Lessons Of Darkness, Fata Morgana, Little Dieter Needs To Fly, My Best Fiend, Grizzly Man... These are just a few of the documentary type films that Werner Herzog has unspooled at the public, over the decades. They are unlike typical documentaries seen on PBS or the BBC, in that they are never really about the putative thing itself. His ninety minute long 2004 documentary, The White Diamond, follows in these footsteps, although it's not as visually stunning as Fata Morgana nor Lessons Of Darkness, nor is it as bizarrely fascinating as My Best Fiend nor Grizzly Man, and it certainly does not reach the ethereal the way that Little Dieter Needs To Fly does. Yet, it has something that makes it fascinating to watch, for one feels that to turn away would be to miss something unseen before.
This film starts with an overview of the history of flight, especially the non-mechanical sort, and, of course, ends with scenes of the Hindenburg disaster in Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937, which kyboshed the dream of lighter than air vehicles as practical instruments of travel. Then, the film follows the obsessive modern flotative folly of aeronautical engineer, Dr. Graham Dorrington, of St. Mary's College in London, England, and his attempt to use a miniature blimp (which is diamond shaped and white) to circumnavigate the forest canopy in Guyana, in order to a) vindicate the death of a friend of his, documentary cinematographer Dieter Plage, a decade before when an earlier blimp got tangled in Sumatran trees and the man fell to his death trying to free himself from it during a storm, as well as b) ostensibly find out much about the canopy's resources for commercial development. Dorrington is a bit of a nutty guy, albeit rather tame by Herzogian standards. He lost two fingers on his left hand when, as a teen, he forgot to let go of a small rocket he was testing. Like most of Herzog 'documentaries,' though, the term must be loosely applied, for Herzog is not merely recording Dorrington's obsession, but financing the expedition. This is made clear when, on the mini-blimp's maiden flight, Herzog insists that he take his camera along for the ride, in case it is the only flight the vehicle makes, and chides Dorrington's desire to test it alone, first, as stupid, and the worst sort of stupid. His rationale: 'I cannot ask a cinematographer to get in an airship before I test it myself.' It has been reported that much of that scene was scripted, but so what? Herzog has never been a literalist, no more than his pal Kinski was.
Yet, as grand as some of the images are, and as interesting a side character as we encounter with Marc Anthony Yhap, a local Guyanese Rastafarian diamond miner, who longs to visit his family in Europe, and is proud as a papa over his rooster named Red, the main tale of the flight of the White Diamond, and Dorrington's quest for redemption, are just not that engrossing. As big a psychotic as Timothy Treadwell was in Grizzly Man, and as egomaniacal an actor as Klaus Kinski was, as detailed in My Best Fiend, one simply found them to be riveting—if for differing reasons. Dorrington is simply too nice, meek, and dull, even as he conveys the tale of his friend's death. The words are descriptive and powerful, and reminded me of the imagery evoked by Andre Gregory, simply telling Wallace Shawn of his near death experience in My Dinner With Andre, except that, at the end, one is not uplifted, merely left with the quizzical and blank-faced Dorrington. Thus, the film rides alone, on the updraft of its imagery, which is alternately stunning, such as scenes of swifts against a backdrop of a torrential waterfall or those of Plage daring a fang-bearing gorilla to charge him to recover a baby gorilla he was attempting to introduce into the wild, and bizarre, such as close-ups of parts of animals that sometimes never come fully in to view, or Plage literally being trampled in an elephant stampede.
Herzog, as usual, narrates the film, but it is lacking in the magic that made some of his earlier films in this vein memorable. That was Herzog's desire to step outside traditional narrative and core into the 'ecstatic truth' he has long championed. The problem is that there is no ecstatic truth to be found. Yes, the swift lair inside the waterfall may have been a key to turning this film into something memorable, but Herzog does not explore it. Instead, he merely has the camera dangle on the end of a line, barely giving us a glimpse of what is inside. We later find out that local legend says that if the images of what exist behind the waterfall are seen the locals' land will lose its power. The later shots of tens of thousands of swifts gliding around the water and into the darkness is magisterial, but a glimpse would have been better—damn the mythos! Herzog almost atones for his error in a great shot of the mighty waterfall that entrances Yhap, who is foraging for herbs. It is an upside down image of the waterfall in a drop of rain clinging to a leaf. Yet, Herzog then asks Yhap what many viewers are thinking, if he can see his whole universe in that drop? It is small errors like this, even after the magisterial, that plague this film, which often seems to not have a single reason nor purpose.
The music, as usual, is expertly chosen and woven into the film. It is not done by his long time collaborator Floruan Fricke of Popol Vuh, but by Ernst Reijseger, proving that it has always been Herzog, not Fricke, in command of his films' aural resonance. As he has boasted in the past, Herzog has still yet to make an error in scoring, especially with the Tenore E Cuncordu De Orosei chants. Yet, the film ultimately turns on the contrast between the pallid, neurotic, and uninspiring Dorrington, and the vivaciously aesthetic Yhap. Near the film's end, after many successful flights, Yhap gets to live his dream, and fly above the earth. It is not as far as to Europe, where he dreams to drop in on his family, but the look on his face is precious once he lands. At film's end, Herzog even posts a plea for any of Yhap's European relatives to contact him.
The White Diamond is a minor film in Herzog's oeuvre, and much too digressive, even if a far better film than any other filmmaker could do with the materials at hand, but one wishes the DVD company, Wellspring, would have included some extra features, like a commentary by Herzog. All we get are a Herzog filmography, and some trailers- labeled as both Trailers and Coming Attractions. We don't even get this film's trailer in the bargain. But, why be grounded when this film is dedicated to the very antipodes?