Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Musing Pictures: Aguirre -- Wrath of God

Depressing films are not new, but they do bring to mind an interesting question, which I will get to later.

I recently had an opportunity to see the 1972 German film, "Aguirre -- Wrath of God", which had been sitting, un-watched, on my shelf for several months. My first introduction to the film was by name, only, on a movie list from a 10th grade film teacher (Media Chick remembers him, too). Fast forward to my sophomore year of college, the intro film history class, and there it is again, Aguirre, in a dramatic final scene, standing aslant on a rickety raft, sailing down a tropical river with monkeys and corpses for company. The professor showed only that one scene, and it was all I knew of "Aguirre -- Wrath of God" for several years.

When I finally popped it in the VCR (yes, VHS tapes are really cheap, so I still buy them) all I knew to expect was that Aguirre would stand alone, with monkeys, in the end.

It's a very strange film, and of course, a very dark one. Aguirre, the head of a mutinous band of explorers, pushes them beyond their abilities and beyond their sanity in a quest to find the fabled city of gold, El Dorado. It is a study in leadership, and in insanity, and in the relationship between the two.

When I think of tales of exploration, the ones I gravitate towards are triumphant -- Neil Armstrong, Vespucci, Magellan, and yes, even Columbus, before the butchery. In my capacities as a dreamer and a storyteller, there is little more fascinating than the promise of just beyond the dip of the horizon. In "Aguirre", Werner Herzog paints a dark promise: there is nothing over the horizon but more horizon. We know that El Dorado is a myth, and that knowledge forces us to not only frown on the stalwart explorers, but to feel anger, as well, at Aguirre himself (played brilliantly by Klaus Kinski), for driving them so hard towards something that Just Isn't There. I think that's the difference between "Aguirre" and other exploration stories -- we know the ending, and we know it can't be good. When we first saw "The Wizard of Oz", we didn't know the ending, but it was good. The end of the rainbow proved to be a warm, happy, safe place. Although Magellan died before his circumnavigation of the globe was complete, we know that the task he set out to achieve was completed successfully, and GPS systems everywhere are now named after him. At the Olympic Games, we watch eagerly to see someone rise to victory. But there is also that dark fascination with watching another's failure. That is the fascination that makes "Aguirre" so powerful.

It's dark, and it's depressing, and we sometimes wonder, "who wants to see a dark, depressing movie?" I admit, I don't like them, most of the time. I love the cinema that transports and uplifts me -- the grand, sweeping, operatic stuff that leaves me desperately happy. But there's a fascination, nonetheless, with a fall. King Kong (the remake) is all about that -- a three hour film that culminates, literally, in a character's fall. Although I enjoyed the remake of Kong, a student of mine made the astute observation that it's just not fun to have so much pity for a character that you can't do anything to help.

There's a theory, and I don't think it has a name, that says: a strong source of tension in film comes from the desire to help a character, conflicting with the realization that you can not reach through the screen to the world of the film -- the desire and the inability to help.

Hitchcock takes full advantage of this type of tension, showing us just a little more than a character knows, and teasing us by placing the character in just the situation that makes the knowledge we have most relevant and most urgent. The key to Hitchcock, though, is that the character we care about gets out of the situation somehow. Our tension is released through relief. In "King Kong", and in "Aguirre", our tension is released through dispair and disappointment, if it is released at all. Rather than laughing, we cry, or brood. Sometimes, it just turns in to frustration. And it is not the same as crying when a beloved character dies "naturally" -- when even had we been able to provide information through the screen to the film, the character would have died. That is a death we can feel genuinely sad about, because there is no guilt associated with it. The character died, and it's sad for everyone who is still alive, but we don't have the frustration associated with the unrelieved tension.

"Munich", also a depressing film, works because even if we think we have the answers, we know that even within the film's world (which is meant to mirror our own), there are no clear answers. Even if we could reach in and say something, it wouldn't have an effect. (and yes, Spielberg does have his Hitchcock moment, when the little girl comes home early, and the bomb meant for her father threatens to take her life instead... but that moment, true to Hitchcock, allows for the right kind of release -- relief, rather than frustration.)

In "Aguirre", as in "King Kong", we have a feeling that we could step in and explain things. We could tell the world, "King Kong is just a Big Monkey with a Heart of Gold and a Penchant for Blondes!" or "Come on, guys, can't you tell Aguirre is insane? Feed him to the monkeys, and let's get out of here!" And we know we're right, and the screen prevents us from being able to say anything, and it's frustrating.

Werner Herzog's recent "Grizzly Man" is on my list of films to see. From the sound of it, it's also depressing in the same way (it's the tale of a man who devoted his life to protecting Grizzly Bears, only to get eaten by them one day.) I'm sure I'll have the same reaction to it, wanting desperately to tell this guy to get out of the woods, but not being able to because of the glass or the canvas that divides reality from the world of the film. [and a twist on "Grizzly Man" is that it is a documentary... time itself becomes a barrier, too.]

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