LA, he will be in Thailand, Linas nevertheless goes ahead. After all, doesn't he have a film to make anyway? But the film seems to serve too readily the same function as the charity walk; that there is a very strong social force pushing Phillips to his destination. We feel nothing really underpins the work; and that if he failed to finish the walk all he would have would be an uncompleted film.
Another film ostensibly similar comes to mind, and that is Frank Cole's Life Without Death. Here Cole journeys through the Sahara desert, from the Atlantic to the red sea coast, covering more than seven thousand miles, a solo trip with the aid of a camel. It isn't just that Cole's journey is obviously so much more arduous than Phillips', it's that he's also made his life these arduous journeys, and even made filming these trips part of the arduousness. As the EIFF's Tracy Fearnehough says in the catalogue "Using a timing mechanism on his Bolex camera, Cole painstakingly films himself...miraculously overcoming the difficulties of storing and handling camera equipment in scorching heat and dust." On top of this he has an underpinning philosophy: "I think that because we don't face death, we can't face life itself." He insists "People should live very intensely - to have as much life as possible." Whatever limitations Cole's film may have (the sometimes platidunous voice-over that doesn't come close to the depth present in his journey), we can see it coming from a very different position than Phillips's. It is as though Cole's absorbed both Kierkegaard's notion of the sickness unto death (the film's title almost sounds like a play on Kierkegaard's), and Pascal's optimistic wager. Cole seems to be saying that we must confront death and then live our life; an ostensibly similar claim to Kierkegaard's, but with an optimism equal to Pascal's.
In this perhaps Cole's position resembles finally less Kierkegaard's and Pascal's, though it passes through them - in the sense that he counters Kierkegaard's sickness and affirms a Pascalian wager but finds his own version of the gamble - and becomes thoroughly Nietzschean as Heidegger proposes. As Heidegger explores in Nietzsche the philosopher's very complex notion of eternal return, it "was not discovered in or calculated from other doctrines. It simply came." Though Heidegger believes this thought was given to Nietzsche through "long labours and great travail", this is nevertheless not a personal thought, but "the span of the thinker's vision [as it] no longer ends at the horizon of his "personal experience"". Hence we sense Cole's walking is philosophical, or better still, ontological - it is a walk bigger than his personal experience, and a walk that could shatter his very being as he ventures towards, or to encapsulate, Being. The walk has to be bigger than oneself; in Linas Phillips' film the walk seems curiously shrunken by the man doing it. He may come into contact with walkers whose being is smaller than the walk (like the man who's lost his family, and the man who lost the child inside himself), but Phillips' own ego is always much bigger than the walk he embarks upon.
Thus where we said earlier that one must not walk out of will, that should be modified slightly: that one should not too readily attach one's own will to one's ego, and to a self-determining action. When Heidegger suggests Nietzsche vision was bigger than his personal experience, so we can see that the walker walks not for himself, not for some notion of societal approval and self satisfaction, but finds something bigger than himself through the walk. He must find in the physical the metaphysical - that must be his only predetermination: to find something grander than his self-importance. The two men with whom Phillips comes into contact possess either a shattered self or a shattered family that has shattered the self, and this subsequently forces upon them a question much bigger than the determinations of ego and will. By choosing to tell his own story, Phillips stays punily within his own "personal experience" and risks using others to bolster that minor egoistical achievement.
This is perhaps one of the major dangers of advances in filmmaking technology: that the very equipment lends itself not to vast Nietzschean vistas of experiences so much bigger than oneself - aesthetically captured by Herzog, Sokurov and Tarkovsky. But instead to a simultaneously aesthetically and ontologically shrunken creative universe. Walking To Werner is of course very minor, and perhaps barely worth the analysis we're lending the film, but it's symptomatically problematic, and in this sense shares similarities with Herzog's own recent Grizzly Man. Here Herzog utilises almost exclusively Timothy Treadwell's own footage. A bit like a more tortured Phillips, Treadwell is a reformed alcoholic who believed his life was going nowhere until he discovered living amongst the bears in Alaska gave some meaning to his life. For a dozen years he keeps going back to the Alaskan wilderness to live with the dangerous bears, that eventually kill him. Out of this tale Herzog does his best to wrestle a metaphysical purpose to Treadwell's antics, but finally it feels like yet another film of "personal experience". By being hemmed in by Treadwell's wild, abusive personality, and Treadwell's unimaginative if terrifyingly brave DV footage, Herzog's film never comes close to reaching the aesthetically metaphysical heights of his own images in so many of his other films - after all, Treadwell completely fails to capture images that can sit deeply inside us.
It is as if the question we're asking in relation to form is whether digital can capture the metaphysical - or does it simply lack the texture to create images that can sit profoundly inside us? The answer to this is that we can't just blame the technology - both the latter part of Godard's Eloge de L'amour, and also Philip Groning's documentary on a monastery in Switzerland, Into Great Silence, utilise video as well as film, and both use video aware of its definitional limitations, but also aware of its painterly possibilities. Godard invoked fauvism; whilst Groning arrives at a grainy, pointillist aesthetic that he uses to contrast with super 8 footage and standard film stock. Out of the limitations, Godard and Groning find aesthetic freshness. They try to discover an 'impersonal' method out of a too readily personal form. Phillips manages neither to ontologize his theme, nor create metaphysical texture to his images and arrives at a lightweight semi-gonzo documentary, lacking both ontological and aesthetic grandeur, it remains well within the realms of the film school aspirational.
© Tony McKibbin