starring Veronica Ferres, Michael Shannon, Gael Garcia Bernal, Volker Zack Michalowski
written by Werner Herzog, based on the story "Aral" by Tom Bissell
directed by Werner Herzog
by Walter Chaw There's an early moment in Werner Herzog's misbegotten Salt and Fire where three scientists wander through an abandoned terminal in a Bolivian airport, scored by a cacophonous, disturbing Ernst Reijseger composition, that finds Herzog on comfortable, familiar ground. His films are at their best when they combine this kind of displacing, disquieting music against scenes of the mundane. Later, as his DP Peter Zeitlinger pans across the flaking spines of an ancient book collection, and again when Zeitlinger takes in the staggering scope of Bolivia's Uyuni Salt Flat, Herzog finds his rhythm as chronicler of unknowable mysteries and philosopher of intimations of immortality. The film would have been better without dialogue. A scene right around the mid-point where scientist Laura (Veronica Ferres) and mad industrialist Matt Riley (Michael Shannon) have a conversation about children in front of a crackling fire would have been transcendent silent. The planes of Shannon's and Ferres's faces, lit by flickers of orange, are suggestive of extraordinary depths and tensions. When they're forced to say things like "the tragedy is when men are afraid of the light," it tends to make it all gravid and unintentionally hilarious. When Michael Shannon is incapable of landing a weird line, imagine how the others fare.
It seems that some sort of ecological disaster is in progress, catalyzed by Riley's ambitions and threatening the planet with a plague of neutralizing salt and cleansing fire from a looming volcanic eruption. The film really only makes sense with knowledge of Herzog's backlog. He's interested in the interplay between man and nature; in how men ignore their own nature to their peril; in how nature doesn't give a shit about the ambitions of men. I enjoyed how this played out between Herzog and Shannon in the truly alien My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. There, Shannon was surrounded by kindred souls Willem Dafoe, Chloë Sevigny, Udo Kier, Grace Zabriskie, and Brad Dourif. They took on the burden of producing something purposefully absurd, like a Brechtian reverie. Salt and Fire plays more like an improvised actors' workshop where the only directions are "self-serious maundering" and "ecological disaster." It's well-meaning, in other words, in the worst possible way. It's Herzog doing his best to create Herzog documentary subjects in all their stilted, grandiose exposition. There's a moment in Grizzly Man where a coroner is allowed to wax rhapsodic, and then Herzog leaves the camera on him for way too long after he's finished his prepared remarks. It's genius.
In Salt and Fire, wheelchair-bound madman Krauss (Lawrence Krauss) suddenly stands for no reason. When asked if this is a miracle, he responds, "No, I only use the wheelchair when I'm tired of life." Later, Riley solemnly intones that "truth is the only daughter of time." And then there's a scene where Laura finds two little blind brothers in the middle of the wasteland that seems to want to evoke a Jodorowsky mindscape (Herzog has said the film is meant to be a "daydream" that follows no cinematic rules), but because there's all that awful and redundant talking, it becomes something like a parody of Herzog's documentaries. It's a real problem. Tempting to give the picture credit for possessing a mesmeric quality about it, until one recalls that Tommy Wiseau's The Room has exactly the same mesmeric quality. Salt and Fire is a mess with a few hypnotically beautiful images and enough bad dialogue delivered perplexedly by its game cast that it could become a cult classic in time. At this point in his career, some 70 films in, you admire that Herzog's willing to make things that are "unintentionally" anything, yet there's the hope if not expectation that he will shy away from half-measures and equivocations. Play through, in your head, the entire sequence in which Laura is marooned in the desert with her two blind charges with just that score, maybe Ferres singing her German lullaby, and nothing else. Gus Van Sant did something similar with Gerry, which trusts its audience to find meaning. Salt and Fire doesn't trust its audience in the slightest. It's manifestation of Herzog's disdain for mankind. And it's terrible.