Herzog Eats His Shoe
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“I’m quite convinced that cooking is the only alternative to filmmaking.” - Werner Herzog
More shoes! More boots! More garlic!
In the late 70s, Werner Herzog got so pissed off with kindred spirit Errol Morris not completing a film project that he made a bet: if Morris finished ‘Gates of Heaven’ and got it shown on the big screen, Herzog would … well, the clue’s in the title.
Thus it was that Herzog ate his shoe in front of a live audience at a screening of Morris’s film at the UC Theatre while Les Blank turned up to make a documentary about it. The nexus of eccentric talent distilled into the twenty minutes of ‘Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe’ would be astounding even if the film was in any way conventional. Which it isn’t. ‘Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe’ is bonkers on many levels, beginning with its title.
The film opens with Herzog disembarking from a plane and offering a laconic wave to Blank’s camera, as if cheerfully acknowledging the absurdity of the undertaking. This to a soundtrack of ‘Old Whisky Shoes’ by the Walt Solek Band. In a car from the airport, Herzog muses in typically deadpan fashion on the interrelatedness of filmmaking and gastronomy. As usual with Herzog, you get the sense that pearls of wisdom are being formed in an oyster of satire.
Examples of individuals voluntarily ingesting the theoretically indigestible are for the most part confined to the aforementioned realm of rhetoric, to art (witness the wounding poignancy of Chaplin’s boiled shoe in the Thanksgiving scene from The Gold Rush), or to borderline pathological attempts to garner publicity, as in the case of Michel “Monsieur Mangetout” Lotito, the French entertainer who has famously eaten bicycles, televisions, and an entire Cessna airplane. Yet in Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, a documentary from 1979 by Les Blank, the German director, in characteristic fashion, puts his own idiosyncratic spin on the concept: he cooks and then eats, in front of an appreciative audience, one of his own shoes (real leather, as opposed to Chaplin’s licorice) as a way of satisfying a bet lost to his friend and protégé, Errol Morris.
In the mid-1970s, Morris—later to become the director of such celebrated documentary films as The Thin Blue Line and Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control—had yet to find his true calling. A gifted musician who had trained as a young man to be a concert cellist, he had left the conservatory behind and gone the familiar liberal arts route instead, studying history first at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and in graduate school at Princeton and later, after dropping out there, taking up philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. Yet he ended up spending significantly less of his Bay Area time in class than he did at the Pacific Film Archive (PFA), the legendary rep house/hangout on the Berkeley campus. It was through the PFA’s then-director Tom Luddy that Morris met Werner Herzog. As they became close Morris complained about how he wanted to make a film but he didn't have the money and no one would fund it. Herzog found this ridiculous and told him, "You can make a film just with your guts…If you want to do a film, steal a camera, steal raw stock.” Herzog offered the boot-eating challenge as a way of encouraging his friend to stop puttering around and actually finish what he started, and Blank's warm chronicle of his favorite subject boiling and eating a pair of gnarly leather boots suggests that this was a wager that Herzog was all too happy to lose.
Herzog and Morris had met at the Pacific Film Archive, a screening room and movie library, in the mid-1970s. Morris was enamored with Herzog, who made films on his terms; Herzog admired Morris’s abilities to extract information from interview subjects. The two visited serial killer Edmund Kemper in prison and once discussed plans to dig up killer Ed Gein’s mother in Wisconsin to see if Gein had desecrated her corpse. (Herzog showed up, shovel in hand; Morris did not.)
In the late 1970s, Morris completed work on his documentary feature, Gates of Heaven, about a pet cemetery and the grief-stricken owners of the recently departed. Herzog was busy with pre-production on a feature, Fitzcarraldo, when he received word from Pacific Film's Tom Luddy that Morris's movie was due to be screened at the UC Theater in April 1979.
The nature of the bet is only briefly touched on, with Herzog claiming encouragement of a protégé (it has been suggested that it was more in the way of a sarcastic aside, made in despair of the likelihood of Morris ever completing a project). Various other bits of business fill up the twenty minutes. There’s the culinary preparation, to start with: Herzog stews his shoes for five hours, having packed them with garlic, rosemary, red onions, and duck fat with the help of chef Alice Waters at her legendary restaurant Chez Panisse.
Finally at the nearby UC Theatre, Herzog eats one of the shoes before an audience at the premiere of Gates of Heaven, while talking about the destructive capitalistic effects of television, and mankind's lack of adequate imagery. Herzog describes Gates of Heaven as “the only authentic film on love and emotions, and late capitalism. Maybe it’s the only authentic film on loss of emotion and distortion of feelings.” He promises to eat the other if Morris’s film gets picked up by a major studio, slowly cutting up one boot with scissors and slowly chewing his way through the small pieces, washing them down with beer. He did not eat the sole of the shoe, however, explaining that ‘one does not eat the bones of the chicken.’ Coming from a notorious hater of chickens, this comment tells its own story.
The action eventually moved back to Chez Panisse, where an increasingly inebriated Herzog continued to nibble on small portions. As he gnaws another small mouthful of upper, he is more expansive, connecting the act both to its traditional linguistic meaning and relating it to his own lot as a filmmaker:
“Ever since I have been in contact with audiences,” Herzog says in response to a question by Blank, “I have wondered what the value of films was. I don’t know—it gives us some insight, but it doesn’t change people. … I thought film could cause revolutions or whatever and it does not. But films might change our perspective of things. And ultimately in the long term, it may be something valuable. But there is a lot of absurdity involved as well. As you see,” he continues, gesturing at the glum-looking, half-eaten shoe on the table before him, “it makes me into a clown. And that happens to everyone. Just look at Orson Welles or look at even people like Truffaut—they have become clowns. Because what we do as filmmakers is immaterial. It’s only a projection of light and doing that all your life makes you just a clown. It’s an almost inevitable process…It’s just embarrassing to be a filmmaker and to sit here like this. But thank heaven I don’t sit here for my own films, but I’m sitting here for a film that was made by a friend of mine…To eat a shoe is a foolish signal, but it was worthwhile. And once in a while I think we should be foolish enough to do things like that. More shoes!” he laughs, his voice rising. “More boots! More garlic!” When he says this, it’s not because he’s developed a taste for Clarks’ finest—it’s a battle cry to the directors and film students and dreamers of the world to get behind him and take a different view and create images that will form a new filmic vocabulary. The shoe-eating was just to get their attention.
Chez Panisse, a hangout for the movie people at the PFA, also happened to be one of America’s most celebrated restaurants, co-founded by Alice Waters, the hugely influential California chef who began advocating for the joys of fresh local-grown ingredients when the American food industry was still loudly hawking the unlimited virtues of the can, the box, and the freezer bag. In the restaurant’s kitchen, after Herzog finishes seasoning and stirring his boots, the camera cuts to a woman who offers some sensible culinary advice. “It should be like a pig’s foot,” she explains. “The leather should all soften up . . . and you can serve it with something like beans or chili and lots of onions sprinkled on top and a little raw garlic and some spices.” The woman is Alice Waters. The kitchen they’re in is at her restaurant, Chez Panisse, which she had opened eight years previously, at the age of twenty-seven. The restaurant had become a hangout for the Berkeley film and arts crowd, as well as for food-centric people. In some cases, the two groups were interchangeable.
Waters says of her early Chez Panisse days, “In the beginning I was always just trying to grab people to work for us. . . . If I saw a friend who needed a job and had a talent and could do one thing—who could draw beautifully, for example, or play the piano—I wanted that precision in the kitchen, or I was applying it to how they might operate an espresso machine.” Together, this band of creative people launched not just a restaurant but a whole new way of cooking and dining, all on their own terms. “We never really became professionals,” Waters notes. “But in a way we changed the idea of what it was to cook in a restaurant—we did it so unconventionally that the unconventional became a habit. . . . We would change the menu to accommodate food that had just arrived at the back door . . . we wouldn’t stick to a predetermined menu.” These days, it’s hardly unusual to see “fresh-picked” produce or “day-boat” seafood on a menu, but back then it was a revelation, even in Northern California.
Neither Waters or her long time Chez Panisse partner Patricia Curtanany had any specific recollections of that afternoon beyond the basic events, and that the stewing shoe “smelled absolutely horrible.”
Chez Panisse was very freewheeling—working all day, then partying into the night. Waters’ parents remortgaged their house to help. Staff were paid $5 an hour—more than the cost of a meal—and the restaurant lost $40,000 in the first year, with $30,000 of wine unaccounted for. We never kept records of anything—it was all about the taste.
After a stint as a teacher at a Montessori school, Waters got serious about opening a restaurant. When she came across a little two-story house at 1517 Shattuck Avenue, “an old plumbing shop from the 1930s, with all kinds of pipes out front left over from the previous owners,” she knew she’d arrived. Scraping together donations from friends and family, she leased the building, with an option to buy (which she did a few years later), and Chez Panisse was born. Named after a favorite character from a 1930s film trilogy directed by Marcel Pagnol, the restaurant opened in August 1971, featuring a menu of pâté en croûte, duck with olives, and plum tart. For lack of a sign, CHEZ PANISSE was chalked “in two-foot-high Art Nouveau lettering on the wooden fence out front.” The rest is foodie history.
In addition to having roots in French cooking, Chez Panisse was founded on an idea to which Waters has shown unwavering fidelity. “Everybody in the counterculture felt that if you did something really well, however unorthodox,” she explains, “if you stayed true to human principles, you could succeed. . . . We had a different set of values.” Waters loosely defines these values as: being “united against these big institutions and cultural constructs . . . helping each other and doing the right thing, even if we didn’t make any money.”
When Herzog cried “More shoes. More boots. More garlic!” it's not hard to hear this as a battle cry that Waters has taken up as well. More boots on the ground marching for human principles. More garlic and flavor for everyone.
Designing the Chez Panisse Menu
In 1972 Waters hired Jeremiah Tower—an untrained gastronomic prodigy who would go on to redefine the American restaurant and revolutionize American cuisine. In the fall of 1976, this creative (and legendarily combustible) relationship delivered a dinner so game-changing we’re still dining off its impact today. Crafted by Tower, it was called the “Northern California Regional Dinner,” and celebrated all things local, fresh and seasonal.
If you look at the menus at Chez Panisse before Jeremiah Towers and then you look at them after, these were truly transformative, brilliant menus that, for the first time, attributed to American ingredients and regions and farmers and producers the kind of status and romance and interest and respect that previously had only been paid to European and imported ingredients.
The way Tower told it in interviews, he walked into the Chez Panisse kitchen in 1972 and was asked to improve the nightly soup. He added white wine, cream and salt. Owner Alice Waters and her crew were floored. “I don't recall if it was a soup or what he did,” Waters said recently when asked about what made her hire him. "He had a lot of confidence and I had none. He would just come in and do something wonderful everyday. I needed that." Years later, people still debate whether Tower or Waters invented California cuisine. Likely it was a synergy of talent colored by the state of California's food in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Demurs Waters: "It was just a matter of very good timing." Still, a rivalry emerged. Adding to it were the breakups of their relationships, both intimate and professional, which weren't pretty, according to several people who were around the pair at the time.
The menu covers and anniversary posters for Chez Panisse were designed by artists and printmakers Patricia Curtan and David Lance Goines. Curtan began hand printing menus for the restaurant during its early years, while she worked there as a cook. Curtan's menus, works of art in their own right, capture the unique spirit of the famous restaurant with letterpress and linoleum block prints on beautiful paper.
Goines attended the University of California at Berkeley as a Classics major, but in his second year was expelled as a consequence of his participation in the Free Speech Movement. Though later readmitted, he had by then lost his taste for higher education and in 1965 apprenticed with a Berkeley printer, becoming in the fullness of time a journeyman of that Art and Mystery. Goines has enjoyed a friendship with the restaurateur Alice Waters since they were both teenagers. Every year Goines creates a Chez Panisse anniversary poster and has illustrated many Chez Panisse cookbooks. In 1968 he founded Saint Hieronymus Press in the same Berkeley print shop where he had learned his trade. There he has remained, designing his work and printing it by both letterpress and photo-offset lithography.
Les Blank followed his idiosyncratic interests wherever they led. His subjects included garlic, gap-toothed women, and many of the musicians he admired: Dizzy Gillespie, Lightnin' Hopkins, Clifton Chenier. He also made a portrait of New Orleans called "Always for Pleasure." Blank's films focusing on musical subjects often spent much of their running time focusing not on the music itself but on the music's cultural context, portraying the surroundings from which these American roots musics come. In 1967 he founded his own production company, Flower Films, with the release of God Respects Us When We Work, but Loves Us When We Dance, a short colorful document of Los Angeles' Elysian Park Love-in.
Blank is probably most famous for his 1982 film Burden of Dreams, which chronicles Werner Herzog struggling against nature and humanity alike to make Fitzcarraldo. Roger Ebert, who we lost to cancer just days before, called it “one of the most remarkable documentaries ever made about the making of a movie.” Two years earlier, Blank made another film with Herzog as the subject. It’s wonderful title is Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. Probably not coincidentally, it also involved one of Ebert’s favorite films of all time, Errol Morris’s directorial debut, Gates of Heaven.
It’s odd that Morris isn’t in Blank’s film and you have to also wonder if the garlicky shoe’s aroma had any influence on Blank’s next documentary, Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers, which he urged should be screened with the accompaniment of garlic being cooked in the back of the auditorium. Herzog and Chez Panisse owner Alice Waters are in that one too. Garlic is one of two Blank films on the National Film Registry, the other being the Mexican music doc Chulas Fronteras. Anyway, we’re getting away from the main event. After which you’re welcome and encouraged to learn more about Blank and watch whatever films of his you can find.
Mr. Blank may not be convinced that garlic would keep Dracula at bay. However, he seems to believe that garlic lovers have some closer connection to life in general than those of us who turn up (or off) our noses at the mere thought of a meal composed entirely of garlic dishes, from soup through dessert. This all-garlic meal is the chief attraction at Chez Panisse at its annual garlic-day festival, July 14, a date celebrated elsewhere for other reasons, though often with lots of garlic.
Blank's documentary "Burden of Dreams" almost fell apart like its subject, but it didn't and it remains one of his best-known works. And Blank urged younger filmmakers not to give up either.
“If something turns you on, go chase it down. Just do what Werner said: use your guts and do it.” — Les Blank