After conquering all seven continents in his brilliant, idiosyncratic documentaries, Werner Herzog turns his gaze to the heavens, or more exactly to the impact the heavens have had on the earth, in “Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds.” He and his co-director, Cambridge University vulcanologist Clive Oppenheimer (who previously joined Herzog in his “Encounters at the End of the World,” 2007 and “Into the Inferno,” 2016), journey around the globe, investigating the evidence, impact, and significance of meteors, comets, and other celestial objects that have — or will — collide with our planet.
Their destinations range from the outback of Australia to the ice fields of Antarctica, from the Kaaba in Mecca to the roof of a huge sports pavilion in Oslo. Herzog’s tone varies from portentous to playful, from ecstatic to enigmatic. Though not as engaging or profound as his best documentaries, “Fireball” boasts many moments that you could find only in a Herzog film.
In one such scene, he takes a fancy to and gazes at the kitschy Wyatt Earp “get-up” sported by one of the researchers he encounters. In another he lingers on the performance of an awkward French animatronic “miner” who explains to potential alien visitors how mine shafts might save mankind from a cataclysmic collision with an asteroid. “I’m confident the human race can survive,” he says. “But I’m not a prophet, I’m just a miner.”
During a visit to the town of Chicxulub in the Yucatan, the ground zero of where the cataclysmic meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs crashed, he comments that it is “a beach so godforsaken you want to cry,” a description he proves with a tour of the town ending with a dead dog in the street. When a scientist gets too technical about the quasi-crystals he found in a Kamchatka meteorite he says, “leaving the arcane mysteries of matter behind” and then segues to a livelier segment. Though Herzog’s tendency to orotundity can become a strain he never loses his sense of the absurd, silly, and satiric.
Philosophically, Herzog seems to have moved on from the nihilism he expresses in “Grizzly Man” (2005), where he declares, “I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder,” to a kind of faith in the fusion of science, art, and religion. Highly magnified images of cosmic particles resemble luminous mandalas and stained-glass windows. Island tribesmen engage in a dance to celebrate meteors carrying away the souls of the dead to the afterlife and a Jesuit astronomer explains how science and faith are complementary.
Near the end of the film he promises to take us to “a place where we transcend human existence.” He might not pull it off this time, but if anyone could, it would be Werner Herzog.
“Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds” can be seen on Apple TV+.
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An atrocity revisited
The lynchings and other atrocities against Black people during the Jim Crow era sprang not just from hatred and racism but also from envy and greed, with violence targeting individuals and communities that had achieved economic prosperity. Such is the case with the subject of Caroline DeVoe’s “Crawford: The Man the South Forgot.”
A former slave living in Abbeville, S.C., Anthony Crawford had managed to become the owner of 427 acres, which he turned into a thriving cotton farm. A shrewd businessman and model citizen, he had earned the respect of the white population in a town that prided itself on being, as they put it, the “Birthplace and Deathbed of the Confederacy.”
Despite his status Crawford knew his insistence on being respected might get him in trouble. “The day a white man hits me,” he said, “is the day I die.” A fatal confrontation happened on Oct. 21, 1916, when a local store owner tried to buy Crawford’s cotton seed at a cut-rate price. An argument ensued, Crawford called the store owner a cheat, and a crowd gathered. The sheriff put Crawford in jail for his protection, the mob broke in, dragged him away, and lynched him. Then they drove the rest of his family out of town and stole their property.
A descendant of that diaspora, Doria Dee Johnson, had heard hints from her family about her great-great grandfather’s fate and traveled to Abbeville to learn the full story. DeVoe follows her as she enters a town where Confederate flags, slogans, and monuments abound. Johnson feels intimidated by the environment and the reticence of the townspeople about the incident, but she persists in searching through the town records and interviewing those who are willing to talk about it. In the end the film combines the fascinating research of Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s PBS show, “Finding Your Roots,” with some of the menace and suspense of John Sturges’s drama “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955).
“Crawford: The Man the South Forgot” can be streamed on Kweli.tv.
If you like trees and rock ‘n’ roll music you’ll probably like Chuck Leavell, piano sideman to the greats and environmentally committed tree farmer.
Everybody interviewed in Allen Farst’s documentary “Chuck Leavell: The Tree Man” certainly loves the guy, and that includes Rolling Stones Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, and Ronnie Wood; Eric Clapton,; Bonnie Raitt; Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour (who is also a big tree buff); Billy Bob Thornton; and former President Jimmy Carter. And not only is Leavell a great musician and a dedicated conservationist but in his many decades in the business, despite the requisite touring and long hours in the studio, he has never taken drugs (sorry, no tales of on-the-road decadence and debauchery) and has remained married to the same woman for 47 years.
Encomiums aside, the film is a compilation of great performances. They include Leavell playing along with Gilmour at a show filmed at Pompeii, where he sings Roger Waters’s part in “Comfortably Numb.” And in equally haunting surroundings, alone in the midst of his 4,000 acres of towering Georgia pines, he plays his grand piano and sings Elton John’s “Border Song.”
“Chuck Leavell: The Tree Man” can be streamed via the Regent Theatre through Nov. 30.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.