Werner Herzog’s entire public persona is a kind of performance art, the documentation of which has become increasingly crucial to his filmmaking projects in recent decades. A Werner Herzog “documentary,” no matter its subject, is just as much about the filmmaker’s own philosophical worldview as it is about the world outside his mind. This suits the audience just fine, since Herzog is what would classically be described as A Character, someone who’s naturally entertaining and whose mere presence is always a kind of performance. A succinct, early taste of this performance art can be found in the Les Blank short-doc Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, which takes Herzog’s natural presence as a one-person side show as literally as possible. Staged as a promotion for Errol Morris’s debut feature Gates of Heaven (our current Movie of the Month), Blank & Herzog collaborate to document a blatant publicity stunt in which, as the title suggests, Herzog eats his own shoe in front of a live audience to draw attention to his friend’s work. With clips from Gates of Heaven interspersing with Blank’s Always for Pleasure–mode of documenting the labor of food preparation (if you can consider a leather shoe to be food), and Herzog’s signature pontification on the nature of art & humanity, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is an essential, one-of-a-kind collaboration between three of the most prestigious voices in documentary filmmaking. That’s an absurd thing to be able to say about what’s essentially a 20min infomercial for another, more substantial work.
Herzog opens this film complaining that television & talk shows are “killing” culture. He ends it confessing that filmmakers are also cheap illusionists & clowns, that his own chosen profession is embarrassing. Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is self-aware of its participation in the death of culture. Just as its title is a cheap provocation, the event it documents is advertised in circus-style side show posters promising the shoe-eating stunt to a potential live audience. Herzog eating his own shoe is a stupid, pointless act designed to grab public attention for better art he believed deserved it. Supposedly, Herzog first jokingly bet that Errol Morris would never have the courage to complete a feature length documentary on a subject as inconsequential as a pet cemetery business. The story goes that he said if Gates of Heaven were ever completed & screened for an audience, he would eat his own shoe. Morris does not appear onscreen to confirm the terms of the bet in Les Blank’s short, nor is it confirmed whether the shoe Herzog eats is actually the one he was wearing when he made the bet, as he claims. The entire act is performance art born of flippant humor & male bravado, staged without apology as a publicity stunt to draw attention to Gates of Heaven, which had then yet to secure theatrical distribution. Les Blank shows an interest in the preparation of the shoe as it transforms into “food,” carefully documenting the hot sauce, duck fat, garlic, and vegetable stew used to soften & flavor it. Mostly, though, he allows Herzog to ramble on like a carnival barker throughout the stunt, pontificating as much nonsense as you’d likely encounter in a television broadcast or a talk show, yet framing it as art.
The idea that Gates of Heaven’s topic was too inconsequential for a documentary feels so foreign in a 2010s context. Some of my favorite documentaries in recent memory have been on topics as miniscule as erotic tickling, trash harvesting, and a single dead dog (as opposed to cemetery full of them). It’s also arguable that critic Roger Ebert later did much better by promoting Gates of Heaven in his own way, raising its profile by often citing it as one of the greatest films ever made. Herzog’s side show publicity stunt’s own value as a work of art is in making an even smaller film than the one he promoted with it. If Gates of Heaven’s topic was too absurdly thin to justify a documentary (something I doubt Herzog ever said or believed) then Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is an even more extreme distillation of that same kind of art. This is an advertisement & an awkwardly staged performance art piece that somehow makes for compelling filmmaking thanks to Herzog’s natural charisma & gift for shit-talking. Like Gates of Heaven, it’s proof that you can make a worthy documentary on just about anything, even a frivolous bet that may or may not actually have even been real. In 2018, it likely would only have been presented to the world as a DVD extra. In 1980, it was art.