October 19, 2006

SCORNED AND COVERED WITH SCARS:

Jungle Fevers: Werner Herzog's sui generis Amazon fever dream and an oral history of Jonestown (J. Hoberman, October 17th, 2006, Village Voice)

Elaborating on the story of the mutinous conquistador Lope de Aguirre (c.1510–61), Herzog mythologized history even as he dramatized his own working methods. Aguirre's quest for a nonexistent "golden city" in the heart of the Amazon rain forest dovetails with the German filmmaker's crazy attempt to recapitulate this venture, producing his own low-budget extravaganza in the same jungle location. (Herzog's El Dorado would have been commercial success; Aguirre, at least initially, achieved only cult status.)

Aguirre gave Klaus Kinski his career role—a half-mad actor playing a full-fledged lunatic—but the filmmaker is the protagonist. The opening sequence—in which the Spanish expedition, complete with sedan chairs, llamas, and Indian slaves, descends out of the Andes through the clouds—is a spectacular show of cinematic might. The exclamation point is a cannon that explodes as it falls into the river. "The spectacle is real; the danger is real," Herzog later boasted. "It is the real life of the jungle, not the botanic gardens of the studio." [...]

As noted by his longtime champion, former Voice critic Mike Atkinson, Herzog has always been an image-maker others have looted: His vocation is "making movies, not watching them." Herzog's river journey anticipated Coppola's in Apocalypse Now (another example of auteurist psychodrama); Aguirre is the influence Terrence Malick's over-inflated New World can't shake. Herzog even attempted his own failed Aguirre remake with Fitzcarraldo, but the earlier film is sui generis. Is Aguirre an exotic thriller, a swashbuckler, a documentary? Manny Farber was reminded of "a bad Raoul Walsh adventure, an episodic paceless film in which you're wondering 'will they make it or not.'" (Then again, he cited its "seething passion.") The meeting between voracious explorers and uncanny aliens approaches science-fiction.

The premise is scary. The tone is absurd. The mood, cued by the lush drone of Popol Vuh's score, is languorous, even trippy. The drama ends in a fever of denial—someone hallucinates a boat in a tree, someone else dies from a nonexistent arrow. Alone with corpses and monkeys on a raft that drifts in circles as it is circled by the camera, Aguirre is the last man standing—ranting still, amid the illusion of brute existence.


I'd actually argue that Fitcarraldo is superior. Aguirre is kind of a cop out because the protagonist is so clearly mad, where as Fitzcarraldo's obsession is plausible but of questionable value. While Herzog makes it impossible to have much sympathy for Aguirre, your reaction to Fitzcarraldo reveals everything about you. It all boils down to whether or not you agree with Don Antonio Moreno:
Ah, sir, may God forgive you for the damage you've done to the whole rest of the world, in trying to cure the wittiest lunatic ever seen! Don't you see, my dear sir, that whatever utility there might be in curing him, it could never match the pleasure he gives with his madness?


MORE:
An Infamous Mutiny, A Descent Into Madness (BRUCE BENNETT, October 20, 2006, NY Sun)

In 1972, German filmmaker Werner Herzog entered the jungle swamps of the Peruvian Amazon along with a tiny crew, a small cast led by European character actor and theatrical eccentric Klaus Kinski, and several hundred native Indian extras from a local socialist collective. Armed with a camera he personally "liberated" from the Munich film school, a scraped-together budget of just under $400,000 (a third of which was set aside to pay Kinski's fee),and a script written during road trips with the amateur football team he played for, Mr. Herzog and company endured six weeks of deprivations as they struggled to bring his vision to cinematic life.

The result, "Aguirre, the Wrath of God," begins a one-week engagement at Film Forum in a new print tonight, and it is not to be missed.

Mr. Herzog based his script on a littleknown sidebar to the history of the European explorers who first traveled the new world. In 1560, a Spanish expedition set off across the Andes in search of the mythical city of gold, El Dorado. Upon reaching the Amazon, the group's leaders assigned Don Pedro de Ursua the task of leading a smaller splinter expedition downriver to see if El Dorado might be reached by raft. At some point on the journey, Ursua's aide, Don Lope de Aguirre, rebelled, murdered his superior, and drafted a letter to king of Spain declaring himself the wrath of God on earth and abolishing the Spanish crown.

"Aguirre the Traitor's" (or "Aguirre the Madman"as he's alternately remembered by history) expedition ended in starvation and murder, and is one of the more bizarre anecdotes to emerge from the conquest of South America.

Inspired by the story of, as Mr. Herzog called him,"one of history's great losers," the director took the bare bones facts — the raft expedition, the revolt, and the Amazon itself — and built a film of such self-assured hallucinatory clarity and ingenious visual invention that it has no equal, even among Mr. Herzog's previous and subsequent work.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 19, 2006 12:00 PM
Comments

I agree with you that Fitzcarraldo is a better film, and I agree with Moreno about the protagonist.

What'd you think of Grizzly Man? My sister couldn't watch it, thought it was just too creepy and exploitive of Treadwell's mental illness. I guess I don't disagree, except I could not look away. Treadwell himself was more irritating than interesting; the really interesting people were those connected with Treadwell. His enablers, if you will. And the bear footage *was spectacular.

Posted by: ted welter at October 19, 2006 12:38 PM

I haven't seen it yet, but read some of his book and found myself wanting the bears to shred him by page 2. Had to let the tiger (bear) out of the cage.

I'll watch the film eventually, not for Treadwell, but because it's interesting that Herzog identifies with him.

Posted by: oj at October 19, 2006 12:43 PM

He is fascinating to Herzog because, like Fitzgerraldo, Aguirre, Quixote, and the proprietor of this website, Treadwell takes his obsession with an impossible dream well past the point of madness.

The other great thing about the film is Richard Thompson's soundtrack. The DVD special feature on the soundtrack sessions is worth watching. Herzog dictates in the best Teutonic fashion that the rhythm section should avoid sounding like 'bongo-playing hippies in Golden Gate Park.’

Posted by: ted welter at October 19, 2006 1:30 PM

Past the madness lies the Promised Land.

Posted by: oj at October 19, 2006 1:43 PM

In the midst of the madness lies Denzel and lots of coconut scented body lotion.

Posted by: Pepys at October 19, 2006 5:14 PM

See, everyone's got a list.

Posted by: oj at October 19, 2006 5:35 PM

Curse you, Orrin Judd!

Curse you!!

Posted by: Pepys at October 19, 2006 6:14 PM

The body lotion portion of the fantasy was the giveaway--that one's all yours....

Mine involves a tub of depilatory...

Posted by: oj at October 19, 2006 7:05 PM
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