DVD Review of Wheel Of Time

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/27/11


  What is it about middle aged white mean and their sudden love of Orientalism (or jazz, for that matter)? Is it a midlife crisis? This thought came to me watching Werner Herzog’s 2003 documentary Wheel Of Time. The best thing I can say of the film is that it would make for a solid PBS film by a typical documentary director, but coming from a master of cinema, like Herzog, it’s a profound disappointment. Why? There simply is nothing more to this film than Herzog filming the mundane goings on at a trio of Buddhist festivals in 2002, and acting as if peasants trekking about a mountain (Mount Kailash in Tibet), monks painting mandalas with colored sand, and white Austrians rapt with Orientalism, were supposed to lend some deep insight into the cosmic goings on. At least, that is what can be taken from Herzog’s narration of the film.

  And here is where one knows things are not going well for a film, when a viewer actually wishes the raconteur nonpareil (Herzog) would just shut his yap! This is because there is nothing deep portrayed in this film, except- perhaps, the revelation that Buddhists are as silly and misguided as the followers of every other religion. The Dalai Lama, as example, in an interview with Herzog, and in shots throughout the film, comes off not as a wise shaman, but a none too bright, if very nice, old man who is a bit of a hypochondriac. Instead of proffering deep wisdom, hewn from the ages of thought that his many supposed incarnations should have given him, the best he can impart are some of the dullest Buddhist banalities imaginable. Yet, despite this nihility of intellect, Herzog never opines- not even on something as interesting as shots of old trucks, loaded with pilgrims, adorned with the Tibetan swastika- after all, he was born in Germany during World War Two, so you think he might even mention the prominence they have displayed on the trucks. Granted, some may argue that this is what a documentary needs to do. Ok, but the film is titled Wheel Of Time, yet in its depictions of the mundanities of the assorted festivals shown it should more likely be titled Buddhapalooza ’02: The Film. Really, this film reminded me the most of the film of the Woodstock rock concert. The film is very observant, but lacks almost all insight. It watches, but never sees. It is amazingly uncritical of the claims made of its subject matter. And, as mentioned, coming from the man who brought the world intellectual and spiritual masterpieces like Aguirre: The Wrath Of God and Nosferatu, Phantom Of The Night, this is shocking. It is piffle. Well wrought piffle, to be sure, but piffle. Even in other documentaries of his like Grizzly Man, about someone who was truly insane, we at least get a full display of the insanity, and can peer inside a warped mind. But, the viewer of this film comes away knowing nothing more of Buddhism than before it. And, not nothing in the Buddhist sense, but nothing in the zip, zilch, nada sense.

  Ok, perhaps I overstate. One learns nothing of Buddhism, yes, That is so. But one does learn something of at least one individual, a septuagenarian man named Takna Jigme Zangpo, a former Tibetan political prisoner in China, who was imprisoned for 37 years, and had 13 extra years tacked on to his sentence merely for twice shouting ‘Free Tibet!’ In a brief interview with him, one learns more about human perseverance and will than in all the rest of the film. Most intriguing is how his imprisonment affected his health, damaging his eyesight, and even ability to walk. After decades of being confined to a single cell, he had gotten used to flat surfaces, and upon his release, due to international political pressure, he found that he could not walk easily on uneven surfaces. He would become disoriented easily. Yet, even this is never followed up upon. The film never, to Zangpo, nor any other person, delves into the Tibetan situation, or how the Dalai Lama orchestrates his followers to maximum political leverage. It’s as if the eternal provocateur, Herzog, decided that he would play it PC and safe, in this film, because he was so entranced by Buddhism.

  The best example of this would come in the scenes about Mount Kailash, wherein Herzog informs the viewer that one can distinguish Buddhist pilgrims from the animist Bön pilgrims by the fact that the Buddhists circumnavigate the base of the mountain in a clockwise direction, whereas the Bön adherents do so in a counterclockwise direction. This would have been a great opportunity for Herzog to explore the centuries old conflict between the two religions, wherein the faithful of the later Buddhist faith violently displaced the Bön believers, including acts of mass murder. Perhaps that was to close to a universal truth that Herzog chose to ignore? After all, that would mean Buddhism was just another religion intent on proving might over right. And what middle aged white male Orientalist can take that? Especially when the whole feel seems phoned in, and such an acknowledgement would have opened up an unneeded distraction. The Buddhists show that they are merely as sheepish as any other believers in religion, politics, or philosophy.

  The DVD, by Wellspring, features only a few extras- a Herzog filmography, a trailer gallery, and some coming attractions. The film’s positives include some interesting moments caught by cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, inckluding a moment, during a rain shower, where he takes his thumb to wipe the camera clean. Only Herzog would include such a break from film formalism. It gives a glimmer of how good this film could have been had Herzog only been more rapt with his art form than Buddhism. Ericv Spitzer’s soundwork is guided by Herzog’s unerring ear, and the film’s soundtrack is likely the best and most interesting thing about this 80 minute film, shown in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio.

  Too often the film is hermetic; its rituals are regarded, but no explanation is proffered, not from an anthropological nor narrative perspective. The acts of prostration, as example, become mere sideshow carny acts to the watcher of this film, and never impart any sense of admiration for the devotees, because they are unreal, in many ways, never fully part of the vital reality of the film. Similarly, we see children in monk robes, yet Herzog never queries how such children really feel about being drafted into their family’s business, something I once asked a young Buddhist monk. All in all, Wheel Of Time is a solid film, fairly straight forward, and nothing remotely approaching his earlier, greater films. Perhaps the most telling thing is that Werner Herzog made a merely solid film; that’s how damned good a film craftsman he is. No, I’m wrong; even worse than making a solid film is the fact that the faux reverential Herzog mad a non-Herzogian film. Let’s just hope Herzog is never smitten with John Coltrane nor Charlie Parker. That would not be merely solid, but brutally painful. Goodbye, Dalai!


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Talking Pictures website.]


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