The Long, Rambling Pick of The Week
There was a lot of attention for a documentary called Grizzly Man last year. The heart of the film was made from footage shot by Timothy Treadwell, a man who erroneously believed that he could live among the bears of Alaska the way Jane Goodall lived among chimps. What shocked many viewers was not the outcome of the film, but the dark view of the narrator and film's director, Warner Herzog. Without knowing his work, the film seems unusually callous to Treadwell's fate.
Herzog fans where the ones laughing in the theater. Those of us familiar with his work understood the other level of the film. We knew why he was drawn to both the subject matter and to Timothy Treadwell.
Herzog is an accomplished director, and well known internationally. He has directed over 50 films, and won many awards, including the Director's Guild Award for Grizzly Man. But the two films he's most known for are Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: The Wrath of God.
Both films are the signature performances for Klaus Kinski. At his best, he's one of the top film actors ever. Without Herzog's direction, however, his performances are sometimes hacky and often uneven. Kinski's presence on the screen is nothing short of stunning, and in these two roles, he is allowed to be as big as he wants.
Herzog's films usually include a commentary track that is not to be missed. Herzog treats the listener like a biographer. From technical aspects of filmmaking to the emotional duress he suffered to make his films, the listener can learn about parts of the filmmaking world most of us would never otherwise know. On Fitzcarraldo and on Aguirre: the Wrath of God, his comments are invaluable and somewhat heartbreaking, as the wistful tone in his voice emerges ever so slightly when talking about the performance of his lead actor. Near the end of Aguirre, when Kinski picks up a monkey, scowls at it, then throws it in disgust, Herzog states, "only Kinski could do that."
Being familiar with not only his documentaries and his dramas but also with his commentary tracks, a whole new level of understanding emerges when listening to the the narration of Grizzly Man. Treadwell, who, for the most part, is an anti-Kinski. He's a stringy blond, but other than that, he's a huggy, non-threatening hippie wingnut. As the film progresses, and Treadwell espouses his philosophies of man and nature, Herzog talks over his subject to the shock of the new viewers and to the amusement of Herzog fans. Herzog speaks of the chaos in which man and nature coexist, which are at the core of the conflict of both Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, as each time Kinski's character tries, with the will of a demigod, to deny the power and force of nature. Later in Grizzly Man, when Treadwell has his uncharacteristic temper tantrum, he suddenly looks like Kinski, and Herzog states, "I have dealt with such a man before."
Kinski died in 1991. Herzog continued to make films, including a documentary about Kinski, called My Best Fiend. This film, along with another, Burden of Dreams, a documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo, show Kinski for who he was: someone who straddled the genius/madman line, and needed a friend like Herzog to keep him on the right side of that line.
Finally, the pick:
This week's pick is Aguirre: The Wrath of God. I'm ranking it number one overall for the year. It has outdone Kagemusha and Suspiria on my list for what I've seen this year. At the beginning of this project, I added in many Kinski films I hadn't seen. This is one I saw years before on a video copy with standard TV ratios.
I was disappointed by many of the Kinski roles, most notably Web of the Spider and To Kill a Jackal, in which Kinski is unharnessed by the director and his performance chaotic, or the role is so minimal that Kinski's presence barely makes a dent on the film's surface.
But watching Kinski as Aguirre was something to remember. His walk, his stare, his ability to command attention are unparalleled. He's one of the few actors of the post silent era that could really act without saying a word. In some ways, his performance reminds me of Lon Chaney's incredible silent roles in films such as The Unknown.
Warner Herzog was in his late twenties when he made the first of his signature works. While making this film, he literally risked the life and welfare of his cast, crew, and himself. This was repeated during the making of Fitzcarraldo. Herzog is part daredevil, part explorer, and part filmmaker.
Kinski plays Aguirre, a Spanish soldier bent on finding El Dorado and starting his own country. Along the way, he shouts a horse into submission and throws a monkey in disgust. The acting is nothing short of amazing. Kinski is magnanimous and frightening playing the man with delusions of grandeur.
As is true with many films of this caliber, if you have only seen this on video and not on widescreen format, please rewatch it on this wonderful format. The DVD is pristine, and packed with extras, including the essential commentary from Herzog.
I got through 11 DVDs again this week, which catches me up by a small fraction. I still need to average 10.07 DVDs per week, so I'm looking at more 11 Per Week viewings until I can get that number down to an even 10.
It's all about Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. I have to watch 3 DVDs on Tuesday and Wednesday to get 3 more for the weekend, giving me 11 total. To get movies on Tuesdays, I have to drop DVDs in the mail on Friday, which means I have to watch them on Thursdays.