Sunday, April 26, 2009

Where the Green Ants Dream

Werner Herzog's Where the Green Ants Dream is an oddity even in the filmography of a director who has more or less made nothing but oddities of various kinds. It's an elliptical, mystically infused tale of a confrontation between a tribe of Australian aborigines and a mining company that wants to drill and blast on land that the aborigines consider sacred. It is, they tell the mining company's representatives, the place "where the green ants dream," and if this place is disturbed and the ants are no longer able to dream, it will be a disaster for the entire world. Needless to say, the company is not overly concerned, and immediately begins trying to figure out how to go ahead with their mining anyway, and how to get the aborigines out of the way with the least fuss. They try bribes, but when these are rejected they drag the tribe into court, where there's little doubt how the establishment will decide, with the Commonwealth of Australia itself lining up on the side of the mining company.

It is, of course, equally obvious where Herzog's sympathies lie. His depiction of the aborigines sometimes draws on the "magical negro" cliché, but he does seem to see these people as genuinely spiritual and good and noble. There is little condescension in his vision of aboriginal life: Herzog, with his complex relationship to the natural world and his fascination for man's confrontations with wildness, has great respect for these people, who seem to understand things in a deeper, more spiritual way. It's the whites in the film who are lost, struggling to understand, their minds a confused jumble. The mining company's head geologist at this location, Lance Hackett (Bruce Spence), gets the brunt of Herzog's satirical wit. Hackett is plagued by metaphysical doubts and torturous theoretical thinking. He ties his mind into knots trying to grasp the nature of an ever-expanding universe, trying to come to terms with Earth's place in the vastness of space. The aborigines cut through these kind of knots with the simplicity and finality of Alexander severing the Gordian Knot: they say that the whites ask too many questions, that they don't understand things on an intuitive level. This is why the aboriginal leaders Miliritbi (Wandjuk Marika) and Dayipu (Roy Marika) seem so calm, so tranquil, why they don't expend their energy in long, rambling discourses. When they speak, they are direct and to the point, in their minimal and heavily accented English, describing their ideas in the simplest possible terms. Hackett, meanwhile, struggles to communicate to them the necessity of the mining company's operations, finds himself unable to describe the procedures of drilling, and thinks he's being deep when he stumbles across Philosophy 101-level conundrums like "maybe everything we're seeing is an illusion."

Herzog thus depicts the confrontation between the aborigines and the whites in purely symbolic terms, as a conflict between ancient spirituality and modern commerce and civilization. The languid, hallucinatory rhythms of his images consistently reflect the former. The film opens with grainy, ragged images of a tornado forming above a desert, its black funnel rotating with the slow grace of a spinning ballerina, drawing up dust and dirt into its orbit. It's a scary, beautiful image, one that recurs towards the end of the film, its purpose utterly mysterious. Throughout the film, Herzog returns to images of mystery and strange beauty, like the sight of a green plane descending into the hazy desert, reminiscent of the similar heat-hazed images that opened his desert hallucination Fata Morgana. In one of the film's more bizarre subplots, this plane takes on a strange symbolic resonance for the aborigines, tied into a legend that's recounted to Hackett by a slightly crazed and very Herzogian etymologist who has stationed himself at a location where the Earth's magnetic field is supposedly at its most warped. This man tells Hackett about the life cycle of the green ants, sexless creatures whose mating ritual involves a massive swarm flying over the mountains, where only two individuals within the entire swarm acquire sexual characteristics and mate. The plane becomes a mechanized giant green ant, flying towards the mountains to ensure its species' continuation.

All of this is, to say the least, highly dubious as mythology or biology. Herzog reportedly invented the legend of the green ants rather than deriving it from any genuine aboriginal customs. In this respect, the film is not actually about aboriginal culture, but about Herzog's own vision of their culture, a vision informed by his own preoccupations and concerns, his ideas about nature and spirituality and progress. This gives the film a kind of schizoid looniness, with typically Herzogian characters drifting in and out of the narrative. There's an exaggeratedly racist mining company foreman (Ray Barrett) who wants to bulldoze the aborigines out of the way. A black former air force pilot (Gary Williams) is mostly drunk all the time — reflecting the miserable conditions in which these people live within their designated reservations — but still harbors dreams of getting a plane up in the air again. In an almost entirely unconnected subplot, an old woman (Colleen Clifford) wants the mining company to help her find her missing dog, who may have wandered into the caves opened up by the drilling and explosions. She sets up watch at the mouth of one of these caves with an umbrella shielding her from the sun and a wad of black, feces-textured dog food congealing in a dish beside her. She mirrors the attentive watch of the aborigines, driven by her own personal quest just as they are by their spirituality.

In a way, this is what Herzog is really getting at here. He's always been fascinated by people who possess mysterious inner motors, driving them towards obscure destinations that no one else can even see or imagine. He finds — or creates — in these aborigines a similar inner drive, a deep and ancient spiritual understanding of the world that sets them apart entirely from modern culture, even when they don the accoutrements of society. Thus, they make even familiar modern technology and comforts seem strange and alien, turning a beeping digital watch into a puzzle to be deciphered. They look uncomfortable but dignified in the modern suits they wear to court during their final confrontation with the mining company: they are clearly out of place in this context but maintain their dignity despite the unfamiliar surroundings. They are stubbornly resisting modernity, and Herzog of course respects this, respects people who are out of sync with their time and place, people who retain their essential distance from Western civilization.

Herzog's respect for these characters is refreshing, even though they always remain characters rather than genuine representatives of aboriginal culture. Herzog isn't that interested in documenting their actual culture — though he would venture into the genre of ethnographic documentaries later in the 80s and during the early 90s — but in documenting the kinds of clashes and misunderstandings that result from these encounters between Western modernity and people who represent earlier ways of living and thinking. One of the film's most poignant moments is the appearance of an aboriginal man who is described as a "mute," not because he actually can't speak, but because he is the last representative of his tribe, the last person on Earth to speak a dead language, unable to make himself understood to anyone. He nevertheless gets his moment in court from Herzog, standing up in a suit and addressing the court in a language no one else can speak, and which no one else will ever speak again after he is gone. This kind of complete separation from the modern world, a disjunction so profound that no one can bridge the gap, is what fascinates Herzog here. It is this kind of person to whom Herzog is so poetically paying tribute.


Unknown said...

cool. gonna watch it.

Anonymous said...

Insightful write-up, as always. The opening of your last paragraph--"Herzog's respect for these characters is refreshing, even though they always remain characters rather than genuine representatives of aboriginal culture"--just about sums up my ambivalent feelings toward Herzog. He often (if not always) seems a filmmaker more interested in projection than depiction, yet he simultaneously exhibits so much compassion for his projected archetypes that they take on a reality of their own. This makes Herzog an undeniably visionary but also problematic filmmaker--one whose belief in his own manufactured brand of humanity sometimes reveals a certain contempt for actual human beings, who remain perpetually overshadowed by their fantasized prototypes.

- J. Nyhuis

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, J. I don't usually feel the ambivalence you do about Herzog's characterizations. It strikes me as slightly problematic when, as here, he's specifically trying to engage with another culture. The movie has little if anything to say about actual aborigines, despite their appearance as actors. On the other hand, even here I wouldn't say there's anything like "contempt" for the real human beings whose lives and cultures are being stylized and exaggerated for Herzog's purposes. I think he cares deeply about people; he just doesn't care much about being factual or sticking to the literal truth.