Werner Herzog’s “The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner”

In 1974, Werner Herzog shot a short and excellent documentary called The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner. The film (available here on YouTube) is a study of the great Swiss ski-flyer and woodcarver Walter Steiner, and follows him through a series of competitions in which he is pushed to jump further and further. Early in film, Herzog explains his initial fascination with Steiner: in 1973, at the opening of Oberstdorf’s ski-ramp, Steiner jumped 179 meters, 10 meters further than the world record at the time and 10 meters short of “the flat,” the portion of the track where the slope levels out. If Steiner had sailed beyond the grade and landed on the flat (a 110 meter plunge), he would have died; “This is the point,” Herzog tells the viewer, gesturing to the 179 meter mark, “where ski-flying becomes inhuman.”

It’s interesting (or perhaps only an artifact of translation and nothing more) that Herzog describes this threshold as “inhuman” — cruel, inhospitable, lacking compassion — rather than, say, “superhuman,” a word which would have bestowed on Steiner’s feat a sense of triumph. But Herzog’s doesn’t seem to care about records, or whether these ski-jumps are successful (he is, of course, visibly concerned for the safety of the flyers), instead, he’s fascinated by the aesthetic quality of the experience.

Shooting on film in super slow-motion, Herzog and his crew managed to capture beautiful, otherworldly footage of Steiner and the other skiers making their jumps. Suspended in time and space, bent in impossible cooperation with their skis they just soar, hurtling from the lip of the ramp at lunatic speeds into an entirely other — “yes,” we now agree — non-human realm: a state of pure motion and speed and vectors. Shown at 1/20th speed their jerseys riffle slowly as they ascend and enter into suspension, a portrait of pure experience of time, inertia, and gravity, those indomitable forces that sweep all of everything forward and down, at work on the human body.

Worth watching for footage of the jumps alone (a pure filmic experience), The Great Ecstasy also features a fab soundtrack by proto-ambient rock group Popol Vuh and an onscreen appearance by Herzog wearing a cool shirt. However, if you watch the film on YouTube you may be forced to sit through several very confusing (totally inhuman) seconds of a PS4 commercial set to Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.” That song released in 1973, one year before Steiner almost bit it on the flat. (RIP, Lou)

— Jesse Montgomery



Surfing Strange by Swearin’

I’ve been on the road for a while now, and while there’s no freedom quite like living out of a single backpack or wearing the same pair of pants for weeks on end (unlike when I have a residence, where I still wear the same single pair of pants, but by volition), it gets lonely.

I listen to music and look at windows and drink by myself, this type of habit-forming behavior only acceptable because there’s very little alternative. My increasingly cloudy mind wanders. I think that the music I listen to as unfamiliar landscape flies by forges my recollection of the scenery to a soundtrack it has nothing to do with. But what should I be listening to? Balkan death metal? For cold nights on overnight trains, I’ve chosen a soundtrack that reminds me of home.

I’ve been listening to Surfing Strange by Swearin’ for the last few weeks. I’m a biased critic: I lived above their studio and in the same Philadelphia house with them when they were writing these songs about having no real place to settle down. Shuttling between New York City and Philadelphia (while I did the same pretty much all last year) they sing about the insecurities of not knowing what you’re doing or where you’re living next month. The shuttling between homes and calculated retreats to our old bedrooms has now stretched into the back portion of our twenties. It’s gone on a while and will continue for some time. I’m not complaining.

Surfing Strange doesn’t stray too far from their album last year, but there’s some slow growth, some piano, some change from the scruffy punk that I listened to all last year. I think it’s an album that shows they’re changing, finding a sound even more themselves, a change that has come through the process of almost perpetual motion. To surf is necessary, to live is not.

— Max Rivlin-Nadler



The Best Show

On December 17th, after 13 years and over 1,000 hours on the air, the Best Show on WFMU will broadcast for the final time.  A sterling, singular achievement of cultural production in the anti-Reagan mold, the Best Show leaves behind an unrepeatable blueprint for how to build an old-fashioned cult fan community.  Hosted by Tom Scharpling (aka El Goodo, aka Kid Jersey, aka the Dollar-Store Dickens), the Best Show has always stood out to us as an associative, undisciplined spokesperson for the creative class.  Anyone familiar Scharpling’s work — whether it’s waging a crusade against Billy Crystal’s racismGary Puckett’s pedophilia, or Roger McGuin’s hippophilia (love of horses, chestnut mares in McGuinn’s case) — knows that it has always been about making things for the sake of making things.  This couldn’t be more different than the nonsense you read about San Francisco or Brooklyn, where a burst creativity is really just a thin proxy for the freedom that money buys.

Of course, Scharpling’s cantankerous yet charming persona is only one aspect of the show’s success. His work with workhorse drummer/comedian Jon Wurster is what most fans of the show fixate upon — in fact, ”Best Show Gems,” a biweekly “best of” podcast, largely consists of Wurster’s calls. Over the past 13 years, Scharpling and Wurster have turned fictional Newbridge, NJ into their version of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. “We never really set out to create this world,” Wurster told Patton Oswalt. “It just slowly and organically evolved into the circus that it is today. I think it dawned on us a few years in that a fictitious town could be a great hub for all these characters. Literally anything can exist in Newbridge: from a two-inch racist to a crabby talking fish who lives in a lake and plays guitar in a garage band called Carp A.D.M.”

Tom announced that the Best Show would be drawing to a close on October 29th. In a strange irony that episode began with a tribute to Lou Reed, another figure who built his community without any agenda and whose legacy will be measured in both his body of work and his influence. But this is not to eulogize Tom Scharpling or the Best Show on WFMU!  There are still three episodes, 9 hours, of Best Show left. From the proud and unapologetic positions of fans, of card carrying Friends of Tom, we recommend you listen to, enjoy, and appreciate them.

— Alex Shepherd and Michael Schapira


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