The Wheel of Time Werner Herzog (2003; USA; Doc)
viewed Mubi streaming 4th July 2020
where are the people?
Werner Herzog is a film making machine. It’s mostly docs these days but his output is somewhat variable and many of his movies are little more than formulaic exertions that sacrifice their subject to the eye of the camera, creating films that are little more than spectacle. What Herzog often produces is coffee table material that sits comfortably both in the schedules of American TV and within the liberal white ethos.
Herzog’s interest in the anomalous and crazed has led to movies like Little Dieter and Wings of Hope, revolving around idiosyncratic individuals and their stories, energised by both implicit and explicit meanings embedded in the material.
But The Wheel of Time renders a huge Buddhist festival in India as spectacle, a series of images that exploit the exotic setting of Bodghaya to film the course of Kalachakra initiation. After seeing the film I felt I was no wiser as to what the Kalachakra initiation was than before. In the footage shot in India, I saw a lot of images and heard various replies to Herzog’s questions. I saw the Wheel of Time Sand Mandala being built, I saw the emotional intensity of the crowds who filed past it, I saw it broken up reduced back to the particles of sand from which it had been built and then tipped into flowing waters. I saw a series of symbolic actions. But they came across as no more than a number of gestures at which to point the camera. And likewise the other images captured through Herzog’s gaze: the pilgrims and acolytes practicing full devotional prostrations; the endless shots seeking out old men’s faces; the shots of food being prepared and eaten communally, acolytes rushing this way and that. What this Bodghaya material does convey is that this is a religion that is located within the people, Buddhism’s energy joy oneness and immanence comes out of the people. Which is why I found it disturbing that Herzog, in India continually turned the camera onto individuals, seeking out ‘faces’. As if ‘faces’ in themselves are anything other than the last recourse of a bankrupt imagination. A vacant affect image.
It felt like Herzog going through a tick list of necessary requirements for the film to sell. To meet the National Geographic Channel requirements, you gotta have interesting ‘faces’ and landscape. And Herzog supplies landscape by breaking out of the Kalachakra material and cutting away to another event altogether: a Buddhist pilgrimage to the sacred mountain, Kailash. More spectacle in spectacular scenery. In his familiar voice over style Herzog informs us about centres and links the Mountain Kailash as a centre, to the centre of time symbolised in the Kalachakra Mandala. Given the Dalai Lama’s reply to Herzog’s question about centres, this is typical trite doc info, justifying the exploitation of exotica, the presentational syndrome that dominates Herzog’s movie.
When asking questions Herzog is reduced the crass formulas of American TV presenters. If this was intentional, perhaps as parody of form, then Herzog forgets that you can’t parody something that is already a parody. He asks the Dalai Lama if the centre of the Kalachakra Mandala is symbolic of the centre of consciousness; he asks him, what is, his ideal dream of an ideal world; he asks some devotional monk who has just finished lighting candles: if he is praying for us; if he has reached ‘Enlightenment’ – as if it were some kind of shopping destination. Herzog’s questions reflect the vacancy of the outsider looking in.
In one sense, the film works best because of the unforeseen postponement, due to the Dalai Lama’s ill health, of the Kalachakra Initiation the year Herzog filmed in Bodghaya. The postponed initiation ceremony was reconvened in Graz the following year. Graz in Austria, on the other side of the world, the flip side of reality. And it is the two discordant settings, the one India the other Europe that strike the real notes of interest in the film. The contrast between the gathering in Bodghaya and that in Graz is remarkable, as is the change in the filming style and type of shots used to document the event.
The event in India is a massed expression of faith, a chaos of desire and excitement that coalesces into sudden moments of serenity. The monks acolytes and believers taking part are characterised by energy, lack of material possessions, total belief and a familiarity with the collective life of communal bowls to prepare and eat food. In Bodghaya the event is individual devotion in the midst of collective tumult.
In Graz, the Kalachakra initiation event looked like a conference of middle ranking business executives. Whereas in Bodghaya all was noise lack of order and spontaneous impetuosity; in Graz all was quiet well ordered and polite. Buddhism in Graz was regular Europeanised. In Graz everything was done by the book and the feeling generated was that in this manifestation of Buddhism something had been filtered out, there was a lacking in connection to the overflowing nature of life. In Bodghaya, tumult generated by the vast crowds characterised the initiation proceedings. In Bodghaya the people were present. In Graz they were absent.
As the ceremony moved to Graz, Herzog’s filming changed. The choice of shots became more respectful conforming to European sensibilities. In Graz there were no shots of the assembled Buddhists eating, there were few close-up, in the face shots of people that so characterised the filming in India, there were no shots of people in awkward or unusual positions nor did he ask the people there the sort of crass questions he had asked of people in India. The filming was distant, non intrusive. Europeans don’t like being filmed in this type of situation. They may be caught out! Perhaps this was an intentional structured comment on the part of Herzog; or perhaps he implicitly knew he could not get away with the liberties he took in filming in India.
Herzog’s ‘Wheel of Time’ was able to show these differing faces and experiences of Buddhism. The differences between the business managers and the Asian devotees. For the Europeans the people are absent from their practice, for the monks their practice takes place amongst the people. But Herzog didn’t seem to be very interested in pointing to these differences, nor at asking how these differences affected the way in which he shot his material and the ethical considerations put into play by comparative data collection in different cultures.