Through clouds of grayish-white marijuana smoke I would listen to this guy go on and on about how pretentious Werner Herzog was. He would take a deep hit from his bong, hold it in his lungs as long as possible, then release a long plume of smoke that would go halfway across the room. “Werner Herzog is an asshole,” he would say in a fake German accent.
But when I suggested that Herzog made some of the most interesting films of the past 30 years on very small budgets — and probably made little money off of them — he thought I was the one being pretentious. But then, maybe because I don’t smoke weed, or because he felt I was judging him, this dude would ignore whatever I said (especially if there happened to be a female around) and then launch into some crude impression of Herzog as if it were the funniest thing in the world. I guess I was supposed to laugh, but since I wasn’t stoned, I didn’t think he was funny. But then usually nobody else did either. It was his apartment, he had the weed, so he could say whatever he wanted. Fair enough.
This guy lived in the Mission district and threw a lot of parties. But he was one of those hipsters who was more of a consumer than a maker of things. But that didn’t stop him from talking and talking and talking. He had no concept of the work it took to make an extraordinary film like Grizzly Man, which recounts the life of a naturalist who was eaten alive, along with his girlfriend, by an Alaskan grizzly bear. Or Wings of Hope, the true story of a woman whose plane was struck by lightning and exploded over the jungle in Peru. Somehow she survived the two-mile fall back to earth. More incredible yet was the fact that Herzog was bumped off that exact plane at the last minute because it was overbooked. He was on his way to shoot a film in Peru — Aguirre Wrath of God. The woman was the only survivor of the crash. It’s an amazing tale.
But who cares? This guy would always say films like that are all just solopsistic and vain — each one a self-portrait and thus of no value. All 50 or 60 of them. His argument was that self-portraits reveal nothing except to the person making the portrait … or something like that.
The truth is that I never understood what this guy had against Herzog, but it really got under my skin. Who knows, maybe he sensed it and deliberately made stupid jokes he knew would make me want to push him in front of a moving car.
Before I met him I think he had been an emotionally abusive boyfriend to several hipster women. The script was predictable: He had to be the one whose opinion mattered. Everyone listened while he spoke. His jokes were funnier than everyone else’s. He was always right, no matter what. He tirelessly pointed out how he was more of a man than other guys. He also tirelessly explained how he just knew everything about art, film, and drugs. He was essentially the best person in the world.
I didn’t smoke his dope, didn’t laugh at his jokes, and had no interest in his cool-dude schtick. No wonder he disliked me. After a while I didn’t even say anything about film around him because it would trigger his reflexive derision. But why pick on Werner Herzog of all people? I mean, why not Fassbinder or Truffaut or Goddard? Didn’t he have some equally stupid thing to say about them?
Yet watching him and observing his behavior at parties it crossed my mind that probably a lot of people can’t tell the difference between really good art, bad art, and great art. Hell, some people don’t even like art. In fact, I don’t really think this guy liked art or “got” art at all.
And that’s why I totally, wholeheartedly, and unreservedly love Werner Herzog. He tells important stories — not for the benefit of hipster dilettantes but for those who actually are paying attention, for those who do read books all the way through, and for those who study history. Herzog is unique because his films are about living life and the conflicts that happen when you do so. It’s easy to sit and watch as the world goes by, but it’s art when you become the world that is going by as others sit and watch.