Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The White Diamond

Illustration for article titled The White Diamond

In The White Diamond and Grizzly Man, which join Wheel Of Time among Werner Herzog's latest documentary triptych, there are moments when the director keeps the audience from witnessing important, possibly revelatory footage. Among the hundreds of hours of video left behind by Grizzly Man's Timothy Treadwell, who lived among Alaskan bears until they killed him, Herzog discovers audio footage of Treadwell and his girlfriend getting mauled by one of his furry friends. After hearing the gruesome scene unfold in his headphones, he orders one of Treadwell's closest companions never to listen to it, and he declines to share a second of it with the audience. In The White Diamond, a mesmerizing look at an airship expedition to the Guyanese jungle, an intrepid crewmember rappels down the side of a massive waterfall that's taken on mythical proportions to the locals. A camera is lowered down to him, and the man shoots behind the waterfall's curtain, capturing what's almost certainly the first human glimpse of this inaccessible space. But again, Herzog chooses not to show it.

Both cases reveal Herzog's overriding respect for human imagination, whether it's in picturing the gory details of a bear attack or an untouched piece of land that holds sway over native dreams. Over and over again, he's drawn to men with big, beautiful, crazy visions, and he finds another rich subject in Graham Dorrington, an English aeronautical engineer who dreams of flying over Amazon canopy. Speaking in excited monologues that dart as quickly as the synapses in his brain, Dorrington designs single- and double-person airships that he intends to skid quietly over the treetops, where he can observe the untouched landscape without causing a commotion. Inviting Herzog along with his small crew to remote Guyana, Dorrington embarks on this expedition with a heavy heart, still reeling from an incident 10 years earlier in which nature photographer Dieter Plage was killed after one of Dorrington's creations malfunctioned.

Since the Hindenburg disaster, airships as a form of passenger transport have gone out of style, and Herzog finds that Dorrington's whimsical machine isn't that far removed from the peculiar creations that marked the early days of aviation. Herzog loves to document humanity's perpetual struggle with nature, and in The White Diamond, the jungle (not to mention gravity) sometimes makes sophisticated human technology laughably clumsy. But Herzog also finds extraordinary beauty in what Dorrington is trying to accomplish: Like Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his boat, Dorrington wants to float around the natural world in a reverie, and when he finally does, he experiences a connection with Plage that's genuinely transcendent. Moments like these are common in Herzog documentaries, and only he would go to the far corners of the Earth to capture them.