Sometime last year—probably not long after the Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans trailer first turned up—I had an idea for a potentially awesome viral video: a Peanuts special as Werner Herzog documentary. Nothing to it, really. Just grab footage from A Charlie Brown Christmas or It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown or whatever, then add an anthropological voiceover spoken in a thick Teutonic accent, commenting upon the action as if it were real. “The wanton cruelty directed at a hydrocephalic boy is almost unendurable. In addition to the humiliation of having the football yanked away once again despite the girl’s promise, it is a wonder that he did not fracture his enormous skull upon impact.” “Strangely, nobody has the presence of mind to inform this delusional canine that he is not a World War I flying ace.”
My first thought was that this idea would only appeal to film geeks, and thus wasn’t really worth the bother. My second thought, however, was that it could well cross over—that in fact it might be even funnier to people unfamiliar with Herzog, to whom it would seem hilariously absurdist and random. And then my third thought was “Eh, wonder what’s new on my RSS feed,” which is why I never do anything worthwhile unless there’s a deadline involved. But there’s definitely something increasingly rich, strange, and mesmerizing about Herzog’s narration, which seems like it’s become more and more prominent and creative as he’s gotten older. (He’s been making docs for more than 40 years now; I haven’t seen all of them, by any means, but don’t recall the earlier ones being quite so likely to inspire parody.) Take a look at this striking scene from Grizzly Man, in which Herzog dryly annotates a furious Timothy Treadwell rant. And marvel at one of recent non-fiction filmmaking’s most offbeat tonal balancing acts.
Obviously, this footage—shot by Treadwell, not Herzog—would be plenty compelling on its own, simply as a record of the guy’s persecution mania. (For those who don’t know the movie: Treadwell was an amateur naturalist who spent numerous summers hanging out with grizzlies in Alaska, until one of the bears killed and partially devoured him and his girlfriend.) Part of what it makes it so arresting is that there’s no indication at the outset that a harangue is imminent. Treadwell clearly plans to perform a simple wrap statement for this year’s trip, and he completes the first take calmly, though he’s apparently not happy with his look. After donning sunglasses and fixing his hair, he tries again, and you can see one errant thought (“in fact, I’m the only protection for these animals out here,” complete with an emphatic plié on “only”) instantly push his outrage needle into the red. I don’t know that I’m prepared to call Treadwell crazy on the basis of the Grizzly Man footage, but in these few weirdly personal minutes, it’s hard not to feel as if you’re actually seeing someone lose his grip in real time.
And then Herzog steps in. Now, there’s apparently a legal and/or ethical reason for the sudden intrusion: “Treadwell crosses a line with the park service which we will not cross.” It’s implied that some of what we don’t hear involves specific individuals, identified by name, and that the voiceover serves to protect those people from Treadwell’s vicious slander. (If anyone out there can lip-read, I’d be very curious to know what we’re missing, even with names redacted.) That seems plausible enough. Herzog could have chosen to bleep out the names, of course, but that might produce an unintentionally comic effect, given the number of times Treadwell says “fuck”—words are being censored, yet all the copious profanity sails right through. And editing the scene to cut out those references, via Errol Morris-style jump cuts, would inevitably dilute the intensity of Treadwell’s increasingly unhinged “performance.”
So I’m prepared to believe that the initial decision to interrupt the rant with narration was largely practical. Having made that decision, though, Herzog commits to it with a disarming mix of philosophical musing and rhythmic prankishness. The content of what he says remains wholly respectful: He strives to put this self-serving diatribe in a larger, more grandiose context, suggesting that Treadwell is lashing out not so much at the park service as at the very heart of Western civilization. He calls Treadwell an artist, and implicitly compares him to Klaus Kinski. (“I have seen this madness before on a film set.”) And I have no doubt whatsoever that he’s entirely sincere. There’s no hint of mockery in Herzog’s language or tone. On the contrary, it’s clear he identifies with Treadwell to some extent—that he admires the force of his passion, if not necessarily the ends to which it’s being used.
At the same time, however, there’s no way that Herzog isn’t aware that he’s also crafting a weird little comedy routine. The sound of his carefully enunciated psychological profile layered over the image of Treadwell silently going apeshit is just too blatantly jarring. It’s essentially the documentary equivalent of the old standby in which you see two people calmly having a discussion in the foreground while something goofily violent occurs in the background, though I’m damned if I can think of a good example of that offhand. (I recall something of the sort in Men In Black, but I also recall that moment being executed poorly.) Here, the juxtaposition is aural/visual rather than foreground/background, but I don’t see how you cannot laugh at all the bird-flipping and crotch-grabbing that accompanies 50-cent words like “implacable” and “incandescent.” Even the sound editing seems shrewdly designed to maximize hilarity, with Herzog’s voice cutting in several times at the precise instant that Treadwell switches from some wheedling impersonation (“I saw you on David Letterman, you were, heh heh, fairly entertaining”) back to full-bore in-your-face vitriol. It’s all too beautifully timed to be just a matter of drowning out personal attacks. There’s an unmistakable sense of play.
Nonetheless, Herzog does withdraw, allowing Treadwell to conclude the performance on his own terms, without further interruption. We get another clearly unplanned rant in this final take, with Treadwell almost turning into Vincent Gallo at one point—same staccato repetition, same aggrieved childishness. (I’m mostly thinking of Gallo’s role in Buffalo ’66, but it’s part of his overall persona as well.) By the end, he’s reduced to just muttering the word “fuck” again and again, as if it were a Tourette’s-syndrome tic. And then, with barely an instant’s pause, he just launches right back into his friendly sign-off, as if none of those eruptions had ever happened. Herzog, to his credit, understands that he needs to remain silent here, that he would gain nothing by interjecting further. (This scene occurs near the end of the movie, not long before in-depth discussion of Treadwell’s death.) He protects and eulogizes his subject even as he lightly pokes fun at him, and then he allows him a dignified exit.