Friday, July 31, 2009

The Wild Blue Yonder

Tonight I stumbled upon one of the most original films I've ever seen: Werner Herzog's The Wild Blue Yonder. It's a hybrid of science fiction and documentary, if you will. A sci fi fantasy made by a writer/director who, by his own admission, is not terribly well acquainted with sci fi.

Herzog is, above all, a good eye. He knows how to dig through footage and know when he's found something. It's a unique skill. If you saw Grizzly Man you know what I'm talking about: finding images taken by others and bringing out the story that's really there beyond what the supposed teller intended.

Wild Blue Yonder is a weird amalgam -- material in equal parts found and created. The whole conceit lies on the fascinating dichotomy of disparate parts coming together and creating something unexpected.

Brad Dourif plays the only true character in the movie: an alien from the Andromeda Galaxy now living on a lonely earth. His people intended to come here and establish a colony, but it didn't really take. These aliens don't vaporize L.A. They just, in his own words, "suck". They sit by and watch as humans now locate his planet and consider what it might be useful for (as humans do).

The film is a composite of several formats. The earthlings traveling in search of a colonizable planet are actually astronauts on the space shuttle. The aliens are found footage of early 20th century aviators. Underwater shots from Antarctica sub in for an alien planet with a frozen sky.

The piece has a distinctly cobbled together feel. The audience is continuously forced to suspend disbelief -- or at least play with disbelief -- to pretend they aren't watching astronauts spinning around and eating pudding on the space shuttle.

But what arises out of this cobbling and weird play with disbelief is something truly beautiful. You watch found footage of a functionary at the Pentagon from the early 20th century and somehow the suggestion that he's an alien colonizer makes a great deal of sense. The audience fills in the gaps -- they see something that rings true. And this alien is a great deal more real than Spock or Obi Wan Kenobi. There's a life story there. There's a resonance.

When the film drifts into a kind of visual poetry -- beautiful original music played alongside undersea footage you can hardly believe was shot on earth, the audience undergoes a strange transformation. There's something rare and strange here, and it's been found again simply by making us the alien on our own planet.

Sometimes in our rush to make something seamless we create something hermetically sealed. But I'm more of the Leonard Cohen school on this one:

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There's a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in.
That's how the light gets in.
That's how the light gets in.

"Anthem", Leonard Cohen

The Wild Blue Yonder is by no means a perfect film, but it did wake me up to myself in a way sci fi is, or at least once was, supposed to.

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