Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972)

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The making of Aguirre, The Wrath of God might be as rich in myth as the film itself which charts a semi-fictitious story of Francisco Pizarro’s expedition to discover the golden kingdom of El Dorado. Not only was it the beginning of director Werner Herzog’s notoriously stormy partnership with Klaus Kinski, but it was also shot entirely on location in Peru — a logistical nightmare in its own right.

Herzog purportedly penned the screenplay in a matter of days while riding the bus with his football club. Meanwhile, many of his resources including his camera and film stock had been purloined from Munich Film School years earlier as required tools of his trade.

In conception alone, it proves titillating as a piece of Spanish history from the point of view of a monk, Gaspar de Carvajal, traveling in a pioneering convoy led by the crazed adventurer Aguirre. But it is colonial history by way of West Germany circa 1972.

The opening images are some of the most breathtaking in the film or maybe in any film. We are instantly hooked as angelic tones herald from above and shrouds of mist engulf the mountaintops. Legions of men and natives weave their way down through the treacherous territory. It feels instantly recognizable.

Because I recall hiking up the side of a mountain one Christmas vacation with friends. As we wound our way up and I could see the edge and the drop off below, I realized rather matter-of-factly, “I really don’t like heights that much.” It comes with playing minds games. Caring too much about where you’re feet are and imagining yourself taking a false step and ending up in the chasm. Tossing some biodegradable object down there is certainly invigorating as it spirals down until you think to yourself that might just as easily be you.

Some of those same friends, more adventurous than me would actually go on to hike Macchu Pichuu the next year. Long story short I wasn’t available but I’m not sure if I would have joined the trip. Far from simply being a long-winded illustration of my cowardice or lack of adventurousness, I think it somehow makes sense in relation to the mesmerizing introduction of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

There are those same perilous heights presented here simultaneously awesome and equally harrowing. For good measure, we watch a container of what looks to be chickens dropped and go hurtling down to the rocks below with a crash. We half expect a couple of people to follow.

This trailblazing along the Amazon River totally embroils them in the muck and the mire. Slaves are seen clumsily carrying a cannon and a lady’s litter in the most forsaken of places. It’s absolutely ludicrous. Next, they tackle the rapids on hastily constructed rafts. If you’re prone to seasickness don’t even dare watch the sequence which is yet another instance of fully enveloping cinematography.

The camera spattered with water is continuously bobbing up and down enough to make even a viewer queasy. The incredulous thing is we are only an outside observer and yet we get impacted so. It becomes increasingly apparent Werner Herzog will readily allow himself to suffer for his art. Not just in this picture but from everything I know Fitzcarraldo (1982) too. He doesn’t fudge on any of the locations. Why do this to himself? Just look at the results for your answer.

Green screens, CGI, studio lots. None of those methods could give us anything half as real as this picture. They seem positively quaint and nondescript compared to the astounding atmosphere he’s able to capture. It’s the same authenticity here validating such laborious works as Apocalypse Now (1979) or The Revenant (2015).

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Meanwhile, Kinski totters around the space half like he’s drunk, the other half pure craziness. The film benefits by this razor-thin dividing line between fiction and reality not simply in its environment but also in its actors. He reminds me of the animal magnetism of Toshiro Mifune in a picture like Seven Samurai (1954). You can’t help but keep your eyes on him for the next unthinkable thing he’s about to do.

The weight of Kinski’s crazed performance comes mostly out of the fact that we constantly expect him to do something completely unhinged. He treads dangerously right on the precipice of sanity ready to jump at any moment. Furthermore, Herzog never leaves him alone. His face is constantly being examined time and time again because personal space is all but nonexistent.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God settles into a status quo that is far more pensive than I was expecting. The narrative is full of insurrection but more pervasive is the ever-present dangers suggested by negative space, undoubtedly swimming with stealthy savages. And the fear of the great unknown never ends.

People are killed or die with little fanfare. Those soldiers still living suffer from fever and malnutrition. Their king propped up by Aguirre is an oafish lout. In the figure of Caravajal especially one is further reminded of the oppressive guise Christianity took in this age like many others before and after. Outsiders come in with such a hypocritical superiority complex.

In the end, the only thing Aguirre commands is a raft swarming with monkeys, frankly one of the most indelible images in the film and a fitting point of departure. Though it’s mere coincidence, I watched Terrence Malick’s film Badlands (1973) recently. What it shares with Aguirre which is so captivating is this illusory quality. We have a framework of a conventional tale, in this case, an adventure into the dark murky depths of uncharted territory. And there are moments when we have mutiny, death, starvation, momentary battles but what sets it apart from anything else is the imagery.

Like Malick’s picture, it verges on the dreamlike in a way that is utterly hypnotic. The power is not so much in the excess of things happening one after another but in this continual, unswerving articulation of near monotonous insanity.  In both films, a certain kind of madness takes over and becomes the new status quo. Somehow Aguirre manages to be so immersive and yet leave us still feeling so detached at the same time. The descent into hellish depths is a shared experience, as much documentary as it is historical fiction. But it is also a hallucination.

4.5/5 Stars

NOTE: This is my entry in THE GREATEST FILM I’VE NEVER SEEN BLOGATHON hosted by MOON IN GEMINI!

 

Me & Earl and the Dying Girl: Depth and Dying (2015)

meandearl1What struck me about Me & Earl this time around was not just the cinematic homage or the quirky indieness, but the fluid movement of the camera matched with the ever-evolving score of Brian Eno. It made me appreciate this film yet again because some people might say it’s weighed down by over-trod tropes, but it leaves those in the dust. Others might criticize it for playing up to all the cinephiles out there in order to garner respect. Which might be true.

But in essence, this film resonates on such a greater level. All the side characters are fun and interesting and I’m sure all the various parodies will open the floodgates for some enthusiastic young moviegoers to discover film’s roots. Those are all wonderful perks of this story. And yet again, Greg Gaines feels so relatable it’s almost scary at times. He’s so insecure on so many levels, drifting in and out of the school corridors, awkward around dying girls, and awkward around girls in general. Most of this I pointed to already in my initial review.

However, it’s the work of director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon along with cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung that contribute an added layer of depth to this film. The gracefully spiraling camera is at times reminiscent of Ophuls ascending a staircase. There are perfectly symmetrical shots popping with colors that Wes Anderson would most certainly approve of. But like the great minimalists out there, the camera is still when necessary. In poignant moments when Greg and Rachael have real, heartfelt, even hurtful conversations, there’s no need for flashiness. It’s in these moments where those behind the camera prove their skill because we can see them having fun with their artistic vision, but we also notice the great deal of care they have for these characters.

meandearl2It never feels flashy or superficial in these crucial moments. Any slick plot device or cinematic allusion falls away to get at the heart and soul of this film. It’s about coping with death and finding closure in that terrible event in life. Specifically for this one young man, but it is universally applicable to most every one of us. Especially when you’re young because as young, naive individuals, death can feel like such a foreign adversary. It’s so far removed from our sensibilities, and that’s what makes it so painfully unnatural when it strikes. In many ways, Greg is our surrogate. For all those who struggled to find themselves in high school, or college, or even life in general. And for all of those, who took risks on friendship in a world full of death and dying. Once more Me & Earl and the Dying Girl proved its worth, not by being a perfect film, but by being a heartfelt one.

4.5/5 Stars

Me & Earl & the Dying Girl (2015)

Me_&_Earl_&_the_Dying_Girl_(film)_POSTERI can say unflinchingly, without a single waver in my voice, that this is the best new release I’ve seen this year. Truth be told, I have not seen a whole lot of new films this year, but even if I had, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl would be the best by far.

The title in itself exudes a quirkiness that continues in a steady stream throughout the film. The same quirks can be found in our main protagonist, the self-proclaimed awkward, pale, rodent-faced high school senior Greg (Thomas Mann). He’s gone through high school with the mission of ingratiating himself to all and befriending no one. At this point in his high school career, the closest thing he has to a friend is Earl, who he simply considers his “co-worker,” since they develop homage short films together (ie. A Box of ‘Lips Wow). That’s another thing. Greg is obsessed with film: He eats up anything from Werner Herzog or The Archers thanks to the influence of his father (Nick Offerman). His other “friend” is the chill history teacher Mr. McCarty with an office that is the lunchtime oasis for Greg. But that’s about it.

That is until his doting mother (Connie Britton) forces him to go visit a girl who has been diagnosed with Leukemia. It’s a very forced scenario and both Greg and Rachel know it right from the get go. They haven’t even hardly talked since kindergarten. But, despite that, the two of them hit it off and Greg begins this doomed relationship with this dying girl.

The next 209 odd days or so Greg navigates this friendship and all that goes with it, while also developing a film for Rachel on the urging of the classmate that he is infatuated with. But do not get me wrong, this film does not fall into some contrived love triangle or sordid high school drama. It has a far broader more mature scope than that.

Yes, this is a high school teen film. Yes, it is a coming-of-age story, but it boasts so much more. It’s a film about films, a film about friendship, a film about regret, and most importantly a film about what it means to be alive. And yet, all the while, it tries to sidestep the normal tropes we expect.

Greg and Rachel have two very different perspectives. Two very different lots in life, but somewhere in between all of that, amidst the fear, laughter, and even anger, they find some special connections.

There is so much to appreciate about the film and for me, it starts with the character of Greg, because in some ways he was analogous to me in high school. I too was a nomad who traveled from group to group never being fully known. I found a passion for film and slowly began to learn about Kurosawa and Bergman among others. It was not until senior year where I finally began to feel comfortable in my own shoes and that was the perfect time for a new adventure in college. Thus, I resonate with Greg, because although he is certainly not me, he’s the most relevant high school character I have seen in a long while.

As for Connie Britton and Nick Offerman, both of them have some nice scenes that add a lot to this story. One as the over-involved mom who generally cares and the other as a free spirit of a dad who likes exotic food, bohemian garb, and art-house, not to mention the family feline Cat Stevens.

With great films, it is always difficult to pin them down, and the same can be said for this one. It has an awareness of film history that is unequivocally refreshing and unheard of for a genre potentially aimed at teenagers during the summer months. It has its own heartfelt crescendo that in some respects reminded me of Cinema Paradiso. In all other facets, it works beautifully as a teen dramedy and it does a better job in that niche than most. Miraculously, it couples humor and quirks with touching notes that are relevant to the here and now, while somehow still being universal. Also, do not get me started on the music, which is absolutely fantastic.

I look forward to seeing it again sometime soon!

4.5/5 Stars