Saturday, 31 March 2012

Werner Herzog's Enigma

I've suddenly got into watching films on DVD or, to be more precise, watching Werner Herzog films on DVD. I got given a box set of five for my birthday recently.

I saw The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser at least thirty years ago, when I lived in London. I remember leaving the cinema thinking it was the best film I had ever seen. No film has made such a profound impression on me before or since. All I could really remember after all these years was the emotional effect it had on me - and the unforgettable shots of the wind blowing across a field of rye. They come quite close to the beginning and I can vividly remember the sense of wonder I felt at the time.

Seeing it again after so long, I was curious to see if I still felt the same way about it. I do. While doubting the validity of such lists, I can understand why so many people put it on their lists of "the best films ever made".

For those who have never heard of him, Kaspar Hauser was a young man who turned up out of the blue in the streets of Nuremberg in 1828, carrying a strange letter of introduction. His ability to talk seemed limited. He was both an enigmatic and a contraversial figure. He was taken in and cared for and, when his speech developed he told how he had spent his whole life in a cell and, prior to his release, had had no contact with other human beings. He became a celebrity and there were many theories as to his origins. They ranged from the idea that he was the hereditary Prince of Baden who was supposed to have died in infancy (recently discounted by DNA evidence), to that he was a fantasist with a personality disorder who had made up the whole story.

In the film, Hauser is played by Bruno Schleinstein, a Berlin street musician and artist spotted by Werner Herzog while searching for an actor to play the part.  Uncannily, it turned out that Bruno S  (as he preferred to be known in film credits) had had a similar life to Hauser (as told by Hauser) in many respects. His mother, a prostitute, had beaten him when he was very small and he'd spent his childhood and youth in mental institutions. This clip of Bruno S is from another excellent Herzog film, Stroszek, written specifically for him:

Translation in lieu of subtitles:
Ladies and Gentlemen, Bruno will now play something on his Glockenspiel because Bruno now has Eva at home.
"Sabine was a young lady, pious and virtuous was she. She was a good servant to her master and ever so faithful she was too. (until a certain day...) Then came from Treuenbrietzen a young man who was passing through. (false hopes...) He wanted so to love Sabine and was a cobbler boy. (a worshipper, a proletarian. And now comes hardship...) His money he had drunk away with Schnaps and also with beer. (cheers! cheers! cheers!) He came running to Sabine and wanted some more from her. (he went like this!) she couldn't give him any.. cos none was to hand.. so he went to her master's goods and stole 6 silver spoons.. (stuck it all into his sack -- before this he'd only kick her rear) but before 18 weeks passed, the deed came to light.. with ravings and shameful words they drove Sabine out of the house.."
Going back to Kaspar Hauser and the original story, over the years a whole industry grew up around it. I've not read any of the many books written on the subject: I've only seen Herzog's film and read what I could about Hauser on Wikipedia (this is well worth reading, although I won't retell it all here). However, one cannot help but speculate. For my money, Kaspar Hauser probably exaggerated the story of his incarceration. However, I suspect it would be unfair to brand him a con-artist. The truth, I suspect, was that he had a personality disorder which rendered him unemployable and demanded a great deal of care attention from his family. His family probably abused him and kept him in appaling conditions. There was a row, as a result of which he was thrown out - or taken a long distance to a place he didn't know and dumped. He then had to rely on his own ingenuity to survive. If that involved exaggeration and appealing to the then-current Romantic zeitgeist, then who can blame him? If this is true then both men, Schleinstein and Hauser, had the task of playing the part of Kaspar Hauser. If the original Hauser played it better than Bruno S, then he was a great actor indeed.

Set on a Texan prison's Death Row, Werner Herzog's latest film, Into the Abyss: a Tale of Death, a Tale of Life was released yesterday on Friday, 30 March.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Discovering a Poem

I discovered a poem the other day I'd written a year ago - and competely forgotten about. I wrote it on one of the inner pages of a new notebook (why I did this, I've no idea). I've been steadily filling the notebook with notes on guitar lessons. Well, the other day I turned over the page at the end of a guitar lesson.... and there it was. The reference to angels was, I think, a reference to a print by local artist, Piers Browne:


I saw no angels:
only the sun
catching the slates
of the wet roof
after the rain.

The stream was full,
coughing its way impatiently
through a concrete pipe.
A skylark sang and,
on the opposite hill, a car
twinkled like a fallen star.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Vegetable Matters

Sometimes I find myself thinking about life, the universe and everything as I drive from school to school, as I do in the course of my work. The other day as I was driving along (somewhere just outside Bedale, I think) it struck me that I have been a vegetarian most of my life. I went through a comparitively brief period eating fish as well as vegetable matter (during which I was, I suppose a piscatarian) but felt uneasy about it, and went back to being vegetarian.

Sometimes people ask me why I'm a vegetarian. It usually crops up at dinner-parties (not that I go to a lot of dinner parties, although I'm always open to invitations). I usually shrug and say that I've been a vegetarian for so long I don't really think about it. Part of the reason for this is that I'm not evangelical about it - we all have to find our own way through life in such matters. Another part though is a cop out, if I'm honest. If I say why I am a veggie then we'll all rehearse the same old arguments I've heard time and time again. (Similarly, I'm a double bass player - and whenever I take my bass somewhere, someone will say "Cor, that's a big violin, mate". Spare me).

If I say I don't want animals to be killed so that I can eat, someone will ask me what I'd do if I were stranded on a desert island with nothing but lots of grass and a live sheep. Would I kill the sheep or starve? My favoured answer to this is that if I were stranded on a similar island  with the questioner instead of a sheep, I'd probably eat him, so what? Seriously, though, would I kill the sheep? Perhaps. However, I remember reading about a Zen monk who lay down before a hungry tiger for the tiger to eat him, saying that the tiger needed to eat more than he, the monk, needed to live. Why should a sheep die so that I might live? If the hypothetical situation became suddenly real, though, I'd probably eat the sheep. Who knows?

Whatever I did to the sheep would prove nothing. Being a vegetarian for me is nothing to do with maintaining some sort of imagined purity of body or action. For example, I'm sure I take in the odd bit of invisible lard. If I visit someone and they offer me a piece of cake, I don't ask them what they made it out of. At this point, another dinner-guest will pipe up that in that case, I'm not a really vegetarian. Give it a rest, please. It's like telling a Christian they're not a Christian because they go to dinner parties and indulge in gluttony.

Do I wear leather shoes? Yes. I'm not a vegan. As I said, it's not about personal purity. I don't see the point of that sort of approach and anyway, it's about doing what I can sustain and not give up on. I am attracted to veganism though. Someone will say how it can't possibly be good for one to be a vegan. Some of the best fell runners I've ever know have been vegans, so it can't be that bad. I try moving towards it now and again, but it's hard to do and I back off. Keep it personally do-able, sustainable.

I think one of the annoying things about the predictable discussions that arise when vegetarianism pops up is that half the people round the table have a sneaking feeling they would quite like to be vegetarians. Some people only feel happy when they've got half a dead cow on their plate, but not all. As with smokers, some meat eaters have a giver-upper lurking in there, trying to get out. If they can beat me to their satisfaction in the sheep on the island and the leather shoe arguments then they can keep their latent half-hearted giver-upper locked up until the next dinner party.

What I tend not to tell people over dinner is that if you don't eat meat for 35 years then all that conditioning wears off, and the idea of slaying another creature with eyes, ears and a brain, chopping it up and chewing on it's innards seems quite shocking. Don't get me wrong, I understand perfectly why other people do - I used to do it myself, without a second thought. And if I had to eat meat, I'd rather raise an animal and kill it myself. Which reminds me, I forgot the "carrots have feelings too" argument. Spare me. What would you rather do - pull up a carrot or poleaxe a pig? Intuition tells me I'd rather pull up a carrot. Don't knock intuition. As Einstein said: "“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

Thanks to Turnstone for the Einstein quote.