Friday night the WHC Film Series kicked off its final weekend of the semester with a showing of Werner Herzog's Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972). I've seen the film on-screen a few times, but probably not since the '70s. One thing that struck me, seeing the film now: that era -- the '70s -- was really the era of heroic film-making. Rob Slifkin, a friend who also watched the film last night, said it would be great paired with Apocalypse Now!; one point of comparison is that the certifiable maniacs who made those movies actually went to these wildernesses to make the films, and carted along the equipment to do it, and subjected their cast and crews to the conditions necessary to make the film. In the '70s, cinema verité principles were applied even in cases of historical, costume drama like this one. No green screens or CGI, just green jungle and real river.
The other thing that struck me is that Herzog is the champion of the megalomaniac. Yes, we knew this in 1980 when Fitzcarraldo appeared (both starring Klaus Kinski -- and though Fitzcarraldo was more of "a role," Kinski will forever be emblazoned in my unconscious (wherever that is) as Aguirre, with his helmet and flowing locks and staring blue eyes and the shit-gnashing smirk of Olivier as Richard III). But since Herzog has recently given us Grizzly Man (2005), it's even clearer the extent to which he is drawn to these characters who move "beyond the pale" in their quest of some inflated sense of possibility. Aguirre wanted to be another Cortez and discover El Dorado (the real life Aguirre actually did make it to the Atlantic Ocean and declared himself prince of Peru); Timothy Treadwell, the "Grizzly Man," wanted to be a human bear. And the way Aguirre is filmed, it's almost as if the conquistador has a camera with him the way Treadwell did. So then "heroic film-making" has become the province of the DIY amateur in out-of-the-way places? Or as Coppola said in the documentary Hearts of Darkness (about the making of Apocalypse Now!): the great film-maker of the future will be a kid with a hand-held camera. In any case, my '70s purity was pleased to be watching, on the night of the much-ballyhoed opening of effects-extravaganza Spider Man 3, the adventures of spider-monkey-man.
And on that, a third point about this viewing. The Yalelies gathered to watch the film were extremely solemn. The movie does have humor -- but maybe you had to date from the '70s to appreciate it? There was barely a sound (and the place was pretty full), but a noticeable gasp and chuckle of disbelief after the scene (possibly my favorite) when Aguierre holds up a writhing spider monkey (the creature is truly emoting all its discomfort) and declares "I am the Wrath of God," and then flings the creature contemptuously away. One could sense the tension in the audience (Hey! were any animals harmed in the making of this film?). I'm sure the monkey landed on his or her feet. But who knows but that it lived tremblingly the rest of its life, fearing that moment when a giant gloved hand will again hoist it heavenward and declare -- with blazing blue eyes and in German -- "I am the Wrath of God," before flinging it to who knows what possibly insufferable fate?
Our revels now are ended
Final assignments for Daily Themes have been read and discussed. The task was continuity: five segments that tell a single story. There is a certain difficulty to the assignment that is perhaps inimical to the writing of a story. That it should be five parts and no more. Some of the stories I read clearly needed to go on, the writer had too much to work with and the ending didn't satisfy as an ending but simply as the end of part of something larger. In other cases, two parts could've been condensed to give more weight to the ending: so, writing a story in set units doesn't really work. All the students did a capable job with the assignments, and though it was best to focus on incident over character, the main thing I noticed was that this week was a vast improvement over "Character Week" because four or five themes to explore a character in some kind of conflict could accomplish so much more than a 300 word sketch of a person.
It was an interesting and diverse bunch -- two seniors graduating in molecular biophysics, two grad students receiving Masters -- one in music (an accomplished classical guitarist), one in forestry -- two English majors, an art major (painting), a film studies major, a political science major, and an undeclared with quirky sartorial flair. My final meetings were a stream from 2:30 to 6:30 Wed. and 10:15 to 4:30 Thurs. I think all but 15-20 minutes of those spans was spent in enjoyable (to me anyway) discussion. Such is Daily Themes. Maybe the only thing better than writing is talking about writing.