Posts Tagged ‘Werner Herzog’

Werner Herzog @Stanford: The Movie!

Friday, February 19th, 2016
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Legendary film director Werner Herzog discusses J.A. Baker's book The Peregrine at the Feb. 2 Another Look book club event.

Legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog makes a point. (Photo: L.A. Cicero/Stanford News Service)

Those of you who follow the Book Haven know that we’ve been somewhat preoccupied with legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog, who visited Stanford on February 2 to discuss J.A. BakerThe PeregrineThe discussion ranged far beyond the book, to embrace Virgil’s Georgics, the 16th century Florentine Codex (originally in Nahuatl), the Edda, his films and his views on reading and filmmaking – well, he’s a force of nature. It’s all now available on youtube, in a full-length version (here) and a quick, two-minute highlights version (here). Or see below for both: short version on top, the full hour-and-a-half below (it’s worth the time, really).

Legendary film director Werner Herzog discusses J.A. Baker's book The Peregrine with Robert Pogue Harrison, a Stanford professor of Italian literature, at the Feb. 2 Another Look book club event.

A sublime pairing. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

The event was part of the ongoing Another Look book club series of events – Another Look’s director, Robert Pogue Harrison, a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and host for the popular Entitled Opinions radio talk show, was the interlocutor for the discussion (we’ve written about him here and here and here, among many other places). In fact, the encounter was born in a friendship – but not with Werner, at least not initially. Robert met and interviewed Lena Herzog for the April 17, 2013 interview with Entitled Opinions about her photography (download Robert’s interviews, including that one, here).

The Another Look event was covered by columnist Caille Millner in “When Werner Herzog Came to Stanford” in the San Francisco Chronicle (here). An excerpt:

Herzog, 73, is legendary for many reasons: his passion, his punishing film sets, his contempt for personal comforts, his aversion to the contemporary gadgets that rule our lives (he grew up in a remote Bavarian village without running water or flush toilets) and, above all, for his absolute independence from Hollywood filmmaking

I was curious about how this remarkable man would fit into Silicon Valley for an evening. What’s an on-demand app to someone who didn’t make his first phone call until he was 17 years old?

It tells you something about Herzog that the reason he drove up to Stanford from Los Angeles was to talk about a little-known, long-out-of-print book about a man and a falcon: “The Peregrine,” by British author J.A. Baker (it’s been lovingly reissued by the New York Review of Books Classics imprint).

Legendary film director Werner Herzog discusses J.A. Baker's book The Peregrine at the Feb. 2 Another Look book club event.

A genial superstar. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

She writes with style and brio, but I don’t agree with her when she dismissed the textual difficulties behind The Peregrine (as did Herzog). The issues of accuracy aren’t occasional and trivial, but pervasive and woven into the book, whose author insists on its authority as a work of direct observation. A small team of us, including an expert falconer, spent a good deal of time chewing over the magnificent text and its discrepancies – some of the issues are summarized briefly here. I even retrieved some of the letters of renowned falconer Dick Treleaven to Baker, which are now at the University of Essex (covered here), as we attempted to square Baker’s observations with reality. Robert, who wrestled even more deeply with these issues than the rest of us, had some very insightful things to say on the subject, but the onstage conversation veered off in another direction. The Peregrine is undeniably a masterpiece, but it raises questions about artistic truth, “real” truth, and what, exactly, Baker was doing. Robert’s remarks about Jimi Hendrix in the full-length video gives a hint of where his thoughts were taking him as he pondered this mysterious book. I’m convinced that these issues make the book more, not less, interesting, and raise fascinating questions about the process of creation.

One of my strongest memories of the evening, however, occurred after the conversation was over. I was the assigned person to whisk the genial superstar away to the back door and the car that was waiting for him there. He would have none of it. He wanted to shake hands and greet everyone who had come to see him. He was smiling and laughing as the crowd swarmed him. Impossible to pull him away. Who would want to?

One of the best books of the 20th century? Werner Herzog is coming to Stanford to talk about J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine

Friday, January 15th, 2016
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J.A. Baker wrote The Peregrine at a precarious moment in environmental history: By the 1960s, the falcons had almost vanished entirely from the English countryside, thanks to aggressive use of pesticides. Baker’s response, an ecstatic panegyric to peregrines, stunned critics with its originality, power and beauty.

The little-known 1967 masterpiece will be the subject of an onstage conversation with legendary film director Werner Herzog, who has said that The Peregrine is one of his favorite books.

youngbaker

The young J.A. Baker, author of “The Peregrine.” (Photo courtesy Albert Sloman Library, University of Essex)

The Another Look book club event will take place at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 2. Free tickets have sold out; registration for the waiting list is offered through the Another Look book club’s website. The Peregrine is available at Stanford Bookstore and at Kepler’s in Menlo Park.

Herzog’s interlocutor will be Robert Harrison, an acclaimed author and Stanford’s Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature, who writes regularly for the New York Review of Books and hosts the popular radio talk show Entitled Opinions. 

‘One of the finest pieces of prose’

Herzog has made edgy films about grizzly bears, prehistoric cave drawings in southern France, Rajput festivals, and more – but he also prides himself on his role as an author and screenwriter. The Peregrine is required reading in Herzog’s Rogue Film School, and he has called it one of the greatest books of the 20th century, praising “an intensity and beauty of prose that is unprecedented, it is one of the finest pieces of prose you can ever see anywhere.” [Read more here about what he’s said about the book. – ED]

The Peregrine, which received England’s prestigious Duff Cooper Prize, has no plot and no characters. Instead, Baker distills 10 years of observations into a single autumn-to-spring period, written as a diary. Baker’s passionate, unsparing descriptions of peregrine falcons in the fenlands of Essex convey the urgency of the historical moment:

“Before it is too late, I have tried to … convey the wonder of … a land to me as profuse and glorious as Africa,” he wrote. By the spring of 1961, tens of thousands of birds were found littering the countryside, dead or dying in agony, along with other animals.

peregrine copyThe ecology movement has moved on to more global issues, but The Peregrine marks a point in history when the dangers were local and immediate. In that sense, it can be seen as a companion volume to Rachel Carson‘s book Silent Spring.

Some critics have attributed the elegiac tone to Baker’s own history. He had just been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and by 1969, when his second and last book was published, he was seriously incapacitated – just as Carson was mortally ill when she wrote Silent Spring.

Both Baker and his birds got a reprieve: The most lethal chemicals have been banned, and the peregrine population, once considered at risk of global extinction, has returned to levels not seen for centuries.

And Baker himself would live quietly until 1987, finally succumbing to the cancer that had resulted from the drugs prescribed for his condition.

‘Persist, endure, follow, watch’

In the days before Facebook, Twitter, selfies and Google searches, it was possible for a man to be little known outside his circle of friends. Privacy suited Baker, who was described as very reluctant to disclose anything about himself or his private views. In the years since his death, his trail has vaporized, leaving behind only his startling classic. A few details have become known in recent years.

Baker was born in Chelmsford in 1923, a son of the lower middle classes. His formal schooling ended at 16. He had no literary connections before the publication of his book. While initially said to be a librarian, he was in fact a manager of the local automobile association (though he couldn’t drive), and later a manager at a local depot of Britvic, a beverage company. He had a long and happy marriage.

Herzog

At the 2009 Venice Film Festival. (Photo: Nicolas Genin)

Sometime in his daily schedule, he found time to bike or hike to the Essex countryside, recording his observations in passages such as this one: “They had no song. Their calls were harsh and ugly. But their soaring was like an endless silent singing.” Baker became one of the most important nature writers of the last century.

“Baker’s legacy is real and lasting, evidenced in the fact that we’re still talking about it 50 years on, and cases like me are still trying to get inside his head,” wrote author and conservationist Conor Mark Jameson, who called the book “a love story of sorts.”

He noted that Baker “showed us how to relay feelings as well as bald records, how to write up notes, how to look, how to listen.

Experts then and now have challenged the accuracy of Baker’s observations, and a small controversy has erupted around the book – underscoring that this is an imaginative work as well as a personal record. But none challenge the mesmerizing beauty of his prose, which captures his despairing view of man and his own single-minded pursuit of the bird that obsessed him.

According to British naturalist and author Mark Cocker, “he drills down into the moment to haul back to the surface a prose that is astonishing for its inventiveness, yet also for its clarity and precision.”

Cocker added, “In fact if there is any criticism, it arises because there is so little down-time in the prose.”

Some have commented that The Peregrine is not so much about watching a bird, but is about becoming one: “Shun the furtive oddity of man, cringe from the hostile eyes of farms,” Baker wrote. “Learn to fear. To share fear is the greatest bond of all. The hunter must become the thing he hunts. What is, is now, must have the quivering intensity of an arrow thudding into a tree. Yesterday is dim and monochrome. A week ago you were not born. Persist, endure, follow, watch.”

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Another Look is a seasonal book club that draws together Stanford’s top writers and scholars with distinguished figures from the Bay Area and beyond. The books selected have been Stanford’s picks for short masterpieces that people may not have read before. Visit the anotherlook.stanford.edu website for more details.