Before discovering the alchemical recipe for Horse Jam in The Secret Life of Salvadore Dali, there was my epochal encounter with the Dancing Chicken in Werner Herzog’s 1977 film Stroszek – an event which essentially laid the groundwork for this blog. Without the Dancing Chicken, there would be no Horse Jam. It was the frenetic strut and clawing of the Pavlovian-trained fowl – and to a lesser extent the percussionist duck and firefighting rabbit – that tilled the soil in which the fruits flourishing below took root.
So you have some sense of what on God’s good green earth I’m talking about, take the time to watch the video:
I originally bought a copy of Stroszek in Xi’an, China in the summer of 2005. I was there with my now beloved wife, and it was our last stop on our journey along the Silk Road (the stretches currently under control of the Chinese Communist Party, anyway). Although our stay in Xi’an consisted mainly of drinking ice-cold beer in the heavily commercialized Muslim Quarter of the City – there was an average daytime temperature of about 45 °C at the time – we also decided to stock up on bootleg DVDs before getting the hell out of the Middle Kingdom. I picked up Stroszek knowing absolutely nothing about the film, and very little about the director except that he was the man behind Where the Green Ants Dream, a rather surreal film that chronicles the plight of a tribe of Aboriginal Australians as they attempt to halt the exploitation of their lands at the hands of a powerful mining company. I originally watched this film in an anthropology class titled ‘Indigenous Spirituality’, and it stuck with me as a bizarre study on the irreconcilable conflict between tribal societies and so called civilization, particularly their attitudes towards the environment, and their opposing perceptions of time – namely cyclical vs. linear … but I digress.
Upon viewing Stroszek, there was a palpable ah ha moment when I grasped the Dancing Chicken as the ineffable metaphor par excellence – that which perpetually transcends linguistic description. I laughed good-natured, maniacal laughter, and replayed the sequence a number of times. When played with director’s commentary on, I was even more delighted to discover that Herzog considered the Dancing Chicken sequence: “the finest I ever shot.” Like Horse Jam, it is post-verbal and ecstatic; as Herzog puts it, it is “a grand metaphor, for what I don’t know.” Overall my response was something I can only describe as existential glee. It was the Myth of Sisyphus with the absurdity meter cranked to ten. Menacing and disarming, yes, but in the same way that brushing your teeth, cooking a pot of chili or taking your daily shower is menacing and disarming … the Dancing Chicken compels the viewer to chuckle and marvel at the ever-present menace of life and nature, of existence itself. And everything I just wrote – the metaphor transcends, shedding conceptual hanger-ons like water off a ducks back.
I understand that for certain individuals, the site of a chicken trapped in a coin operated machine in a North Carolina funhouse, dancing automatonically for its next ration of seed, is simply too much to bear. Ian Curtis of Joy Division, for example, hung himself shortly after watching Stroszek, and it is widely believed that it was the Dancing Chicken sequence that pushed him over the edge. It should be noted that the sequence includes a scene in which the protagonist, Bruno S., presumably commits suicide on a chairlift – presumably but not for certain, and it is how the viewer perceives and digests the Dancing Chicken that largely dictates the mood felt at the end of the film (For an illuminating discussion on art and perspective in the Curtis-Stroszek case, click here). Clearly, as post-verbal, ecstatic metaphor, the Dancing Chicken also functions as a mirror onto which viewers project their wildest, most inspired or desperate perspectives.
And lets not forget the percussionist duck, because there’s a connection here. I have plans – scripted plans – to feature the noble ducks of Toronto’s High Park Duck Pond in the closing scene of the second iteration of the Horse Jam Film Project. The idea must have surfaced somewhat subconsciously, because I didn’t realize it was a purely Stroszek-inspired invention until late last week, after attending the North American premiere of Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done at TIFF. In the film, the psychotic lead character, Brad McCullum, takes his two pet pink flamingos hostage. The flamingos, referred to as ‘eagles in drag’, are absurd, beautiful, dangerous entities that infuse the film with that characteristic Herzogian strangeness from the outset. And there’s also a darkly humorous scene at an ostrich farm owned by Brad’s uncle. It is there that Brad procures the weapon he eventually uses to kill his mother. The frenetic flock of ostriches (essentially giant chickens for Herzog) instill the scene with the menace of the Mesozoic lizard brain; and the viewer feels, on some level, that which we intuitively associate with the lizard brain – a “profound stupidity” often mistaken as evil, and the inherent nihilism in what we call ‘creation’. But like the Dancing Chicken, the ostriches rise above these knee jerk reactions to inhabit the space of ineffable metaphor.
The final link in the chain came the following afternoon, at the second TIFF screening of Herzog’s, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. In the climactic shootout scene towards the end of the film, the very same music that accompanies the Dancing Chicken sequence – i.e. Sonny Terry’s Hootin’ the Blues – erupts, and the soul of one of the murdered gangsters rises from a cluster of corpses and break-dances until it is extinguished by a final hail of bullets.
And there it was – from Sonny Terry to the Lizard Brain to the High Park Duck Pond – full circle.
I attempted to ask Herzog in the Q and A period his reasons for using the Sonny Terry music again, if he felt there was some thematic and aesthetic affinities between Stroszek and Bad Lieutenant, and if the spirit of the Dancing Chicken inhabited his latest films. But time ran out, Herzog had a plane to catch, and I’ve been left to ponder these enigmas the past ten days.