The White Diamond
November 10, 2005 3:43 PM   Subscribe

The White Diamond was one of three documentaries released in theaters this year (in the U.S.) by legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog (the others being the more widely seen Grizzly Man, about a man who studied bears in Alaska, and Wheel of Time, about the practices and rituals of devout Buddhists). In The White Diamond, Herzog introduces us to Dr. Graham Dorrington, a professor of aeronautics who is obsessed with weightless, floating flight, and who is testing the design of a new airship in a large hangar outside of London. Herzog and Dorrington travel to the rainforest of Guyana, where Dorrington hopes to fly the small dirigible over the jungle’s canopy and study the innumerable plants and animals living there with the hopes of finding new species and potentially discovering plants with pharmaceutical and healing benefits – a practice he calls “canopy prospecting”. [more inside]
posted by billysumday (14 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Herzog began his career making fiction films, and his most well-known films are probably Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, both period films about explorers traveling down rivers in the jungles of South America. He is also a proficient documentary filmmaker, and in the past decade has nearly completely stopped making fiction films and focused solely on non-fiction material. It has been said that Herzog makes fiction films like documentaries and documentaries like fiction films, blending the line between what is real and what is staged. In this fantastic interview, Dorrington describes what it’s like to work with Herzog, and reveals that [SPOILERS] As the film went on I did repeat phrases that Werner used. I balked at one point when he wanted me to talk about curses, but he would often insist on a particular wording. For instance, the scene with the champagne bottle at the falls was all his language although the idea was mine. Also, some things were acted. The argument with Herzog in the film is completely fake - pure acting. Why did I do it? Because I said to Werner that if I was going to do the film then we'd have to do it 100% his way; it would be no good for him to tell me how to design an airship and I couldn't tell him how to direct a film.

As for Dorrington, it looks as though he was involved in designing a rocket for the X Prize called The Green Arrow (PDF), which is supposed to "take off vertically, coast to the maximum altitude, deploy a gas bag system and parachute during descent, and land cushioned by the gas bags." He is still researching airships - here is his latest paper (PDF), entitled, “Development of an airship for tropical rain forest canopy exploration” - and is planning on making a sequel to The White Diamond. In this great interview with radio station WFMU (realplayer audio link – his interview starts at 31:55), Dorrington describes how his interests evolved from aeronautics to biology and issues of conservation.

My heart’s cockles are warmed knowing there are still explorers and dreamers like this, and artists as crazy and interesting as Herzog to film them.
posted by billysumday at 3:44 PM on November 10, 2005

*goes off to watch Stroszek*
posted by Smedleyman at 4:05 PM on November 10, 2005

fascinating. i've been dying to see these. interesting read. now, where's my floating air-house?
posted by puddles at 4:08 PM on November 10, 2005

The BBC showed White Diamond as part of its Herzog season a few months ago. It is a startling piece of work, half a portrait of a man, half a chronicle of a journey, deeply affecting on both levels, and it shows that the veteran Herzog has lost none of his skills or wit, or his unique vision. For example, he and his team work out a way to lower a cameraman down the sheer face of a waterfall to photograph the interior of caves never before seen by man, and sacred to the locals. We see the preparations, the descent, and the return -- but Herzog's slow, accented tones tell us that they decided that nobody should see the resulting film. So we don't.

There is an amazing and almost unknown Herzog documentary called Pilgrimage, fifteen minutes long with no narration but a soundtrack by John Taverner. It was part of a short season the BBC commissioned in 2001, combining well-known film-makers (Hal Hartley, Nic Roeg, the Brothers Quay and Herzog) with well-known composers (Louis Andriessen, Adrian Utley of Portishead, Karl-Heinz Stockhausen, and Taverner). Of the four, only the last two are worth hunting out and the Herzog is the one you'll watch again and again.
posted by Hogshead at 4:24 PM on November 10, 2005

Hogshead: Awesome. Any idea where or how to hunt it down?
posted by billysumday at 4:28 PM on November 10, 2005

Herzog was right up the street from me for a film tribute, that I neglected to attend. I've always wondered if he's as strange in person as his movies make him out to be.
posted by iamck at 4:37 PM on November 10, 2005

I once saw him present some of the docs that are in the collected dvd set; he managed to appear both normal and also highly intense at the same time. He looks average and is quite soft-spoken, but he says the most extraordinary and thought-provoking things.
posted by carter at 5:03 PM on November 10, 2005

He's probably that strange in person.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:23 PM on November 10, 2005

Great post. I had heard about The White Diamond, but I had somehow completely missed that it had Herzog at the helm. Sounds fascinating. Thanks!
posted by brundlefly at 8:37 PM on November 10, 2005

This post is strangely incomplete without mention of "Burden of Dreams" :

Arguably the true work of genius to arise from "Fitzcarraldo", Les Blank's 1982 documentary on the making of Herzog's fictional film chronicles Werner Herzog's persistance at certifiably insane and arguably evil projects - required by his film script - such as the dragging of an enormous paddle wheel boat up the side of a small mountain by windlasses turned by gangs of rainforest tribespeople - several of whom were killed in an unfortunate "accident" predicted by Herzog's chief engineer who, prior to that event, quit the film project....

After which - as Les Blanc narrates in finest deadpan - "Herzog presses on".

Don't get me wrong - I think Herzog to be a creative genius and love his work, or parts of it. Yet I feel his creative spirit to be marred by more than occasional eruptions - such as Herzog's "Burden of Dreams" tirade against the Amazonian rainforest during which he rails about the environ as a botched divine experiment, one God left hideously unfinished and grotesque.

The tirade seemed to me bizarrely desirous of a tightly wrapped order at inconceivable odds with Herzog's project.

Moving far forward in relative time, there were striking resonances of Herzog's disgust in - or lack of cathexis with - the natural world revealed in a recent "Fresh Air" interview with Herzog concerning "The Grizzly Man" : the bear was - to Herzog - a thing. Dead. An object. Inenetrable and wholly souless.

I found it as bizarre as Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo" rant on the rainforest, and as absurdly ignorant.

For all that I don't disrespect Herzog - I've only here harped on his exaggerated faults and his strengths are equally exaggerated.

Go figure. Herzog is just so damned German.

Then, there's Klaus Kinski......

Anyway, back to your programmed Metafilter.........
posted by troutfishing at 9:10 PM on November 10, 2005

Oh - Also try this on for size :

Herzog as unwitting, unconsciously compulsive colonialist force.

"Canopy Prospecting" ? - It could be benign I suppose, but the descriptive terminology, as deployed, makes me wonder.
posted by troutfishing at 9:15 PM on November 10, 2005

....did you see the movie of that full size ornithopter taking flight linked off that guy's site: Awesome!
posted by marvin at 9:50 PM on November 10, 2005

Excellent post. I've not seen White Diamond, but teh description immediately put me in mind of the very excellent The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed by John McPhee, which is about an earlier group of dirigible prophets. The fact that someone else is beating the same path means they were not successful. (But you already knew that.) I would really recommend the book, as I would all of McPhee's.
posted by OmieWise at 5:38 AM on November 11, 2005

Thanks for this post. I have tickets to see The White Diamond tomorrow at a documentary festival here in Copenhagen, so the timing was perfect for me.
posted by sveskemus at 7:45 AM on November 11, 2005

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