Pauline at the Beach

Eric Rohmer died today, so I am publishing  a piece I wrote on Pauline at the Beach in 1984. It was written as a program note for a film series and presumes the reader will have just watched the movie, so it has both spoilers and a paucity of exposition. Mostly I’m posting it because of the wish in the opening paragraph that Rohmer would live another 25 years and make a movie a year. He didn’t produce annually, but he did survive exactly those 25 years, and managed to put out sixteen more features. I should’ve wished the same longevity for Nestor Almendros, mentioned in the piece. R.I.P. — Robert Horton

Pauline, and les autres, at the beach

One of my favorite cinematic daydreams involves Eric Rohmer: I ask myself, wouldn’t it be neat if Rohmer could somehow make one movie a year, for the next (say) twenty-five years? They wouldn’t all have to be masterpieces; it would be just something to hold on to, something to incorporate into the life cycle. I’m afraid the chances of this are slim, since Rohmer is getting on in years (he was christened Jean-Marie Maurice Scherer on April 4, 1920), but it’s one of those things that make for good daydreams.

Actually, we should feel lucky—Rohmer has been on a hot streak lately. Keep in mind he was a slow starter compared to some of his friends in the French New Wave. Rohmer made short films during the 1950s, and he was editor-in-chief of Cahiers du Cinema, the magazine in which Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol et al. vented their auteurist spleens, from 1957 to 1963. Those other fellows had already collected an armful of international awards by the time Rohmer completed his first widely-recognized feature, La collectioneuse, in 1967 (though he had been directing for some time already). That film was part of his contes moraux—Moral Tales—and the next entry, Ma nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud’s, 1968), brought him shoulder to shoulder with the world’s leading filmmakers. After he finished the Moral Tales, Rohmer took time out to pursue projects with settings completely different from the palpably modern landscapes of the six Moral Tales; predictably enough, The Marquise of O… (1976) and Perceval le Gallois (1978) were two of the best and most intriguing works of the decade.

Now Rohmer is right in the middle of another cycle. This one is called Comedies et Proverbes, and so far its titles are The Aviator’s Wife (1980), Le beau marriage (1982), and Pauline at the Beach (1983). Like the Moral Tales, this new series consists mostly of people talking about love, sex, freedom, and more love. For the most part, these people are absolutely ordinary, and their problems, while important to them, are not unusual or earth-shaking. Nothing that can’t be talked out.

Late in Pauline at the Beach, Pierre (Pascal Greggory), the skinny chap who looks a little like the death’s-head hero of Bunuel’s Un chien Andalou, talks about what love means to him. He can’t understand why Marion (Arielle Dombasle), who he loves, insists on loving Henri (Feodor Atkine), who does not love her. Wouldn’t it be logical for people to love the person best for them? Well, yes, that would be eminently logical, but behavior very often doesn’t have anything to do with logic; besides that, if people were always doing what’s best for themselves, life would not be terribly interesting—and an Eric Rohmer movie certainly wouldn’t have much to go on.

Anyway, it’s very funny for Pierre to be saying this, since—although he keeps saying he’s the only clear thinker in the bunch, and that he’s trying to show the other how foolish they’re being—he’s the most illogical in his consuming passion for Marion, who makes it clear right away that she is not interested in him. His peevishness combined with his remarkable knack for doing what’s worst for himself propels him though the series of gaffes that he makes during the course of the film.

But then, the characters in Pauline at the Beach are consistently saying things that are the opposite of what they really mean. In the first scene of the film, Marion and her fifteen-year-old cousin Pauline (Amanda Langlet) arrive at their summer beach place. Marion speaks some of the film’s first lines of dialogue in phrases dripping with TV-commercial sincerity: “Good—there’s no phone. I could spend hours here without moving,” etc. You don’t necessarily have to know what’s going to happen (in fact, you can just about take one look at this woman) to sense that these sentiments don’t exactly come from the bottom of her heart. This is not to suggest that she’s lying—no, that would be an erroneous sizing-up of the situation. Rather, she is the kind of person who enjoys having things her own way—she’s covering herself by saying these things. If the beach turns out to be deadsville, then she will have gotten the peace and quiet she supposedly wants. If, on the other hand, the vacation turns out to be a session of erotically-charged romance (as she probably and understandably expects), she’s ahead of the game. None of her self-delusions or corny sentiments—as when she goes on, a couple of scenes later, about “That unpredictable thing called love”—should be interpreted as condescension or disapproval on Rohmer’s part. Directorial attitude is crucial, and Rohmer’s attitude is one of bemused acceptance. Continue reading

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The Magnificent Ambersons

This piece dates to a program note written for a Welles series in 1986. I was a co-founder, with Tom Keogh, of a nonprofit called Seattle Filmhouse, and we brought a few notable critics (Jonathan Rosenbaum and David Thomson among them), as well as Welles’ hard-working latterday cinematographer, Gary Graver, to Seattle to talk about the movies and the life. The note on The Magnificent Ambersons was meant to be read in close proximity to seeing the movie, of course, and reads that way. – Robert Horton

There are films that creep up on you, and there are films that astonish from the first frame. The films of Orson Welles may do many things, but they do not creep, and almost all of his movies begin with a striking image or sequence. None begins more beautifully than The Magnificent Ambersons; in this beginning is the word, Welles’ voice (his only presence as an actor in the movie), which starts its rolling rumble even before the fist image appears onscreen. “The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873,” he says, and the screen is still black until a gorgeously-appointed mansion emerges, looming majestically, dominating and defining the lithograph-like composition of the shot—as, indeed, the Amberson mansion and all the rich and sad meaning it embodies will seem to dominate and define and even obliterate the family it houses. Welles’ voice is rich and sad too, with that first line setting a nostalgic tone: listen to the rhyming sounds—magnificence, Ambersons, began—and consider the name Amberson itself, golden and preserving but also smoky, dark, fading, like the amber Sun or the amber son. (Kudos to Booth Tarkington, author of a novel that was partly based on Orson Welles’ father, for the canny choice.)

Welles’ melancholic narration carries us through the opening minutes, an extraordinary sequence that dexterously introduces us to the story and characters (the word “exposition,” with its connotations of clunkiness, is inadequate here). The toy-box methods of Citizen Kane are still in use, as Welles dazzles us with his playful unspooling of the film’s key elements; his narration even breaks in to the dialogue of those bystanders who comment on the Ambersons. The suggestions of youth and vitality are strong, and not just around that brattiest of spoiled brats, George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt); even Eugene Morgan’s crash through his bass violin is a comic moment, especially as Welles sets up the shot—Eugene (Joseph Cotten) scurrying up to the camera, the better to tumble loudly in the foreground—and as Welles misleads us with his narration, preparing us for “that prettiest of all vanished customs, the serenade,” only to be followed by the crash. Yet this moment will irrevocably alter, in a tragic way, the lives of the characters. Those busybodies on the street are fruity and comic (Fanny Minafer, you may notice, is among them), but later in the film the gossips and their perceived impact will help kill the last hope of Eugene and Isabel (Dolores Costello).

The vitality of the Ambersons needs to be established, because much of the rest of the film—especially following the shimmering ball and sleighride scenes—charts the family’s decline, and the encroaching darkness that swallows the family whole. The ball sequence, “the last of the great long-remembered dances,” is magnificent, and all the more so because while it displays the beauty of genteel manners and morals, it also shows that the time for such things is slipping away.

The seeming suspension of time also looms in the returns of Eugene, who has been gone—eighteen years have passed, “or have they?”, as Jack Amberson (Ray Collins) asks. Welles’ technique itself conjures the passage of time; those long, sinuous shots that weave through corridors and up staircases and across rooms are the actual embodiment of time passing. Unlike the cut-cut-cut of most movie scenes, these long takes show us events in real time—actors are a little older when the shot is over. In keeping with this scheme, which is really a movement toward death (as we will see as the film progresses), darkness overtakes the house when the ball ends. The guests leave and the family prepares to retire, their figures passing through great pools of darkness—in Stanley Cortez’ exceptional photography, we see some of the most intense blacks ever captured on film. Inky suggestions of suspicion, uncertainty, and mortality swim in these pools, as well as the “ancient recollections” that have been stirred by Eugene’s return.

As George and Fanny (Agnes Moorehead) walk the darkened hall to her door, they hold the first of their extraordinary conversations. Fanny’s words are casual and defensive, as she explains that people should note the presence of an eligible bachelor “without having to make a to-do about it.” The phrase is casual, but her voice rises into a pinched hysteria, which George snottily imitates. But then she savagely mimics him—and we recognize that Fanny, who had just appeared furtive and puny in a hallway shot that Isabel dominated, is in fact a bitter force to be reckoned with. (For all the movie’s visual bravura, these precise vocal effects remind us of Welles’ extensive experiences in radio.) Continue reading

Sunset Boulevard

It begins in the gutter…but of course. A street name, Sunset Blvd., painted on the curb above the sewer drain is a convenient way to present the film’s title, but it also tells us where we’re going: down. Even the abbreviation gives it a kind of slangy, tabloid grit. The title refers to one of the most famous arteries in Los Angeles, but it also evokes the heavy depression of the end of the day—and the movie is about the “sunset years,” and how they can be disastrously handled.

Meet Joe Gillis.

Sunset Boulevard is also about Hollywood, and its corrosive view of Tinseltown might best be summed up with one of its opening images. As we see a corpse floating face down in the swimming pool of a Hollywood mansion, the narrator savors the irony of the moment: “The poor dope. He always wanted a pool.” Hollywood is the place people go, dreaming of their own swimming pools. Little do they know they’ll end up drowned in them.

There’s another level of irony here. The corpse and the narrator are one in the same person. Sunset Boulevard is famously told from the perspective of a dead man, the late Joe Gillis (William Holden), journeyman screenwriter, cynical burnout, self-loathing gigolo. One of the most intriguing pieces of Sunset Boulevard lore is that director Billy Wilder shot an even more outrageous opening to the film: the picture fades in on the Los Angeles County Morgue, where Joe’s dead body, on a slab, begins to converse with the other stiffs, and then to narrate his story. Wilder loved the sequence, but preview audiences got the giggles at the sheer outrageousness of the thing—and it was cut before release.

Gillis begins his flashback with his struggles to make ends meet. He pitches lousy concepts to middle-management studio flunkies, and he can’t bum any more money off his indifferent agent. Spotted by a couple of repo men looking to seize his car, Joe drives into the secluded garage of a Sunset Boulevard mansion, where he is mistaken for someone else and invited in.

The two people in the house are expecting an undertaker for a dead chimpanzee. Perhaps this should have been Joe’s warning that all is not well in the old, decaying house—he also notes the melodramatic wind wheezing through the organ pipes, and the rats in the pool. Still: any port in a storm. The owner of the house is none other than Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a silent film star. “You used to be big,” Gillis says with typical gallantry. Norma, who—for a silent star—has quite a knack for memorable phrases, replies with a memorable piece of self-justification: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” When Norma finds out Gillis is a writer, she hires him to edit her sprawling screenplay, which will be the vehicle for her great comeback.

Thus begins Joe’s doomed run as Norma’s housemate, lover, and errand boy. A new pet monkey. In one especially mortifying moment, during one of Norma’s bridge games, she orders Joe to empty the ash tray—and he does. (The weirdness of the moment is enhanced by the other players, a group of silent stars whose past glories must have struck the 1950 audience as rather ghoulishly invoked: Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner, and the great Buster Keaton.) The entire film is infused with a sense of debasement and humiliation. Take, for instance, the casting of Erich von Stroheim as Norma’s butler, Max von Mayerling. Not only does Max attend to Norma’s daily needs, including the writing of bogus “fan mail” that Norma can reply to, he also happens to be her former husband and director.

The overlapping between art and life is all too unsavory here. Stroheim was indeed one of Hollywood’s most flamboyant directors in the 1920s, a career halted for a variety of reasons (including his own extravagance). He actually directed Gloria Swanson, in Queen Kelly, a film that is excerpted in Sunset Boulevard for the memorable scene of Joe and Norma watching her old movies at night. As magnetic a performer as Stroheim is, there is something uniquely uncomfortable about the similarity between actor and character.

Of course, this is magnified in the case of Swanson, who had been one of the biggest of silent movie queens—as well as the mistress of Joseph Kennedy. Continue reading

The Manchurian Candidate

A piece I wrote on The Manchurian Candidate for a web encyclopedia, and thus meant to be an introduction to a classic. It’s one of the ten best movies of 1962, a list seen here. –Robert Horton

I love Yen Lo. Perhaps you don’t recognize the name? Well, the brain can easily play tricks on a person, as Yen Lo knows better than anyone. Yen Lo is the bald, droopy-mustached, thoroughly malignant brainwasher, played by Khigh Dhiegh, in The Manchurian Candidate. He is a man of menace, but he delivers his evil with a twinkle in his eye—“Always with a little humor,” as he advises a fellow Cold Warrior. Although he is a bad, bad man, Yen Lo is the kind of killer who appears at the door and introduces himself (“Yen Lo—Pavlov Institute?”) with the engaging good cheer of a Shriner in town for a convention.

manchurian5Yen Lo’s perversity is bottomless. Just before toddling off to spend the afternoon shopping at Macy’s, he converses with a Russian agent as they stand in a room with the brainwashed American, Raymond Shaw, who represents their great experimental hope. Without taking a pause between thoughts, Yen Lo traverses the spectrum of philosophy and criminality as he turns his attention from chortling with the Russian to interrogating Shaw: “There’s nothing like a good laugh now and then to lighten the burden of the day. Tell me, Raymond, do you remember killing Mavole and Lembeck?” The incredible horror and fun of the character is at the heart of The Manchurian Candidate, a masterpiece of both suspense and satire.

This is a deeply, deeply twisted movie. Very few films have captured the free-fall sense of America as controlled chaos, or the political process as a facetious circus. Although it is faithful in many ways to Richard Condon’s source novel, director John Frankenheimer and screenwriter George Axelrod added their own quick, savvy energy to the piece, and the actors are downright exuberant in their willingness to wallow in depravity. Seen many years after its initial 1962 release, it feels like an utterly modern film. Would there have been a Dr. Strangelove—that even more outrageous assault on common decency, released a year later—without it?

Condon’s story describes the fiendish plot to program a U.S. soldier for the purposes of wreaking political havoc. Brainwashed after being taken captive in the Korean War, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is unaware of his mission. At key moments, he can be turned into a submissive zombie by clues dropped in his presence—a loaded phrase, or the sight of the queen of diamonds (a suggested game of solitaire is one of Raymond’s “triggers”). Yen Lo puts it this way: “His brain has not only been washed, as they say, it has been dry cleaned.”

Raymond moves in political circles. His mother (Angela Lansbury) is a right-wing mover and shaker, and his step-father is Senator John Yerxes Iselin. The ambitious Iselin, whose name is usually preceded by the prefix “that idiot,” is a pawn of Raymond’s mother, a woman so nightmarish, so pervasively bad, she doesn’t even have a name. These two are perhaps the most satirically poisonous politicians to come out of the cinema; they make Wag the Dog look like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. (Every once in while a critic of the film will suggest that these people are caricatures, to which I would say: try watching real Senate hearings, and then decide which is the more unbelievable.)

Iselin, portrayed with preening unctuousness by the braying character actor James Gregory, is a wicked send-up of Senator Joseph McCarthy, right down to the variable number of communists the senator claims to have on various lists. (Gregory physically resembles another red-baiting politician, Richard Nixon.) At one point, trying to decide on exactly how many communists have infiltrated the government, Raymond’s mother glances down at the ketchup bottle Iselin is using, and settles on “57,” the number of varieties in the Heinz advertising slogan. One of the many ways this film is hip is the way it uses Madison Avenue as part of its texture. Even Yen Lo gets into the act, with his reference to a jingle for Winston cigarettes—“Tastes good,” he grins, “like a cigarette should!” (The man is au courant on pop culture, even from within Manchuria.)

The Manchurian Candidate may be a brilliant political satire, but it delivers its barbs via a gripping suspense structure. A tense prologue gives us a taste of the Korean War, and a sense that Sergeant Shaw is not especially well-liked by his fellow soldiers. Thus it is strange when, back home, we see two of Shaw’s platoon members respond in precisely the same robotic way when asked about Shaw: “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” Continue reading

Jules and Jim

Jules and Jim

I wrote this piece for a program note at a college film series in 1983 and subsequently published it in The Informer. I am amused now by the worldly opening phrase, since I was a kid at the time and over 25 years have passed since then. Jules and Jim is one of my favorite movies, and this strikes me as a young person’s angle on a complex movie. For me, now, this appreciation is one of those “odd, left-behind artifacts” that the characters discover on their trek. Maybe someday I can write to the movie as a grown-up.–Robert Horton

julesposterI’ve known Jules and Jim for a few years now, and whenever anybody mentions the title, the same moment always comes to my mind first. Jules and Jim and Catherine are at their white castle, and they head into the woods—Catherine says, “Let’s find the last signs of civilization!” The three figures, dressed primarily in summery white, pick up odd, left-behind artifacts, and toss them into the air. Catherine finds a chain hanging from a tree, and swings from it. The camera prowls along the ground with them, and discovers a matchbook, a cup, a pottery shard, and, under Jules’ foot, a packet of cigarettes. During the sequence, that incomparable music is swelling on the soundtrack, music full of youth, romance, melancholy. Part of Francois Truffaut’s special gift is in capturing essential moments such as this—those moments when nothing much is happening, and yet everything matters: the quality of the sun on the grass, Catherine’s hair swirling when she shakes her head, Jim’s hand hoisting Jules’ foot. The sequence is lit by the intensity of the friendship of the three people, an intensity that will later darken the film, and their lives.

Let’s follow that sequence a bit: when Jules tells Jim he wants to marry Catherine, Jim tells Jules, “She’s a vision for all men—not just one.” Cut to Catherine, shaking her mane in rapturous close-up. Jules and Jim carry her back to the house. She takes their swimming clothes down from the line, and they ride off on bicycles. Truffaut cuts to a gorgeous long shot of the three figures riding around a curve, then to closer shots as Jim looks at the back of Catherine’s neck as she rides in front of him. At this point in the film, we are aware of the way in which Catherine is both woman and objet d’art to the two men—she is the statue that they traveled to see (and which they first encountered on a movie screen, at the slide show). They will discover that behind the mysterious smile of Catherine is a complex and unpredictable woman—a real woman, not the dry and dusty statue.

Earlier, we have seen Jules sketch a woman’s face on a café table—Jim wanted to buy the table, but the café only sold them by the dozen—and this is symptomatic of the way the two men see women. They are in love with love, and they are in love with the idea of Catherine, but the flesh-and-blood Catherine, very much a woman of her own mind, turns out to be titanically confounding. She is different from anything they know or have experienced, and in some way—the movie does not tell us, this, but we must assume it—the instability she produces makes them feel alive. When the three of them foot-race across the bridge, and Catherine, in her boy’s outfit, jumps to an early start so she can win, it is unfair. But Jules, dazzled, can only turn to Jim and say, “She’s taught me things.”

jules3Jim’s relationship with Catherine is somewhat more complicated, and more darkly shaded; something is stirred in him in that exquisite moment in her apartment when he hooks the clasp on the neck of her dress. Later he will tell her, “I like the nape of your neck—you can’t see me when I look at it,” as though he treasures the safety of that position; he can abstract the object of his love more easily when her flashing eyes aren’t looking him in the face.

Incidentally, the arc of the relationship between Catherine and Jim is marked by a nice directorial device on Truffaut’s part: Continue reading

L’Atalante

L’Atalante

by Robert Horton

Somewhere on the criss-crossed, free-flowing canals and waterways of world cinema, a small barge called “L’Atalante,” launched in 1934, glides along even today. It always will; the permanence of movies bestows immortality on the vessel, and on the motion picture that carries its name, and on the fevered young director who gave himself so completely to film that he died from the giving.

latalante3People like to invoke the “magic” of film, but the truth is that movies rarely soar above the nagging, earthbound requirements of plot or realism. Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, however, is a magic thing: luminous, suspended, utterly (even misleadingly) simple, much closer to a fable than a novel, and imbued with its director’s drunken infatuation with cinema. No wonder Francois Truffaut, surely the filmmaker most obviously influenced by the privileged moments of Vigo’s films, once wrote that with L’Atalante Vigo “achieved perfection, he made a masterpiece.”

It is somewhat miraculous that Vigo made the film at all. The director’s unhappy and sickly childhood was crowned by the death of his father, a left-wing radical, under mysterious circumstances while in prison for alleged wartime treason. After studying film, Vigo made two shorts, including A Propos de Nice, and then the remarkable featurette Zero de Conduite. Despite the controversy caused by the latter film, Vigo was rewarded the chance to make his first feature, from a traditional screenplay—a conventional story that Vigo promptly re-worked. Pitifully ill with chronic lung problems, Vigo had to direct some scenes from L’Atalante while lying on a cot.

The movie begins, like a proper fable, with a wedding. The blond bride, Juliette (Dita Parlo) is going off with husband Jean (Jean Daste) on his canal barge. They will travel and live with a cabin boy (Louis Lefevre) and an eccentric first mate, Pere Jules (Michel Simon), a tattooed ape-man who tells unbelievable stories of Havana, Caracas, Shanghai. On an early day on the boat, Juliette discovers that one of Jules’ many cats has had kittens in her bed— a curious omen, like an inscrutable sign in a fairy tale. Much of what follows is Juliette’s adjustment to life on the water: the lovers’ embraces and spats, the excitement of docking in Paris, the jovially peculiar world of Pere Jules. The final act of the story sees Juliette lured away by the appeal of the city, for a while, as Jean sails miserably without her.

As Truffaut observed, “Two of the major tendencies of cinema—realism and aestheticism—are reconciled in the film.” Vigo and cinematographer Boris Kaufman (the brother of Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov, and later an Oscar-winning Hollywood cameraman) capture the absolute reality of waterfronts and smokestacks and human faces, with a naturalistic eye that reflects the British documentary film movement and predicts Italian neo-realism. But through some seamless alchemy, these sights are pixillated by Vigo’s commitment to the love story, which is tender and truthful and lovely. In one of many superstitious asides, Juliette tells Jean that if you open your eyes under water, you can see the face of the person you love. This leads him to dunk his head in a bucket and then dive into the river—and also leads to a dreamlike passage late in the film, when Jean, separated from Juliette, ducks in the canal and “sees” her floating under water in her wedding dress. Continue reading

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