[Another installment in the ongoing true life adventures of Periphery Man, who has had myriad peculiar encounters with celebrities, while not being a celebrity himself.]
I don't so much think of Werner Herzog as a person as I think of him as a force of nature, an unlikely phenomenon, like those little balls of blue lightning that sometimes roll through swamp on a fog-thickened night.
This filmmaker who, in telling the tale of a madman who carried his cargo from one Amazonian river to another by pushing a steamship over a mountain, decided to film the event by literally pushing a steamship over a mountain, has become a kind of mythic Flying Dutchman himself. When not long ago actor Joaquin Phoenix flipped his car on a Laurel Canyon road, he heard a knocking on his window and a German voice telling him to relax. "That's Werner Herzog!" thought Phoenix. He got out of his car, said "thank you," and Herzog was gone.
I had already written part of this post when I went to hear Richard Thompson's 1000 Years of Popular Music show at Royce Hall (a musical marvel, true to its description, as it begins with Summer Is Icumen In from fourteen hundred-something and includes a gorgeous rendition of See My Friends by the Kinks en route to Britney Spears). And there, as if offering psychic proof of his magical ubiquity, was Werner's name in the program -- Thompson having scored Herzog's celebrated 2005 documentary, Grizzly Man.
The epigraph that's carved across the proscenium above Royce Hall's stage reads: Education is learning to use the tools which the race has found indispensable. Reflecting on this, I thought about Werner, in a recent New Yorker profile characterized by his disgruntled on-jungle-location crew as a man who despite having made over 50 movies, didn't seem to know basic things about making a movie, thus provoking disaster at every turn by doing things determinedly "wrong."
It occurred to me that perhaps Herzog, ever the self-educating man at 63, keeps his art alive and alert by using the indispensable tool of imagination. It was certainly at work in this larger-than-life auteur's brief encounter with Periphery Man.
...I was working for a publicist -- which means it must have been a time of extreme poverty, some period where my time was truly worthless; why else would I have been willing to sit in the closet-sized back room of an office for an entire day folding a press-release page into hundreds of envelopes?
The only thing I remember about the job itself, which was mercifully brief (think I lasted two weeks), was that after spending a day doing one particular mass mailing, I had to do it all over again, because there'd been some crucial mistake made in the copy. Not my mistake, thank God, but still, an unnecessary refresher course in existentialism. That the publicist's apology for the mix-up was cursory, even snarkily amused made it like being in a Grimm's: the troll's all-night task you're forced to do, found undone in the morning.
The next day when I was sitting behind my desk, licking envelopes -- that's how long ago this was, pre-dating self-adhesive stamps (and yes, I had one of those little sponge thingers in a dish of water to wet the glue of the envelopes, but I'd occasionally lapse into old-fashioned licking, thinking to myself, it's come to this, I am a Licker, a human tool hired to moisten the flaps of loftier, more important humans' announcements of Significant Activity) -- the publicist brought in a client.
The publicist was an officious man, always busy-busy-busy, with an air of self-importance (he had, after all, his own Licker), clearly much taken with the celebrities he was hired to publicize and the rarified air he was able to share with them. On this occasion, though the office was so small that one could hear any activity or conversation clearly from one or the other of the two rooms, and the most natural thing would have been to at least introduce me to his guest... the publicist stayed with him in the other room.
I kept on with my envelopes, not really paying much attention to what was being talked about mere yards away on the other side of the wall, and then, subliminally aware of a lull in the dialogue, looked up to see a face peering at me round the door jamb. This was Werner Herzog.
He was in town to promote a movie. The celebrated obsessive, whose films were like epic, exquisitely rendered fugue states, windows into history presented as a lucid but lunatic dream, leaned shyly into my cubicle. And even as the publicist appeared to dutifully introduce us, he was smiling.
"Yes, we have already met," he said.
Smiling back, puzzled, I shook my head. This I would have remembered. "I don't think so," I ventured.
"We have," he asserted, still smiling. His hair had an Albert Einstein-like unruliness, a bushy mustache and rumpled sweater furthering that great-but-scattered-mind association, but his eyes were clear, penetrating. He spoke with happy, thickly accented confidence, if anything appearing even more pleased by what seemed to me to be an awkward misunderstanding. "You have been to Berlin?"
"No, never," I told him.
"And this is my first visit to your city," he said, eyes alight, as if he'd found the key to unlock an intriguing equation. "But this is how it is with us, sometimes. I know your face, and we have known each other, even if it is perhaps in another life."
I didn't have a quick comeback for that one. He gave a philosophical shrug, continuing to beam at me as if we were, in fact, old friends. And the publicist, who had been standing by with thinly veiled impatience as he looked from his client to his minion (bristling, I intuited, with the indignity of having lost the great man's attention) dropped some harmless platitude into the conversational gap, and led Werner from the room.
Our paths haven't crossed since. Though -- who can tell who's dreaming us? -- for all I know, we continue to be very close.