Explorers, or: Jarmusch, Herzog, and Bears, Oh My
By Fernando F. Croce

Never mind the diegetic offspring-tracking trajectory -- in Broken Flowers, Jim Jarmusch looks for a bastard son of his own. Perhaps Wes Anderson, either to smack him over the head for mincing his deadpan radicalism into candy-box cuteness or to hug him for inaugurating Bill Murray’s age of menopausal melancholy. One way or another, following a quick, ad-libbed gig drinking Java right out of the pot with the Wu-Tang Clan homies in Coffee and Cigarettes (to say nothing of Lost in Translation and The Life Aquatic), Murray has come to practically embody the director’s unique brand of attitudinizing brackishness, an ineffable coolness-lethargy given human body and face. Buster Keaton’s face, maybe: Murray’s mug is the picture’s preferred canvas, frozen kisser, diluted eyes embedded in pouches, mashed brow and jowls, yet oddly suave, feelings furtively packed in the tortoise shift of an eye. It has taken decades for Murray to become fully stylized, accordingly, since the film is about twilight ruminating, the heft of time -- Holly Golightly singing "There Is An End" over the writing and delivering of the letter that’s to set the narrative in motion, Murray in a tracksuit watching Doug Fairbanks as an aged Don Juan on the telly, while just outside Jarmusch establishes indie-cred with languid lateral tracking and esoteric dedication ("For Jean Eustache").

"I’m like your mistress... only you’re not even married." Julie Delpy takes off soon after, the latest gal in Murray’s life, though, judging from the letter (red ink on pink paper), scarcely the first. A warning from an ex-lover, unseen for twenty years, about the son he never knew he had. No signature. Murray lays face down on his leather sofa, but catatonia hasn’t yet reached bustling neighbor Jeffrey Wright, who’s forensically-inclined and decides to arrange a journey for Murray to track down the possible mothers. The road-trip format has already been tagged as Jarmusch’s most mainstream structure so far, surely by critics deaf to the underground rhythms of his formalism -- Marvin Gaye plays while Murray, sitting at home, contemplates picking up a fizzing champagne glass. Fade out. Frontal medium shot of Murray at the airport lounge, shades pinned to face. The search is afoot, no rush, though, for this is Jarmusch’s American back-roads, driving and flying suspended, as if on a loop, till reaching the tacky yard-sale clutter of Old Girlfriend No. 1. A fastidiously derisive touch in Alexander Payne’s hands, but here humanistic debris, the extension of anotber life probably as forlorn as Murray’s. His welcome comes in the jailbait shape of Lolita (Alexis Dziena), pink robe dropped shortly before her aging-vamp mom, Sharon Stone, arrives from work. No luck with the letter, despite some passing kind of bond, Stone’s hand on Murray’s mouth in the morning-after of ephemeral connection.

Frances Conroy is up next, former-hippie-chick-turned-pearl-wearing-real-estate-housewife, married to perennial asshole Christopher McDonald, fussily arranged pillows and dinner plates. Murray’s visits seem to throw a double-edged light on both lives, on what has inexorably happened since -- he can only gulp and move on to Jessica Lange, an "animal communicator," shelves of bones and patches of grass stacked in her office’s waiting room. Again, a touch of smug superiority neutralized by the film’s warm surveying of tenuous human contact, mini-skirted temp Chloë Sevigny scratching her upper thigh, and a cat seeing through Murray’s motives ("He says you have a hidden agenda"). Finally, it is on to Mulletville, where a pissed-off Tilda Swinton, mangy bikers, and a sop to the eye await. Jarmusch’s most crowd-pleasing film is also among his saddest, for the search can only make Murray’s morose emptiness clearer to the audience, and not to himself. Distanced shots are favored for encasing the character’s dislocated sang-froid, which, paradoxically, throbs with a compressed emotion released only once, mute graveside sobbing over a late lover and, who knows, countless missed opportunities. Still, in the end it’s the present that really counts, a fumbled attempt at fatherly redemption segueing into a spiraling camera movement that says nothing, and everything. Jarmusch -- "The Last of the Independents"? How about an artist, purely and simply?

*

Werner Herzog is also an artist, and a voyager. Having braved just about every hardship in the world and Klaus Kinsky, the German director-anthropologist-adventurer could by now just sit back and shoot other people’s treks, yet his shift to nonfiction over the past fifteen years or so has crystallized the tug-of-war between man and nature that made even the most epic of his crackpot extravaganzas deeply, burningly personal. The documentary provides him with a further outlet for the contemplation of the agony and ecstasy of the world -- another way of saying that Grizzly Man, no less than his third superb effort this summer (Wheel of Time and White Diamond are the others), is a work of remarkable beauty and wonder. Much of the beauty, actually, comes courtesy of Herzog’s subject, shaggy-haired Timothy Treadwell, the self-styled amateur zoologist who, after spending thirteen summers living among the bear population in the Alaskan Peninsula, was killed and eaten, along with his girlfriend, by a grizzly in 2003. Herzog praises Treadwell’s (accidental) eye for epiphanic natural splendor, though the main subject of the found footage (extracted from more than 100 hours of video work) is Treadwell himself, bandana, shades, and MTV-host faux-edginess cloaking emotional cracks, an aborted acting career, alcoholism, and a paranoid disdain for the civilized world. A "kind warrior," the camera as his confessional, a quasi-deranged Rousseau’s hopes of becoming one with Nature perversely granted in death.

The doomed footage-testimony suggests The Blair Witch Project, but Grizzly Man could be a response to the comfortable vantage of March of the Penguins. Treadwell’s falsetto musings about his ursine would-be chums (dubbed Mr. Chocolate, Sgt. Brown, Grinch, etc.) reveal the ultimate romantic dream about harmony between species and, thus, elements in the cosmos. Chaos, not harmony, rules Herzog’s universe, so the movie turns richly bifurcated by its clashing auteurs -- the director talks to Treadwell's friends, yet the work is shaped less as worshipful tribute than incomplete paradox, a man’s mysteries, darkness, contradictions, and ultimate fate variously regarded as foolish tragedy, transcendence, and you-asked-for-it retribution for trying to cross the hierarchal lines of the world. (Herzog is also scrupulous of what a documentary can reconstruct and should, or should not, reconstruct -- the recorded sound of the mauling is heard by him alone, then given to Treadwell’s ex-girlfriend, with the advice to destroy it immediately.) No stranger to the obsession and folly of the human race, Herzog can locate a spilling-over sense of living strangeness in even the most mundane of moments (loud buzzing flies during a pilot’s account, a coroner’s comic-ghoulish manner), a strangeness invaluable for its absurdity, its sublimity, and the lyricism of their blurring. Treadwell may have found "primordial kinship" staring into the eyes of a predator, the same eyes where Herzog sees "the overwhelming indifference of nature"; the result is, as Herzog early on describes his fallen comrade’s work, the "inexplicable magic of cinema."


Reviewed August 25, 2005.

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