Sunday, August 28, 2022

A planetary romance


Directed by Sara Dosa
Written by Shane Boris, Erin Casper, Jocelyn Casper, and Sara Dosa

Spoilers: big N/A

Fire of Love
 is the result of plumbing the archives of husband-and-wife vulcanologist-filmmakers Katia and Maurice Krafft, and, to get it out of the way, I adore it, and I thank its maker, Sara Dosa, for bringing us a greatest hits collection of the Kraffts' amazing, awe-inspiring footage in a slick little package.  But let us also say, upfront, that Fire of Love is not the perfect version of itself, and I mean that in the narrowest sense.  If the task of criticism is, ideally, to compare movies to some non-existent "perfect version," we won't necessarily even need to consider the things it wasn't trying to be, but perhaps should have been whether it wanted to be or not.  I am not a very ideal critic and I'm sure we'll be doing that regardless, but it is not per se "bad," for example, that Fire of Love is never (or rarely) much of an actual probe into the nuts-and-bolts process that the Kraffts developed over the course of their careers, nor is it "bad" that it's not much more of an investigation regarding their evolution into image-makers and consciousness-shapers above all, rather than humble scientists (or, for that matter, humble thrillseekers).

That raises the question of what it is that Fire of Love does want to be, and, as the title states aloud (a title I don't really like; the title of this review is way better, and only a non-starter because I don't think one in a thousand people would get it) is a sort of print-the-legend type of thing about two truly awesome people whose works should be known.  It is therefore, primarily, a celebration of that workalongside (if a little more notionally) their love affairand that's an eminently respectable position for a documentary to take, particularly so given the subject here: Fire of Love patently exists because of how much the Kraffts' joined lives already feel like a movie pitch.  Accordingly, it wants to be about the sheer heady romance (in both senses of the term) of a husband-and-wife team of daredevil vulcanologists, who dedicated their lives (in both senses of that term) to the documentation of volcanic spectacle, and who therefore, perhaps inevitably, perished together, when the volcanoes claimed their due.

That's pretty much it: it is not a terribly convoluted story.  (It's perhaps more like the first and third acts of a movie with no actual middle.)  It is maybe not even that interesting a story, if you wanted to be a jerk about it, and if you insist that stories have something psychologically dynamic at their core; it could be a coincidence (they share National Geographic as a distributor, but not as a production company), but the timeline of Fire of Love starts at something like the precise moment that Becoming Cousteau was making waves back in 2021, and it's kind of hard to not assume that Fire of Love exists in order to tap into the market that (rather gratifyingly) must exist for such documentary studies of mid-century educator-showpeople.  Jacques-Yves Cousteau, of course, had a fascinating life, one strikingly amenable to having a narrative imposed upon it, mostly in terms of personal and political tragedy.  The Kraffts' lives were fascinating, too, but their lives are more opaque; their lives seem to be entirely subsumed into the images they left, neither more complex nor less magical than the flawless myth that is contained in that one-sentence summary of their lives, "the married vulcanologists who died chasing their obsession."  There is a persistent impression that they became ever less invested in acquiring Cousteau-like celebrity; the impression they left, from what I've seen, is that their work as volcanic documentarians, and the activist message their work contains about the need for governments to develop early warning systems because these things are majestic precisely because they're apocalyptically terrifying, speaks entirely for itself.

In its heart, this documentary about them seems to more-or-less agree, but wants to hedge, and the fact that it was written by no fewer than four people (including its director) maybe begins to indicate the problem.  Dosa will not, and to some degree categorically refuses, to allow the imagery to speak for itself, and to this end she enlisted filmmaker and actor Miranda July to narrate this tale of fire and love.  Dosa and her co-writers handed July an absolute wall of text to recite over the course of the film, so that basically at no pointI'm exaggerating only slightlyare we free of July just yammering the fuck away, in a mode that somehow combines about-to-cry brittleness and about-to-fall-asleep blandness into one irritating, self-cancelling package (July's "performance" is not really the fundamental issue, but it might well be a further degrading factor), and the words she speaks carry surprisingly minimal actual communication.

Of course, July does provide some contextualization, in the form of biographical data and scene-setting; we can quibble over how much is "necessary," but legitimate informational content represents about a fifth of her narration. Otherwise, July is obliged to meander off into constant pseudo-poetic description of the imagery we're looking at and can, I'd like to think, interpret for ourselves without really needing to reduce the immensity of it to wordssupplicate ourselves before it, if you like.  Dosa and July get in the way of that at every opportunity; it's testament to the power of the Kraffts' own filmmaking acumen that Dosa is rendered largely incapable of ruining her own movie despite seemingly trying.

But the worst parts are indeed very awful, and July's contributions can be just downright laughably redundant: even if you somehow respond to July's sub-Malickian droning neutrality, the narration is extremely prone to frequently restating information it's already given us and, gracious, prone to restating things that Maurice and Katia already tell us themselves, in the archival 70s talk show interviews and recited diary entries that Dosa sometimes intercuts with their footage.  The thing is, Dosa and her writers are plainly attempting to replicate Katia and Maurice's own voice, for they likewise had a certain tendency to indulge in semi-articulate pseudo-poetry about volcanoes.  But Katia and Maurice are allowed that, because Katia and Maurice were badasses.  (I don't imagine the goal of the documentary was to prove that July and Dosa aren't as cool as the Kraffts, but it does become something of an accidental theme.)  It can even get condescending: Fire of Love never bottoms out harder than in a bit of editing that pairs a shot of Katia with a bird, and Maurice with an elephant seal, juxtapositions which I suspect the Kraffts already chose for themselves and probably believed were self-explanatory, and yet July is tasked with mindlessly stating aloud that Katia is like the bird, and Maurice is like the elephant seal, whereupon the movie fully becomes its own audio description track.

This gets into the narrative-building angle taken by Dosa and her writers, which is to try to pick at the microscopic variations in personality between a husband-and-wife team that largely acted as a unit and to some extent behaved as single individual.  It's an obvious approach, and it doesn't entirely land, given that they never quite convince us they're meaningfully different people: the biggest distinction between Maurice and Katia, besides Maurice handling the 16mm camera and Katia doing still photography, and Maurice being the more outward-facing of the pair, is that they had slightly different tolerances for personal risk.  (An anecdote about Maurice taking a boat out onto a lake of acid over Katia's geochemist objections is the closest the two get to real "conflict," and while Maurice is given leave to sound like a reckless moron as he describes his dream project of building a heatproof raft to sail down a lava river in Hawaii, I'm not completely sure Maurice expected us to take him seriously.)  Their tolerance couldn't have been too different, obviously, given they died at the exact same time in the exact same place by the exact same means.  It's worth pointing out that in the majority of the footage that has one or the other Krafft in it, Maurice is operating the camera and so Katia is therefore much closer to whatever lethal geological feature it is they're documenting.

So, like I said: it's about the footage.  And the footage is mesmerizing.  Dosa gets out of her own way often enough that we can fall deliriously into it; even when she is in the way, it almost doesn't matter.  The Kraffts were astoundingly good filmmakers, and it's not just half-assed documentation, but amazingly good actual cinematography, particularly in the use of telephoto lenses to compress the imagery into painting-like graphic abstraction, ripe for dreamy contemplation, like 60s space sci-fi with the greatest art direction and special effects of all time.  It's completed by the Kraffts' eye forand, surely, their patience forthe perfect shots.  (There's a more humanistic side to the Kraffts' documentation, an aspect that became more pronounced as they became more passionate about actually helping people by showing the human cost of geological activity, rather than just touring neat volcanoes, and this is not precisely ignored but not foregrounded much; this is not itself a "bad" choice given Fire of Love's particular intentions.)  Anyway, the Kraffts became experts at capturing the mystic impression of creation and destruction that they were after, frequently providing Katia as a "subject" to offer a sense of crushing geologic scale, and just as frequently allowing nature to simply play out before their cameras, images of hypnotic physical processes that can often feel alive, sometimes even grotesque (lava tubes, or the sputtering of liquid rock against water), and are annihilating in the same way one imagines beholding the face of God would be.  Yet by their very existence16mm film brought out of the forge of creation by tiny, insignificant human beingsthe Kraffts suggest that even if we can never tame volcanoes, perhaps we can still comprehend them.  (Then again, the Kraffts' demise at Mt. Unzen, which can be represented only by cruddy TV news video, perhaps militates slightly against this impression.)

For all I've given Dosa a hard time, there are strategies here that work.  She's mostly willing to allow the manufactured aspect of the Kraffts' technique to fall into implication, and I'm of two minds about itthe very first set of shots in the film, concerning the traversal of a vehicle over difficult wintry terrain in Iceland, screams out "these obstacles were staged" since somebody's filming the damn thing, and there's no way Dosa didn't mean to do thatbut subtlety is never the film's strong suit so when something is, it's worth praising.  There's a bit of cutesy hucksterism to the Kraffts' early work that Dosa only pulls the thread of visuallythe bit where Maurice throws rocks at Katia's head, for example (she's wearing what amounts to a suit of armor)and she permits the younger Kraffts to set the tone.  It's slightly annoying to see people refer to the Kraffts as "Wes Anderson" figures, because that puts the reference before the referent, but as the Kraffts spent much of their early career essentially doing volcano-themed Jacques Cousteau cosplay, it's not unfair to go the full Life Volcanic, so that the framing devices and inofographics Dosa takes recourse to are, indeed, pretty Wes Andersony in a good way.

This tails off somewhat towards the end, and Dosa segments the film between what the Kraffts call "red volcanoes" and "gray" ones (the former being relatively safe, the latter producing unpredictable hazards like the pyroclastic flow that killed them), separated by the muddy browns of the lahars occasioned by the holocaustal Nevado del Ruiz eruption, that killed 20,000 people and starkly reoriented the Kraffts' priorities.  (Speaking of manufacture, I don't recall if July mentions that the lahar footage is a stand-in provided by another eruption half a world away.)  This tracks the Kraffts' own chronology as they became more activist, but it likewise works for giving each phase of the film its own specific visual identity, the pop art radness of the red volcanoes set against the more threatening, more melancholy feelings evoked by, for example, the endless monochrome tree-strewn wasteland that Mt. St. Helen made of its surrounding forest, that appears more as a microscopic image of a piece of frayed gray fabric than any earthly landscape.  Nicolas Godin provides an electronic score that is usually more meditative than noticeable, but serves as fitting background music to such awe-inspiring vistas, fully sufficient to focus and settle the mind upon the visuals.  It could have been a supreme experience, but it settles for being merely great; you simply wish that Dosa had more confidence in her subjects.

Score: 8/10

P.S.: Werner Herzog, who touched upon the Kraffts a few years ago in his vulcanological doc, Into the Inferno, has himself directed something that we can call "a companion piece" to Fire of Love.  (The truth of the matter is more complex, as it appears to have been instigated by the History Channel to exploit the attention garnered by Fire of Love.)  It's called The Fire Within: Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft, and is in some theoretical sense much more what Fire of Love ought to have been.  Herzog isn't remotely silent himselfhe peppers his film with what I understand are Herzogisms (he chastises a rock for betraying its function of not standing still; he calls the inflatable chairs the Kraffts use "pathetic")and he kicks his compilation of the Kraffts' footage off by declaring that it is not a biography (like that other movie), before immediately launching into a dozens-of-minutes-long biographical sketch anyway.  However, he does narrate much less than July did, allowing the footage to play out in long, mystic slabs set to classical music.  He also has a more interesting angle, in that he's out to consider the Kraffts as filmmakers rather than lovers, and accordingly his narration is more focused on technique and process and is generally much more informative; it's thanks to The Fire Within that I'm aware of the Kraffts' more human interest documentation (Dosa, maybe not even consciously, is more willing to elide the damage volcanoes do to people than Herzog; also maybe not consciously, Herzog dwells more on the grimmer, drearier gray volcanoes).  It's no more complete than Dosa's approach, unfortunately, in that there's a gap where a thesis ought to be in between Herzog's amused contempt for their early attempts at cinematic artifice and his sincere reverence for their very slightly later attempts at cinematic artifice.

The real rub, though, is that this is a TV doc, and therefore Herzog was imposed upon to crop the Kraffts' footage to 16:9 widescreenDosa's theatrically-released film preserves Maurice's 16mm full frameand that's a lot of violence to do to extraordinarily beautiful footage that draws its terrifyingits genuinely physicaleffect in no small part from the towering verticality of the frame and the ways Katia (usually Katia) was rendered such a tiny part of them.  The stop-and-start rhythm dictated by the need to do commercial breaks isn't much fun, either.  It's annoying: between these two films, there's a full-tilt masterpiece. Score: 7/10

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