Hits and Misses

Hits and Misses

Monday, January 27, 2014

Werner Herzog's Film, "Happy People: A Year in the Taiga" (2010)

Werner Herzog didn't actually film this movie.  Instead, he watched at a friend's house four documentary films by the Russian director Dmitry Vasukov, and on the spot he decided he would re-edit, score, and do a voice-over for a single, ninety minute film. 

Herzog's narration inevitably reflects his point of view, and that point of view is decidedly romantic.  "Happy People" portrays  the down-to-earth survival of families in a small village (one is tempted to say "of three hundred souls") perched along the bank of the Yenisei River in the center of Siberia.  As Herzog tells us far too often, they are free and thus they are happy.  One almost expects a dancing chorus of fur-hatted lads and lasses, all singing some Russian version of Purcell's "Happy, happy, happy we!" 

We never see the burst appendices or the births gone wrong; we never hear about the need to get a villager immediate medical attention in a place you can get to only by helicopter or by boat (or, in winter, by snowmobile on the frozen Yenisei).  Nor do we hear anything about the loneliness experienced by the women and children during the long Siberian winters when the men are out trapping for months at a time.  And in Herzog's romanticized version of a life close to Nature, we certainly never hear about a trapper, alone but for his dog, who has injured himself while running his trap line and quickly becomes frozen as stiff as the sables he's been trapping.

Another weakness in the film is that Herzog apparently has never given any thought to the compromises that are critical to surviving this way of life.  The trappers do live close to Nature (Herzog always gives that word an emphatic "N"), but they all use outboard motors (complete with home made prop guards) to go up the river and its tributaries.  Each one has a dog, but they all cover their trap lines by snowmobile.  We never see a trapper tinkering with the snowmobile's engine, for example, but that would appear to be a skill necessary for survival.  There's a lot of whacking away with axes, building dead falls and testing a tree's grain for a new pair of skis, but we almost never see or hear a chain saw. 

Despite these weaknesses, the film is well worth watching.  There's a first-rate sequence on building a dugout canoe.  The footage on the dogs is great.  What Herzog has appropriated from Vasukov's four films documents the unceasing labor of surviving for a year in the Siberian taiga.  To every thing there is a season:  a season to lay in next winter's wood and to start a new cabin;  a season to grow vegetables; a season to stockpile pike to feed both the dogs and the villagers; a season to trap sable.  These villagers may be free from the government, as Herzog asserts, but their survival is dependent on doing what needs to be done when it needs to be done.  Where does one draw the line between freedom and necessity?  My sense is that they are less "happy" than quietly proud of their skillful self-reliance.

I'm even thinking about watching it once more before returning it to Netflix.  If I do, however, I'm going to mute Herzog's narration.

Monday, January 20, 2014

What the Dog Knows by Cat Warren

Cat Warren has written an engaging account of training Solo, her German shepherd, as a cadaver dog, a dog used to find the bodies of missing people.  As everyone who has ever worked with a dog knows, the hardest part of training a dog is training the owner.  At one time or another, Warren does nearly everything wrong, yet Solo not only survives her mistakes but triumphs.  Her candor about her own errors make us appreciate what Solo can accomplish all the more.  You come away from the book thinking that Solo is a great dog and that Cat Warren would be a great person to have as a friend.

Good as it is in its separate chapters, the book as a whole ultimately is unsatisfying.  I decided to read the book because of its title: What the Dog Knows: The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs (Touchstone Simon & Schuster, 2013).  The problem is, not much can be said about what a dog knows and how the dog knows it--we don't even know much about how well a dog can smell.  Warren has a chapter on "Nose Knowledge," admittedly, but she's pretty much reduced to saying that little agreement exists about how and why dogs can smell so much better than humans can.  Other senses like vision get omitted.  I saw no reference, for example, to something I learned only a few years ago:  dogs see in two dimensions, not three.  Put a plywood silhouette of a dog sideways a little distance away, and a dog will assume it's another dog.  And hearing?  Nothing. What about memory?  Nothing.  But surely these are aspects of what the dog knows.  The title is thus inappropriate. 

What about the subtitle, The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs?  "Working Dogs" takes in a number of categories in addition to the cadaver and K9 dogs that Warren covers: sheep dogs, for example, and sled dogs, guard dogs, and companion dogs.  Hunting dogs might or might not come in here, along with the terrier breeds used to kill rats, and so on.  As far as What the Dog Knows is concerned, these don't exist.  The title and subtitle are marketing hype, pure and simple, and the book doesn't remotely deliver on what it promises.  A title like Solo and Me:  The Wonder and Frustrations of Training a Body Dog wouldn't have left this reader, at least, feeling he had been sold a false bill of goods.  I'd still like to know Cat Warrren.  But if I ever do meet her, the first thing I'm going to say is that she should get a new publisher.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Anything That Moves by Dana Goodyear

A bit over two hundred years ago, Brillat-Savarin coined the saying, "Tell me what you eat, and I'll tell you who you are." Today, at least for that geographically diverse and economically upwardly mobile segment of the population known as foodies, the saying would have to be, "Tell me what you want to eat, and I'll tell you who you want to be."  The subtitle of Dana Goodyear's Anything That Moves (Riverhead, 2013) both clarifies the book's subject and suggests its sweep:  Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of a New American Food Culture.

"The Making of a New American Food Culture" is of course the kind of marketing hyperbole designed to move this book off the shelf.  Inevitably, its promise falls short in actuality.  What Goodyear does talk about is the more extreme manifestations of those--a relative minority--who not only have embraced nose to tail eating but want to expand drastically their experience of what Calvin Schwabe has termed "unmentionable cuisine."  Goodyear quotes Matthew Selman's lament that there isn't a term for these seekers of gastronomic thrills:  "'I wish there was a word other than foodie,' he says.  'How about super food asshole or pretentious food jerk?'"  I'd like to suggest a term myself:  "extreme foodies," based obviously on the analogy with extreme skiers, surfers, and so on--risk-takers all.

And like extreme athletes, there are risks for extreme foodies, ranging from the relatively mild ones like drinking raw milk, to the humiliation when confronted by a bull's penis of your vomiting reflex being stronger than your desire to expand your consciousness, to the possible legal consequences of being caught eating endangered and therefore illegal mammals like whales.  As part of the interest of Anything That Moves is discovering the bizarre items people are actually willing to put in their mouths, I shan't go into more detail, except to note that Goodyear also gives examples of fearless eaters not actually getting from a renegade chef the genuine article they had paid exorbitantly for.  Caveat emptor!

In Anything That Moves, Dana Goodyear doesn't evoke the persona of the gleeful enfant terrible so characteristic of Anthony Bourdain.  She doesn't illuminate the mental and physical problems of getting food on the table, as does Michael Ruhlman in The Making of a Chef.  Nor does she write with the genial wit of Calvin Trillin.  But Goodyear has walked the reportorial walk in some out of the way side streets, and I, for one, trust her as a guide. What most impressed me is that she had the guts to write her "Coda"--and no, I'm not going to tell you about that, either.  You'll have to read the book.