December 20, 2005

Viewing Log: Werner Herzog at Kaieteur Falls

In Herzog’s 2004 documentary THE WHITE DIAMOND, a British scientist, a typical Herzog distraught jungle obsessive, is testing a new type of small airship to fly above the rainforest canopy of Guyana in search of medicinal plants. He thinks he may also want to fly it above Kaieteur Falls, the world’s longest single-drop waterfall (741 feet), but he changes his mind when a test flight -- five store-bought helium balloons, jointly carrying a glass of champagne -- is sucked into the falls by the downdraft.

A million swifts, it is said, live in the unexplored cave behind the falls. The camera catches a smoke-thick flock of them flying in front of the cataract, a swirling mass in which each individual seems to have its own flight plan, its own will and whimsicality, aided rather than hindered by the need to stay in the group. The water is bright amber at the top of its plunge from the green-black rock of the plateau; as it drops, it lightens, churning gray and white in a smoke-cloud of spume. And the swifts are flying around the spray, inside it, behind it.

Do they live in a continual ecstasy? Because they should. Or are they so used to the waterfall, or are their nervous systems so primitive, that they hardly notice it?

Some of them may not be well mated or well fed, they may have worries about whether another member of the flock is going to steal their favorite cranny in the cave. Some may be old or sick or injured, nearing their last flight. But how terrible, no matter what their struggles, if they didn’t know that they deserved to live in a continual ecstasy. That the conditions demanded it, and not to do so was dumb negligence and loss of life.