Even Dwarfs Started Small

Werner Herzog, 1970


One director whose vast spectrum of work has been criminally overlooked by a mainstream audience, but whose reputation as an outlandish filmmaker and wide output of feature-lengths has gained him a devoted cult audience is German director Werner Herzog. With notorious tales of his unconventional methods in filmmaking often matching the actual features themselves, from the famously chaotic production of Fitzcarraldo, to his legendary tumultuous working relationship with actor Klaus Kinski, these stories act almost as counterparts to the features. Following his debut film Signs of Life in 1968 and encompassed in commercial and critical acclaim, Herzog's next feature was released in 1970 to a largely disfavorable audience, branding him a 'fascist' due to themes within his film. Even Dwarfs Started Small follows a group of dwarfs, isolated in a desolate institution, as they rebel against their enforcers and cause considerable mayhem and violence.



Whilst some may choose to view the use of an all-dwarf cast as somewhat of a novelty, Herzog himself claims that the use of little-people in the film is a satire on society, using the dwarfs to illustrate the overshadowing of people by the worlds of commerce and consumer goods, with the dwarfs riotous behavior against their confinement reflecting Herzog's views on the German student movement of 1968. Something that has become noticeably frequent within the films of Werner Herzog, is his use of animals, often acting as a metaphor, such as the famous image of a dancing chicken in Stroszek, to Nicholas Cage's hallucinatory visions of iguanas in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans. Although Herzog has expressed his love of nature, often choosing to document it on numerous occasions, in films such as Grizzly Man or Encounters at the End of the World, in Even Dwarfs his self-proclaimed fondness for animals becomes somewhat altered, with Herzog choosing to contrast various images of animals in and around the institution, with themes of death or execution throughout the movie, creating an almost haunting quality, most notable of which are scenes in which piglets suckle the teats of their dead mother, a long uninterrupted shot in which a crippled dromedary camel tries to stand, and a strangely surreal sequence, in which a live monkey is crucified and paraded around the courtyard. 



With Herzog's famous claims about his inability to dream, Even Dwarfs acts almost as a substitute for this, creating an ulterior reality, strewn with illogical patterns and surreal and often nightmarish imagery that is somewhat reminiscent of Tod Browning's Freaks, a movie Herzog considers to be one of the greatest films ever made, though what is similar in aesthetic, is entirely different in theme, whilst Freaks portrays the 'monsters' with real delicacy, the complete polar is depicted in the characters of Even Dwarfs. Whether the film was intended to be viewed in a dream-like fashion or as a satirical commentary on 1960's politics is open to interpretation by the audience, but as it remains, Even Dwarfs Started Small is an unregarded classic, and a notable second feature for one of the most important and original filmmakers working today.
words by danny walker.

Performance

Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg, 1970


The casting of musicians in acting roles has been a varied affair, often capitalizing on the success of the artist, and exploiting the target audience; fans of the musician's work. For the artist the transition from sound to vision could be a method of reinvention (Bjork in Dancer in the Dark) or a platform by which the performer can promote their music (Eminem in 8 Mile). With Performance, the alteration of Mick Jagger's career from lead singer of The Rolling Stones, to his first serious acting role, after appearing in Jean-Luc Godard's documentary Sympathy for the Devil, seems to be a genuine attempt at change, funneling Jagger's on-stage persona and renouncing that image throughout the course of the movie. 




Originally completed in 1968, but released two years later after controversies surrounding the film's content (one executive's wife infamously vomited during a test screening), Performance takes place on the back-end of the 60's, following Chas (James Fox) a 'Performer': a violent member of an East-London gang. After finding himself overpowered and tortured in his own flat by order of his boss, Chas is forced to abandon his life of crime, and go on-the-run, finding refuge in a house owned by Turner (Mick Jagger), a reclusive hermit and former rock star. Although the pair clearly come from polar worlds, Chas deriving from a male-run heterosexual background, and Turner's indulgences into a hidden world of sex, in the form of a bi-sexual m√©nage √† trois, and recreational drug use, their influence upon each other culminates towards the end of the film, with each character gaining qualities of the other, Turner abandoning his feminine appearance during a David Lynch-style dream sequence, in which he becomes the boss of Chas' gang, and performs an impromptu version of Memo from Turner, and Chas' transformation from virility to androgyny after consuming hallucinogenic substances.


Whilst Performance may run parallels to certain other British crime movies of the day, such as Get Carter or Brighton Rock in terms of theme, what places the film miles apart from it's gangster movie counterparts, aside from it's study of gender identity, is Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg's prominent directorial work, which blends various different styles and techniques together, from jump cuts to crash zooms, often with the camera focusing on inanimate objects and rapidly panning out to reveal the subject. Most notable of all, is Performance's use of the cut-up technique, a style often used in literature, most famously by William S. Burroughs, in which text is literally cut up and rearranged to create an altogether new text. This style works in the films favor, giving the impression that the character of Chas may be losing his mind, or perhaps exposing the audience to his and Turner's perspectives with the character's consumption of mind-altering drugs. 




Whilst Mick Jagger's acting career has been somewhat diverse, appearing in Tony Richardson's poorly received Ned Kelly as the title character, and even being briefly cast alongside Jason Robards in an early production of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo before the film was entirely re-shot (footage of which can be found in either Herzog's own documentary My Best Fiend, or in the Fitzcarraldo documentary Burden Of Dreams) Performance remains as Jagger's greatest feat in the world of acting. Whilst the demographic for Performance is arguably fans of The Rolling Stones (the poster for the movie boasts 'Mick Jagger and Mick Jagger') and released under a year after the huge success of Let It Bleed, the film is far more than a method of reinvention or a promotional platform for Jagger, it remains nonpareil, perfectly capturing the essence of the 'swinging sixties' along with the seedy underbelly of London, whilst the execution of the film is as experimental as the period it captures.
words by danny walker.

F for Fake

Orson Welles, 1973


As Welles himself points out during the course of the film, his career began with a fake. This would be when he launched his infamous radio version of War of the Worlds, broadcasting it as though it were a genuine news report of Martians invading Earth, allegedly sending panic across America as people believed what they heard to be real (although whether this hysteria is true or simply a construction to give Welles and his show publicity remains unknown). It therefore seems fitting that his final feature would bring things full circle, with a documentary on the nature of forgery- F for Fake.


 ‘Ladies and gentleman, by way of introduction, this is a film about trickery, fraud, about lies’ this is Welles introduction to a film that blurs the boundaries between what is truth and what is not at every possible opportunity. All documentary is a construction of the author, twisting the facts to put across their own particular viewpoint, rarely however does the filmmaker make the confession themselves that they are not being entirely truthful. Welles makes a promise during his introduction to tell the truth for the next hour, anyone paying the mildest of attention will notice the film overruns this initial hour and in turn progressively descends into fabrications, with Welles himself stating that throughout certain sections they were simply ‘lying their heads off’.


 


In a similar manner to a more recent film like Grizzly Man, large portions of the film were from a stock documentary that Welles discovered before reediting it with his own additional material. The initial focus of this documentary regards an art forger residing in Ibiza by the name of Elmeer de Hory, his villa here is paid for by an anonymous art dealer who he supplies with fakes to be sold on as the real thing, with many facts about himself, along with anecdotes about the sale of his work, supplied by his biographer Clifford Irving. Where Welles steps in and things become interesting, is that Irving himself was later jailed following the discovery that an official biography he had written on reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes was totally fraudulent (Irving himself claimed that he believed he really was working with Hughes on a biography, and that an impostor had in turn tricked him). This is the real focus of the film, if experts such as Irving and the art dealers who sell Elmeer’s work aren’t to be trusted as authorities, then who is?

 
Before Elmeer’s paintings are validated by an expert they are worthless, however once they receive their seal of approval they instantly become worth thousands. Similarly Irving was convicted on the grounds that a handwriting expert judged correspondence he had received from Hughes as being forged. If the experts can be mistaken in judging Elmeer’s fake’s as genuine, couldn’t they just as easily be wrong when they declare something genuine to be a fake?




Welles films is full of these sort of questions, and he cuts back and forward between them all at a frenetic pace helping to the create the confusion that is so clearly his goal. Stylistically it is in the editing that the film is at its most influential, with its fast pace created via frequent cuts and a very short length of shot. Self conscious as ever of what he is doing, the editing itself becomes one of the focuses of the film, often cutting back to Welles sat in an editing suite overseeing the footage and manipulating it to put across his point. As Godard once famously stated ‘every edit is a lie’, Welles knows this and ensures that it is every bit a feature of his film.

 In Elmeer, Welles has a kindred spirit. He only began with forgery as means to fund his own paintings which he could not sell, similarly Welles would find himself resorting to starring in any film that came his was in a bid to fund projects such as F for Fake that no studio ever would. After this films completion, Elmeer would commit suicide following the decision by Spanish authorities to extradite him to France for prosecution. Despite his best efforts, and despite earning the AFI lifetime achievement award in 1975, Welles would not complete another film in the decade leading to his death. As he declares within the film he ‘started at the top and has been working his way down ever since’, however far he felt he may have fallen, the quality of his films never did, with F for Fake showing the great director was at his best right until the end, continuing to break new ground and forever experimenting with film form.

words by pete bond.