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Impressions of Into the Inferno

This was more an invitation to tag along with Werner Herzog and volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer as they shoot the breeze and visit some volcanoes than it is a volcano film. There are volcanoes in the film, to be sure, but there's no underlying structure, questions to be investigated, or organizing principle, and it spends a lot of time on topics that have only very tangential--or no--relation to volcanoes at all. You can still enjoy the conversation, but.

Herzog obviously made a deliberate decision not to do certain things. Early on, in footage from the film he made that first brought him and Oppenheimer together, Oppenheimer asks him if he knows about the various types of volcanoes, and he responds by talking about a particular volcano and telling a story. So no. The film isn't going to explain about volcano types or give you schoolbook information. It's not, as Herzog said in an interview, a Nat Geo film. Nor is he going to talk about famous eruptions--no Pompeii, no Krakatoa, no Mount Tambora. That's fine; no need for the film to spent time retreading familiar stories.

Early on, Herzog says "Obviously there was a scientific side to our journey, but what we were really chasing was the magical side, no matter how strange things might get." I think what disappointed me was how little there was of this, and how random the bits we got were. I enjoyed the sections in which Herzog and Oppenheimer talked with Mael Moses, the head of a village near Ambryn (on Vanuatu), one of the very few persistent lava lakes in the world. He was a gracious host, insightful, humorous--everything good--and his way of talking about belief/faith relating to the volcano slipped very easily into my mind/heart. I would love a whole movie like that--focused on people living with volcanoes and how they do.

You could say the very long segment shot in North Korea was that, because it talks about how the North Korean regime has incorporated Korean reverence for Mount Paektu into the myth of the state, but really what that segment was doing was talking about ideology, leadership cults, and how you frame your narrative for both yourself and a wider public. Fascinating topics, but not really about living with a volcano.

And a section shot in Ethiopia was just a head scratcher. Ethiopia has Erta Ale, another persistent lava lake (the fact that Herzog visited both Ambryn and Erta Ale made me hope that he would also visit Nyiragongo, the lava lake in my icon, but alas no). However, after some shots of the lava lake, the focus was **entirely** on excavations of early hominids nearby. Again, interesting topic, but it might as well have been about widening the Panama canal or colony collapse disorder among honeybees as far as relevance to volcanoes.

One minor, entertaining note: Oppenheimer twice measures the power of a volcano's eruption/explosion in terms of the amount of pumice it put out, and that in terms of how deeply it would bury people for how far a geographic area. ("Enough pumice to bury everyone in the United States to head height" in the case of the eruption that produced Lake Toba in Indonesia and "enough to bury the whole of New York City--only the highest buildings would poke out at the top" in the case of the "millennium eruption" of Mt. Paektu in 946).

Verdict: very beautiful to look at, and engaging in its way, but not what I was hoping for.


( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 2nd, 2016 01:36 pm (UTC)
I saw someone recommend this film to you on Twitter and was hoping to hear more about it. Sad to hear that it falls short of even its own goals.
Nov. 2nd, 2016 01:37 pm (UTC)
It was still very enjoyable! I just wanted something more/slightly different.
Nov. 2nd, 2016 01:40 pm (UTC)
Maybe I'll check it out, then. I love volcanoes!
Nov. 2nd, 2016 01:52 pm (UTC)
If you do, tell me what you think!
(Deleted comment)
Nov. 2nd, 2016 04:56 pm (UTC)
must be nice
Seriously! I would definitely have taken out the paleontology section and reduced the North Korea section and put in MOAR VOLCANO.

I was skimming through it, though, to write the review (I wanted to get the quotes about the pumice right; I thought it was a hilarious measuring system), and there really were lovely volcano shots--like of a village in Iceland buried in black ash (miraculously, no one died in that eruption). So, it's not that it didn't have good points--just that it wasn't as good as it could have been.
Nov. 2nd, 2016 08:26 pm (UTC)
Maybe worth watching with the sound down, then, so one can enjoy the pix?
Nov. 2nd, 2016 09:43 pm (UTC)
Actually, it had a nice choral soundtrack when it was showing volcanic footage, so you'd want your sound on. I think I came off as overly harsh. It was a fine film, just not as focused on volcanoes and our emotional/spiritual interaction with them as I'd hoped. There were times when I wished Herzog had probed more--like a guy who refused to leave Guadalupe when there was an eruption (this was in 1976; Herzog was filming for something else. Anyway, this guy just lay down underneath a tree. He didn't want to talk to Herzog, so Herzog didn't press him--good! But why not inquire further with other people? Herzog says "He was very philosophical," but doesn't say what the guy said to him! Of course Herzog couldn't go back in time to do it over, but if he was going to include that footage, why not try to find out more? Otherwise, it's just, "Hey look, this guy is just sleeping here instead of evacuating."
Nov. 2nd, 2016 09:15 pm (UTC)
This was more an invitation to tag along with Werner Herzog and volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer as they shoot the breeze and visit some volcanoes than it is a volcano film.

If anything, I would have expected a Werner Herzog film to have too much volcano (if there is such a thing). How weird.
Nov. 2nd, 2016 09:34 pm (UTC)
And to be fair, there were some beautiful shots, and I appreciated that he did wintery volcanoes in Antarctica and Iceland as well as tropical ones. When it was good, it was very good. It just wandered, and I wasn't as interested in the things it wandered to.
Nov. 3rd, 2016 12:20 am (UTC)
Oppenheimer wrote a wonderful book about volcanoes which is, alas, stupidly expensive according to Amazon, but my uni library has it, which is how I read it. You probably already have read it, though!
Nov. 3rd, 2016 12:22 am (UTC)
No I haven't! Thank you very much for the link; I'll see if I can get it through interlibrary loan!
Nov. 3rd, 2016 02:00 am (UTC)
Aww, that's disappointing.
Nov. 4th, 2016 02:44 am (UTC)
It wasn't so bad--just not as excellent as I was hoping it would be.
Nov. 3rd, 2016 04:06 am (UTC)
The magical side of volcanoes! Yes! :) (and memories of Pen-Pal, obviously.) I'm stunned even just by hot springs - once in New Zealand I saw some workers in a park - there to do the road - casually stroll over to one corner of the (ordinary, suburban) park, and put down their foil-wrapped lunches into a hot spring, to cook them. Boiling hot springs, just coming out of the ordinary earth! Magic!

I'd really like to see some parts of the film - Ambrym and North Korea, both, for example. But otherwise, it sounds like Herzog really needed an editor. :(
Nov. 4th, 2016 02:43 am (UTC)
If you ever do find a way to see it, I'd be interested to hear your impressions!
Nov. 6th, 2016 02:42 pm (UTC)
"I would love a whole movie like that--focused on people living with volcanoes and how they do."

That is a movie I think you should make!
Nov. 6th, 2016 02:43 pm (UTC)
I would *love* to do that.
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )

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