November 25, 2020

1. Into the Inferno

Into the Inferno (2016) is a great documentary about volcanoes, directed by Werner Herzog. The co-director is Clive Oppenheimer, a Cambridge scientist and the author of Eruptions that Shook the World. Herzog blends music and images to try to attain the sublime. I’ve discussed Herzog’s films in earlier issues.1

While making the film, Herzog and Oppenheimer traveled around the world, observing volcanoes in various countries. One might call it a travel film, as well as a science film. Herzog refuses to be restricted to one subject; Into the Inferno deals with early man, Icelandic literature, the history of North Korea, etc., as well as its primary subject, volcanoes. Excellent movie, Herzog has hit another home run.

Everyone knows that, when a volcano erupts, molten rock often bursts forth, indicating that the interior of the earth is very hot. Why is it so hot? Are there some sort of nuclear reactions going on inside the earth, like the ones that make the sun hot? Into the Inferno doesn’t try to answer this question, it doesn’t get into the hard science of volcanoes; one might call it an introduction to volcanoes, designed for the layman.

Early geologists believed that the earth was once very hot, but then gradually cooled. It’s now believed, however, that the interior of the earth isn’t cooling, hence volcanic activity is approximately the same now as it was in the past.1B

Into the Inferno mentions Katia and Maurice Krafft, a French couple who were known for filming volcanoes at close range, and standing near swiftly-flowing lava rivers. The Kraffts were killed by a Japanese volcano in 1991. I’m reminded of the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, who was killed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. A documentary called The Volcano Watchers (1987) focuses on the Kraffts, and uses their footage of volcanoes.

Katia and Maurice Krafft


Katia Krafft on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean

Into the Inferno is one of the Netflix documentaries. Another good Netflix documentary is Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb (2020), which follows a team of Egyptian archeologists. You learn that significant finds are still being made, though the area has been probed for centuries. You witness the thrill of discovery, and the rapport between contemporary archeologists and ancient Egyptians.

Netflix isn’t the only streaming service financing documentaries. Apple has a new streaming service that recently released a documentary on meteors. It’s called Fireball, and it’s directed by Herzog and Oppenheimer. The two directors travel around the world, visiting meteor-impact sites, talking to meteor experts, looking for meteorites on Antarctic glaciers, and even collecting micro-meteorites on a Norwegian rooftop. Excellent science film.

Herzog’s documentaries often include clips of other documentaries; one might call these clips “film quotations.” In Fireball, he includes a clip from a Korean film, a film about looking for meteorites in Antarctica. He praises the Korean film for showing the thrill of discovery, and for breaking the rules of film schools. Find a subject that’s fascinating, Herzog seems to say, find a subject that you’re enthusiastic about, and present it simply and clearly. Don’t worry about technique.

In an earlier issue, I noted that Herzog was a fan of Longinus, who wrote about aesthetics — more specifically, about the sublime. Herzog is probably unfamiliar with Ruskin, whom I regard as the best writer on aesthetics. Like Herzog, Ruskin argued that technique isn’t as important as deep emotion and a lofty subject. Ruskin was scornful of Dutch art, he said that Dutch art often depicts trivial subjects, subjects that couldn’t possibly inspire deep emotion. On the other hand, Ruskin praised early Italian painters like Cimabue and Giotto, who had a primitive technique, but deep emotion. Ruskin wrote,

It is not by the mode of representing and saying, but by what is represented and said, that the respective greatness either of the painter or the writer is to be finally determined.... The greatest picture is that which conveys to the mind of the spectator the greatest number of the greatest ideas.... Most pictures of the Dutch school... excepting always those of Rubens, VanDyke, and Rembrandt, are ostentatious exhibitions of the artist’s power of speech, the clear and vigorous elocution of useless and senseless words; while the early efforts of Cimabue and Giotto are the burning messages of prophecy, delivered by the stammering lips of infants.... The picture which has the nobler and more numerous ideas, however awkwardly expressed, is a greater and a better picture than that which has the less noble and less numerous ideas, however beautifully expressed.2

In 1986, Herzog made a 30-minute film about his own life. The film shows Herzog talking to Lotte Eisner, a film historian. The conversation touches on the sublime in German film, and mentions the German painter Caspar David Friedrich. Apparently some German filmmakers in the 1920s made silent films that reminded Lotte Eisner of Caspar David Friedrich. Then there was a break for two or three decades, when the development of German film was interrupted by the Nazi regime. Then a new generation of German filmmakers, including Herzog, picked up the old tradition, and tried to attain the sublime.

In 1974, when Eisner was sick in Paris, Herzog walked from Munich to Paris during the winter, believing that Eisner couldn’t die if he made this pilgrimage. Eisner lived. Herzog wrote a book about the journey, Of Walking in Ice. Since his childhood, Herzog had been a great walker, and had taken many long walks in Germany. “Eight years later [Eisner] complained to [Herzog] of her infirmities and said: ‘I am saturated with life. There is still this spell upon me that I must not die — can you lift it?’ [Herzog] says that he did, and she died eight days later.” I’m reminded of Proust’s mother, who asked Proust for “permission to die.” He granted permission, she died soon afterwards.2B

In 1977, Herzog made a 30-minute film called La Soufrière. It’s about a threatened volcanic eruption on Guadeloupe in the Caribbean. Herzog and his two camera-men risk death — climbing the smoking volcano, and walking through the evacuated city. They interview two or three men who stayed behind. Herzog has such a deep commitment to his craft that he’s willing to approach a smoking volcano to make a movie. Since the volcano never erupted, the film ends with an anti-climax.

In 1974, Herzog made a 40-minute film about a ski-jumper, Walter Steiner. It’s called The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner (Steiner’s hobby was woodcarving). It actually deals with “ski-flying,” which is more dangerous than ski-jumping.

The film depicts several crashes. Steiner opts to jump again, shortly after crashing. One might compare the film to Somerset Maugham’s short story “Gigolo and Gigolette,” which depicts a woman trying to summon the nerve to perform a dangerous dive. Like many Herzog films, Great Ecstasy deals with a solitary individual’s struggle against inner and outer demons. I’m reminded of Joseph Conrad’s preoccupation with lonely figures who lived on an island, or in a jungle.

As a youngster, Herzog went through a religious phase, and converted to Catholicism. He also went through a phase when he wanted to become a champion ski-jumper. When his friend nearly died ski-jumping, Herzog gave it up, and decided to become a filmmaker. He “learned the basics from a few pages in an encyclopedia, which provided him with ‘everything I needed to get myself started’ — that, and the 35 mm camera he stole from the Munich Film School. In the commentary for Aguirre, the Wrath of God, he says, ‘I don’t consider it theft. It was just a necessity. I had some sort of natural right for a camera, a tool to work with.’”

2. Big Tech

Does Big Tech have a liberal bias? I did a Google search for “presidential election 2020.” Google responded with links to CNN, the New York Times, and London’s Guardian, all left-leaning sources.

With phone held upright


With phone turned sideways

3. Trump and Micawber

There are various demographics that support Trump. One of these demographics might be called The Micawbers, after Dickens’ famous character, Mr. Micawber (Wilkins Micawber). Mr. Micawber can’t find a niche in the economy, so he’s always short of money. As his wife puts it,

“Here is Mr. Micawber without any suitable position or employment. Where does that responsibility rest? Clearly on society. Then I would make a fact so disgraceful known, and boldly challenge society to set it right. It appears to me, my dear Mr. Copperfield,” said Mrs. Micawber, forcibly, “that what Mr. Micawber has to do, is to throw down the gauntlet to society, and say, in effect, ‘Show me who will take that up. Let the party immediately step forward.’”

I ventured to ask Mrs. Micawber how this was to be done. “By advertising,” said Mrs. Micawber, “in all the papers. It appears to me, that what Mr. Micawber has to do, in justice to himself, in justice to his family, and I will even go so far as to say in justice to society, by which he has been hitherto overlooked, is to advertise in all the papers; to describe himself plainly as so-and-so, with such and such qualifications and to put it thus: ‘Now employ me, on remunerative terms, and address, post-paid, to W. M., Post Office, Camden Town.’”

In a capitalist economy, like ours or Micawber’s, there are always some people who find a niche, and some people who don’t. Finding a niche might be a matter of intellect/education, or it might be a matter of drive/determination, or it might be a matter of Personality/PeopleSkill — there are many factors at work. In our society, the Micawbers, the people who don’t find a niche, seem to favor Trump, perhaps because they have some resentment toward society, toward the Establishment that has given them a “cold shoulder.”

Trump is popular with the white working-class, the white male who’s 40 or 50 years old, who lives in Michigan or Wisconsin, who’s unemployed or under-employed. His father and grandfather had steady paychecks from industrial jobs, perhaps union jobs; they voted for Democrats. But now those jobs are gone, and the Michigan Micawber likes Trump because he’s outrageous, he thumbs his nose at the politically-correct Establishment. Liberals describe these Michigan Micawbers as “trailer trash,” “shut-ins,” “deplorables,” and “bitter clingers, who cling to their guns and their religion.”

* * * * *

Biden won’t be inaugurated for almost two months, but his fingers are already itching to give away money — or forgive loans, which is the same thing. He says he’s going to forgive some student loans. I noticed the following Facebook post, written by a nurse:

Why should people who never went to college bear the burden of the cost of those who chose to go into debt to go to an expensive university? No one paid off my loans back in the day. Going to college is a choice that you make individually. You can choose to go to a less expensive community college vs Harvard. Same as if you bought a luxury car vs a cheaper car. If you can’t afford it then that is your problem, not mine. In my state if you buy a luxury car you are charged a luxury tax, so guess what? I chose NOT to buy one and pay the extra tax.

Colleges are going to just charge whatever they want since they know they are going to get paid regardless. Why doesn’t he [i.e., Biden] talk about colleges and universities lowering costs vs having hard-working people pay for all this “free” stuff? Nothing is free, it is all going to come from taxes.

In general, it’s a bad idea for the federal government to give away money. And when the government has a debt of $27 trillion, it’s a very bad idea. Biden is itching to give away money. Reducing the national debt is at the bottom of his priority list, he’ll probably never even mention it. And this is one reason why 74 million Americans voted for Trump: the Democrats are proposing very bad ideas. Trump voters often see the character flaws in Trump, and they admit that character matters, but they insist that policy matters, too.

And even on the issue of character, Trump’s flaws should be weighed against Biden’s, Biden has flaws of his own. Ari Fleischer wrote,

[Biden’s] shocking allegation amid the 2012 campaign that Republicans under Mitt Romney wanted to place African-Americans “back in chains” was one of the worst and lowest race-baiting statements ever made, not to mention it was blatantly untrue. The media mainly gave him a pass over this. I will not. There is a lot about his conflicts of interest that we do not know because the media declines to dig into them.

Is Biden, who stated he never talked about Ukrainian energy firm Burisma with his son, lying about never meeting with its officials? Biden lied about receiving his full scholarship to law school and made false claims that he finished in the top half of his class when he finished near the bottom. He lied about his arrest in South Africa. He made false claims over pinning a Silver Star on a Navy captain despite claiming that it was the truth.

* * * * *

Democrats love the idea of packing the Supreme Court, but they may not have the Senate votes to do it, and Biden may not support it. Democrats are, however, using the threat of packing to bully the Court into giving them the verdicts they want. In a 2019 brief,

five Democratic senators warned that the Supreme Court might have to be “restructured” if it failed to reach the conclusion they preferred in a Second Amendment case. Justice Samuel Alito recalled that episode during his Federalist Society speech last night, saying the senators had engaged in blatant “bullying” by issuing “a crude threat” aimed at undermining judicial independence.

Can you imagine the outcry among liberals if Trump had said to the Supreme Court, “Give me the result I want, or I’ll pack the Court”?

* * * * *

Why is Trump so rough, so rude, so thick-skinned? Perhaps because he spent his life in the rough-and-tumble world of NewYork real estate. He’s been cheated and lied to and sued countless times, so he feels he has a right to play hardball with others.

Montaigne said “so many servants, so many thieves.”3 In an earlier issue, I discussed how frequently employers are robbed by their own employees; “inside theft” is more common than “outside theft.” The people you hire often look for their own advantage — often rob you, sue you, etc. Trump has hired thousands of people, and has been robbed by thousands of people, so he’s developed a thick skin.

On the other hand, one could argue that Trump wouldn’t have gone into that business unless he had a ruthless streak, unless he had an aptitude for playing hardball. So he’s a product of nature and nurture, personality and experience.

© L. James Hammond 2020
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1. In 2005, I quoted an e-mail from a Phlit subscriber who is a fan of Herzog. In 2011, I discussed Herzog’s films Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World. In 2013, I discussed Little Dieter Needs To Fly. In 2017, I discussed Happy People, Herzog’s documentary about Siberia. Also in 2017, I mentioned Herzog in connection with the sublime.

Though Herzog has a very high reputation, some of his films haven’t earned high marks, such as Queen of the Desert, a film about Gertrude Bell that I mentioned in 2017.

Herzog’s film Pilgrimage (2001) depicts pilgrims visiting two sites, the tomb of Saint Sergei in Russia, and the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico. The pilgrims approach the Mexican shrine on their knees. Some approach the Russian shrine by crawling across a frozen lake. The film contains no narration, only music and images. It’s about 15 minutes long. back

1B. Early geologists may have been unduly influenced by conditions in their own homelands. A geologist in England, for example, may have felt that the earth was once active and had become peaceful. But this wasn’t true for the whole world. Lyell argues that, in his time, the earth wasn’t peaceful in Indonesia, Chile, Italy, etc.

Every region of the world has had volcanoes and earthquakes at some point in history. Here in Massachusetts, you would need to go back more than 100 million years to find volcanoes. But we still have small earthquakes on occasion.

On the morning of November 8, 2020, I was talking to my brother on the phone, and a tremor passed through my house; it seemed to move rapidly from east to west. I said, “I think we just had an earthquake.” He laughed. Later I went on Facebook, and many people in Seekonk were talking about the earthquake, which was centered near New Bedford, and felt about 100 miles around. It had a magnitude of 3.6. When I wrote about the Pilgrims in Plymouth, I noted that they experienced an earthquake in 1638. back

2. Modern Painters, edited and abridged by David Barrie (New York, Knopf, 1987), Volume One, Part I, Section i, ch. 2 back
2B. See George Painter, Marcel Proust: A Biography, Vol. 2, Ch. 2, “Death of A Mother,” p. 43 back
3. Montaigne, Essays, Book 2, “Of the Affection Of Fathers to Their Children.” Montaigne’s original French is, Le vieux Caton disoit en son temps, qu’autant de valets, autant d’ennemis. One translation runs, “Cato the Elder in his time said, ‘So many servants, so many enemies.’” back