The Earth I Pass

The Earth I Pass

Today’s topic: looking for meaning. We all do it. We try to understand something that is too incomprehensible. We want to grasp the meaning when something is meaningless. We want to find answers when there are no questions. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) directed by Werner Herzog is precisely about that. It’s a wild, hellish tale of mankind destroying itself; a tale that creates a terrifying yet brutally true depiction of a mutilated world, populated by corrupt individuals and silent gods.

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Aguirre – the devil himself.

Herzog, at the time an unknown German director with little to no experience, has become the symbol of an adventurist director. Having directed real life epics like Fitzcarraldo, gritty dramas like Rescue Dawn, cop thrillers such as Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, and numerous documentaries that have paved the way for countless specialists in the field with fantastic works like Grizzly ManInto the Abyss,  Encounters at the End of the World, and Fata Morgana, Herzog has become a film philosopher rather than a film director. Critics and colleagues keep describing him as an ‘intense madman’. Interviewers keep underlining the fact that he always answers with the first thing that pops into his mind, but let’s be honest – the world needs men like Herzog. Not many people involved with the movie business have the guts to talk about things that others choose to ignore. Not many people have the courage to set themselves a challenge so incredibly tough and not walk out of it. That’s Herzog for you and his film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, is an achievement that will speak for ages to come.

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An endless journey.

The story of a ruthless Spanish conquistador, Don Aguirre, who takes over an expedition in Peru in order to find the legendary El Dorado, the city of gold, is a very modern take on our burning reality. Above all, it’s a brilliant character study of a man blinded by the thirst of power, a man that keeps spinning in circles trying to find his destination – the meaning. But in a place like the jungle, there is no meaning. Or maybe there is, but it’s hidden. It strikes you when you got your back to it. It digs its blade into your chest the moment you least expect it. Right from the opening shot – a long column advances across the mountains, fighting the hostile weather and nature – we get a sense of what it is all about; a Sisyphus struggle, an endless journey into the real heart of darkness. The men who lead the way for the rest of the column are the first ones to go. Herzog doesn’t focus on their probable deaths, but rather on their disappearance. His camera stays steady as a rock while we hear a slave yell out in pain, a soldier suffocate in a deadly trap, an officer get hit by an arrow. We hear what we want to hear, but we see what Herzog wants us to see. It’s a fantastic example of how cinema can manipulate our minds, our senses, forcing us to make our own vision, our own idea. At the beginning, Aguirre stands in the far corner of every frame; the devil watches over and waits. In fact, Aguirre waits until most men tied to the expedition either die of illness or are killed by invisible ‘savages’. I type ‘savages’ because we have to keep in mind, that this whole expedition has as its man goal to spread the word of God among the natives, be it with the help of the Bible or the simple use of a sword. A priest is our main narrator, a man who is as possessed by his own ambitions same as the mad Aguirre. A man who dresses in rags, but aims for riches just as much as the soldier standing next to him.

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The mad expedition.

Herzog with the help of his 35mm camera immerses us into the humid jungle. He lets us observe the faces of the conquistadors, giving us the possibility to judge on our own, make up our own interpretations. “That man is a head taller than me. That may change.” whispers Aguirre into the ear of his devoted servant. The chopped off head lands onto the ground; the lips still moving. The message is clear – there is no place for truth in a world where slaves still exist, where houses are burned, where wars are fought, where innocent people die in the name of the guilty ones. The remaining members of the expedition build a raft that will end up being our main setting. Day by day, the group on the raft becomes smaller, and smaller and smaller. Every now and then we hear an arrow zip by. Herzog evidently haunts us with repetitive hand-held shots of worn out, tired faces, dying animals, bloody weapons. The raft starts to break down, but surprisingly no one cares about it. Hunger is not felt anymore, thirst is only a dark memory, and blindness becomes these men’s religion. “We keep going in circles” says the priest and there is no God listening to him. Maybe he never wished for one to be there. Some men don’t want to be listened to.

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A nation of devils.

Aguirre, being the only one left standing, represents all the things a viewer wants him to represent. He has no boundaries, no agenda, no dreams, no nothing. He only wants to be as big as God really made him. He wants to have power over nature, over his fellow soldiers, over the entire world. He wants the earth to shake when he walks. He wants the birds to drop dead when says so. Will it happen? Is this what this reality of ours has been leading us to? Herzog remains silent.

The meaning is hidden, but someday… someday something will happen. And Aguirre will emerge from the depths of darkness.

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The real savages are hidden among us.

 

The Charming Cop

The Charming Cop

Today’s topic: LA Confidential, and more precisely the character of Jack Vincennes. The superb noir drama, Oscar winning picture that came out in 1997, gives me the chills every time I give it a watch. For those of you who are not familiar with the title I just mentioned, I’ll say this: find it and enjoy. What a ride it is to dive into the 1950’s Los Angeles and its world of corruption and greed; always a pleasure.

However, every time I give this film a shot and every time I try to grasp every second of this cinematic landmark, I focus nearly all of my attention on Jack Vincennes, the “showman” cop played superbly by the one and only, Kevin Spacey. Spacey was having the best years of his career, having already won an Oscar for “The Usual Suspects” in spring 1996, he was on a roll when the screenplay for LA Confidential got to him. Under the direction of Curtis Hanson (8 Mile), Spacey created a character so layered and so profoundly human (also based on Dean Martin, the iconic singer) that audiences and critics were stunned when the Academy passed on this role. His charm and wit take over the screen, I can tell you that.

Jack Vincennes is a good man. He is. However, he is also the wrong man at the right place. Why? Well, he dresses very elegantly, is handsome and knows how to handle hot situations. The world of show business attracts him not because of the pay or the glamour of the red carpet, but because he wants to feel right, he wants to put his foot down and let the world take notice of his input. What can a cop bring into a world where gangsters rule Hollywood, drugs keep getting into the poor neighbourhoods of LA and prostitutes try to look like movie stars? There is nothing out there that a simple policeman can do. He pulls out a badge and that’s it, file a report, then report back to your superior, go home and have a drink before heading off to bed. Does the Medal of Merit save you from this ugly world? No. You just need to know the right people and you need to know how to slip some money under the counter. That’s it. That’s when you profited in those days and still do now.

Vincennes is a man who’s always tried to pass above that. Sure, he’d snatch a little weed for himself, pay off the watchman and make a couple of headlines but he always did it while aiming higher. Higher than the grey skies of Los Angeles, ironically The City of Angels, “Where dreams come true, hush-hush”.  And since everyone needs a key to success, Jack has the “Badge of Honor” hit TV show; an opportunity to teach someone about how a cop really feels and acts when hurt, when happy, when drunk. Vincennes’ a mentor, a guru for aspiring actors and is also the ladies’ man at the parties.

At the end of the movie, when things go really bad, that’s when Jack forces himself to show the LA underworld his true colours, to prove to himself that he isn’t just about the money and fame. He goes and tries to make things right, and more specifically he tries to save a young man who he put into deep trouble for his own dirty $50 and a chance to get back at a pretentious superior. That’s when Jack realizes that he’s been battling these kind of situations his whole life. He’s been trying to get out his real self his whole damn, corrupt life and now he has the chance to make it right. And he does. He pays the bill.

That’s who Jack Vincennes is or at least who I think he is or represents. I think Jack Vincennes sleeps inside all of us and is waiting for us to wake him up, and that’ll happen when duty will call. Rest assured.

Hush-hush.

Trying to make things right always requires sacrifices.
Trying to make things right always requires sacrifices. Jack knows best.