On Staring into the Camera: Aguirre and Bears

(This piece was presented as lecture to a general audience at the Seattle Art Museum following a screening of Aguirre, the Wrath of God. I left it as is, so it might feel more spoken than written, which was the original idea. It’s co-published with Parallax View.)

by Robert Horton

Near the end of Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog’s amazing documentary about a man who lived and died among bears, Herzog finds a close-up shot of a grizzly bear’s face. The shot was part of the vast amount of footage shot by Timothy Treadwell, the naïve and self-dramatizing manchild who spent 13 summers communing with Alaska’s grizzlies and ended up being eaten by them. Treadwell was someone who saw a variety of emotions and personalities in animals. Herzog, as he makes clear in his narration, sees only the absolutely blank, completely amoral cruelty of nature. Herzog’s films will do that, simply hold a shot and stare at something (or the absence of something) until any kind of sentimental or romantic effect between camera and subject is completely erased.

aguirre2And yet this device can have mysterious results. One of the greatest moments in any Herzog film comes in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, after the soldiers aboard the raft have thrown their horse into the river. After the horse scurries onto land, the camera finds him on shore, looking out of the choking jungle. The horse simply stares into the lens as the receding camera on the raft curls downriver away from it, its motion serving to slowly wipe the animal from view as the vines overtake him, abandoning him from the expedition and from the remainder of the film. But the horse, like any good actor, maintains the moment, and his blank stare, following the camera, following us, looks forward to that grizzly bear, stubbornly giving his insensate glare to the viewer.

That look into the camera is unsettling – there’s a reason that in classical filmmaking the actors are instructed not to look into the lens. It breaks the fourth wall, it implicates the viewer in the onscreen action, it’s almost naked. Of course these are the reasons Werner Herzog uses the effect in his films. He is too much of a modern filmmaker to present the world as a piece of polished storytelling. In Aguirre, he has made a film that does not merely depict the collapse of an expedition of conquistadors in 1561, but one that seems to embody that collapse, with a sense of danger threatening to break apart its frames, a grasp of storytelling that founders at times, and a lead actor who appears almost as deranged as the character he is portraying.

I want to talk about some of these aspects of the film, but let’s follow the horse for a while. You notice that Herzog keeps returning to animals in Aguirre, using animal images like a repeated musical drone that runs alongside the film’s vibrant main character and episodic plotline, which is about colonialism and its effects. Think of the prehistoric nebulousness of the sleeping creature Aguirre shows his daughter, the family of rodents that does its own colonizing of the raft, butterflies, pigs, and of course the complete anarchy of the monkeys in the final sequence – Aguirre’s last group of unruly followers.

These animals may summon up a sense of mystery, like the staring horse, but they also give an almost comic deadpan reaction to the ludicrously overblown ambitions of the people in the film – who are fond of looking out over the jungle and declaring their supremacy over it – so beautifully crystallized by the monkeys swarming away from their demented lord Aguirre and high-tailing it away from the raft. It’s a little like the disturbing and very blackly comic effect of watching the footage of Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man as he interacts with the bears and goes into Whitmanesque rhapsodies about how loving they are and how sacred his relationship with them is, all the while the bears wear their perpetual expression of hungry curiosity about whether this intruder might be tonight’s dinner. Continue reading

All About World’s Greatest Extract (Weekly Links)


Bateman and Kunis, Extract excerpt

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week.

Extract. “Judge is a keen observer of the tiniest details of the language and behavior of regular folks.”

World’s Greatest Dad. “Goldthwait’s taste for outrageous and profane stories is matched by the seriousness with which he approaches them.”

Il Divo. “A compelling film, not a news report.”

All About Steve. “Sorta funny and sorta creepy.”

My One and Only. “These episodes aren’t hugely distinctive.”