As an American, I admit that only an outsider can view my country with the greatest clarity. And as long as we want to look at the United States through foreign eyes, why not look through those of Werner Herzog? Even aside from his wildly creative body of work as a feature filmmaker — he made Aguirre, the Wrath of God; he made Fitzcarraldo; he made Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans — Herzog the documentarian has offered up a host of his own rich and surprising perceptions. He’s traveled the globe, from the Lesser Antilles (La Soufrière) to Antarctica (Encounters at the End of the World) to southern France’s prehistoric caves (Cave of Forgotten Dreams), looking intensely and commenting even more intensely on people, from champion ski jumpers (The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner) to Vietnam prisoners of war (Little Dieter Needs to Fly) to wildlife filmmakers eaten by bears (Grizzly Man). By comparison, most of us might consider places like the auction houses and televangelical broadcast studios of America comparatively unexotic territory.
Not Herzog, however: when he watches a livestock sale, he hears in the rapid-fire babble of the auctioneer “the last poetry possible, the poetry of capitalism,” and when he watches a television preacher, he sees an appeal to “the paranoia and craziness of our civilization.” Here we have two fruits of these strands of Herzog’s fascination with his now-adopted homeland of America: 1976’s How Much Wood Could a Woodchuck Chuck and 1981’s God’s Angry Man. Like many other documentaries of Herzog’s, and not a few of his fiction films, these documentaries deal with pursuits so specialized, obsessive, or both that watching them in practice becomes mesmerizing. The first witnesses a series of auctioneers as their obscure, quasi-musical patter keeps one highly particular gear of the economy spinning. The second, one even more concerned with money and with an original title of Creed and Currency, looks into the world of Los Angeles’ flamboyant, donation-demanding, FCC-hating, seemingly untiring religious broadcaster Dr. Gene Scott. Do cowboy-hatted rural businessmen and manic televangelists accurately represent America? Hardly. But interpreted by Herzog, they show you the country in a way nobody else could.
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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, Asia, film, literature, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on his brand new Facebook page.