Monday, February 23, 2009

Lessons of Darkness

Lessons of Darkness (1992) is a Werner Herzog documentary about the first U. S. invasion of Iraq. This film differs from two other Herzog documentaries I have seen—Grizzly Man and Encounters at the Edge of the World—in that the director's narration is not prominent. Instead Herzog relies on the weight of images of carnage and destructive, often presented in a repetitive way intended (apparently) to make and emphasize his point. One problem with this film is that you have nothing with which to compare the images of destruction—what were these scenes like before U. S. bombs began to fall? An occasional point of reference by which to measure the bombs' impact would help. (Admittedly, some of the images are self-evident: cratered landscapes, blasted, shredded tanks). In particular Herzog focuses on images of the Iraqi oil fields—in the opinions of many the reason for both U. S. invasions of that country. When the U. S. attacked Iraq in 1990, Saddam Hussein ordered oil field facilities blown up, so that thousands of gallons of oil poured out onto the desert or went up in flames. Often in Lessons of Darkness you believe that you are looking at the sky's reflection in a lake, and only gradually do you realize that the lake is full of oil, not water. There is, at times, a bloated portentousness to this film that Herzog usually manages to avoid in his best work.

The imagery in this film has a deadening effect. More narration might have helped. Too often I was reminded (with the encouragement of the musical soundtrack) of Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi (1982), but in that film repetitive, rhythmic motion synchronized with Phillip Glass music had a mesmerizing impact that this film lacks.

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