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Aguirre: The Wrath Of God (#110 of 7)

Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2013

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Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2013
Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2013

Among this year’s Human Rights Watch selection, six films bear witness to various strands of feminism, artistry, uprising, violence, and filmmaking itself as a tool for revolution. Many of them are accomplished; one may well be a masterpiece.

Iran’s entrenched gender inequality afflicts maker and subject alike in Going Up the Stairs: Portrait of an Unlikely Iranian Artist. Director Rohksareh Ghaem Maghami and Akram, the titular artist, were both married before the age of 10, each threatened by their husbands with horrific physical deformations should they disobey their strict wishes. Now 50, Akram claims to love her husband, Heidap, even while fearful of him, and remains illiterate after he forced her to drop out of school at a young age. Now she paints, channeling her dreams into beautiful, childlike visions ripe with hope and purity, and at the film’s outset, she’s been invited to an exhibition in France, organized by her daughter, Toopa, in hopes that her mother will be able to display her work to the world. Matter of fact in its coverage, save for a few decorative time-lapse shots, Going Up the Stairs doesn’t do much to explicitly examine the power struggles between husband and wife (Akram needs Heidap’s permission to leave the country, and despite telling him off regarding her creative process, she cows to the sexist policies of her homeland), but at this historical moment, the documentation alone feels like a blow to the system. The triumph of an artistic spirit conquering its invisible chains is potent in front of and behind the camera, particularly when an awestruck Akram tours art galleries in France and states, “I feel as if I’ve entered a jungle in which I’m a simple shoemaker.”

If I Had a Sight & Sound Ballot Ted Pigeon’s Top 10 Films of All Time

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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Ted Pigeon’s Top 10 Films of All Time
If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Ted Pigeon’s Top 10 Films of All Time

For film critics, Top 10 lists are a fact of life. Yet, despite frequent complaints that Top 10s are a bore to compose at the end of each year, the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound poll is one of those rare lists to which most critics would love to be asked to contribute. It’s the Top 10. The lists themselves tend to represent each critic’s best effort to express the knowledge and creativity that the invitation supposes. You can imagine the arduousness, then, of limiting one’s selections of the greatest movies of all time to just 10 entries.

Given that my role in the larger critical dialogue is minute as compared to those participating in this year’s Sight & Sound poll, I took to the challenge of a personal Top 10 more in the spirit of fun than soul-searching. Indeed, I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about all of the films below in various capacities and stages of my life. Some meant more to me years ago than they do now, while others have lingered in my thoughts and memories beyond what seemed like an ordinary experience of watching them. Some are predictable, others perhaps naïve. But they each played an important part in my own development as a film lover, a writer, and a person.

So while individual Top 10 lists represent an opportunity for all of us to showcase our film knowledge, I see them more as a reflection of who we are as people. They are all unique, interesting, and flawed, both in concept and execution, which also makes them less significant than their epic design would suggest. That’s why I have opted for simplicity in deciding on the films for my list. While a certain amount of self-reflection is essential, some things are better felt than pondered. The following list is no doubt an expression of my personal tastes and knowledge about film, and perhaps even a statement about how I approach life. Then again, it is also a fairly arbitrary ordering of 10 films that mean a great deal to me.

If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Budd Wilkins’s Top 10 Films of All Time

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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Budd Wilkins’s Top 10 Films of All Time
If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Budd Wilkins’s Top 10 Films of All Time

Bearing in mind the fundamentally mercurial nature of any such list (at least as far as I’m concerned), apt to alter its constituent membership with the swiftness of a weathervane buffeted by hurricane-force winds, I hereby present the 10 films that rank as my current favorites.

Film Comment Selects 2011: Klaus Kinski: Jesus Christ the Savior

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Film Comment Selects 2011: <em>Klaus Kinski: Jesus Christ the Savior</em>
Film Comment Selects 2011: <em>Klaus Kinski: Jesus Christ the Savior</em>

Klaus Kinski’s infamous intensity and lunacy are both on vivid display in Klaus Kinski: Jesus Christ the Savior, a recently recovered record of a 1971 theatrical performance by the Aguirre, The Wrath of God star. On a German stage outfitted with only a microphone stand, Kinski steps into a lone spotlight and begins reciting an extended monologue about a persecuted, angry Jesus Christ: “Wanted: Jesus Christ. Charged with seduction, anarchistic tendencies, conspiracy against the authority of the state.” From the outset, Kinski’s own god-complex association with his divine subject, whose role he soon assumes via speaking in first-person, is clear, and immediately rankles segments of the crowd who’ve attended simply to heckle. As audience members cry out, “I want my 10 marks back!,” and call out Kinski for what they see as the hypocrisy of his performance (the wealthy star extols anti-materialism and nonviolence, while also railing against his tormentors with threats of physical aggression), the show’s powder keg atmosphere ignites. Kinski storms off stage, albeit not before screaming, “You stupid pig!,” to a young man who tries, and fails, to command the mike before being removed by a security guard—to predictable audience objections to Kinski as a “fascist!”

The Conversations: Werner Herzog

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The Conversations: Werner Herzog
The Conversations: Werner Herzog

Ed Howard: In the introduction to Herzog On Herzog, a book of interviews conducted with German director Werner Herzog, the interviewer Paul Cronin writes about the curious weaving of mythology, exaggeration and legend surrounding his subject: the “astonishing” variety of “false rumours and downright lies disseminated about the man and his films.” It’s true; there are few directors who have gathered such an outlandish body of stories and wild myths around themselves. It’s not at all clear, however, why this is so, because there are few directors less in need of such legends than Herzog. In his case, the truth is strange enough, big enough, that there is no need to print the legend. So while Herzog may not have, as the story goes, directed the notoriously psychotic Klaus Kinski at gunpoint, he did threaten to shoot the actor if he tried to leave the set, and cheerfully admits that he once plotted to blow up Kinski’s house. He also made a potentially fatal trip to an island where a live volcano was on the verge of exploding, just to make a film (La Soufriére) about the nearly deserted and dangerous locale. This is a man who has had an entire steamship hauled up the side of a mountain in the middle of the Amazon rain forest (for Fitzcarraldo, of course). This is a man who was shot, on camera, in the middle of a BBC interview, and barely flinched. This is a man who made his first films with stolen cameras and stock, who has been jailed in several African countries, who cooked and ate his own shoe to satisfy a bet with the young documentary filmmaker Errol Morris.

Obviously, there is no need for exaggeration here, no need for legends. The unvarnished reality of Werner Herzog is already the stuff of myth, and it’s this outsized persona, this raw physicality, that runs like raging rapids through his prolific, sprawling filmography. His films are not the work of a daredevil or a madman, as is sometimes said, but they indubitably reflect his unique sensibility, his skewed way of looking at the world. He is drawn, again and again, to similar kinds of stories, to similar kinds of heroes, whether he finds them in the real world or creates them entirely in his fertile imagination. Indeed, there are few directors who have transitioned so fluidly back and forth between fiction features and documentaries: the two forms as essentially the same for Herzog, who never creates fiction wholly devoid of fact or a documentary wholly devoid of fiction. The Herzogian hero might be based on a historical figure, or might be wholly imaginary, or might be a real person subtly guided and shaped by Herzog’s aesthetic, but it’s fairly certain that he (it is almost always a “he”) will be at odds with the world, driven by mysterious and powerful inner motivations, possessed by strange ideas, and living outside of ordinary human society.

Herzog’s world is harsh and cruel, dominated by a violent natural order in which humanity’s place is precarious at best. His films are thus characterized by instability, by extreme emotions and actions, by desperation and suffering. There are few filmmakers who have nourished such a consistent oeuvre while tackling such a broad range of subjects and styles. Whatever Herzog’s subject, whatever the story he’s telling, it’s his sensibility that’s always at the center. During the course of this conversation, we’ll be exploring that sensibility in some depth, but for now I’ll just ask you: what do you see as the salient characteristics of Herzog’s cinema?

5 for the Day: When Titles Collide

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5 for the Day: When Titles Collide
5 for the Day: When Titles Collide

Mismatched plots, mixed motivations, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria! This is what happens when movie titles that share some of the same words come crashing together.

1. Aguirre, The Wrath of Khan: When the crew of the Starship Enterprise answer a distress signal originating in Machu Picchu, little do they realize that it is a trap set for them by Kirk’s (William Shatner) old nemesis Khan (Klaus Kinski), now a despotic conquistador with delusions of grandeur. As Khan leads his captives deeper and deeper into the Amazonian jungle, they all become slave to his lunatic quest, save for Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) who—with the aid of a pack of wild howler monkeys—makes the ultimate, tear-jerking sacrifice.

From Whence We Came, So Soon We Will Return: Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God

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From Whence We Came, So Soon We Will Return: Werner Herzog’s <em>Aguirre, The Wrath of God</em>
From Whence We Came, So Soon We Will Return: Werner Herzog’s <em>Aguirre, The Wrath of God</em>

The pre-credits sequence of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God informs us that the film is based on the journals of the monk Gaspar de Carvajal, who accompanied the 16th century expeditionary forces of Spain’s Gonzalo Pizarro. This announcement proves to be about as truthful as the claim of authenticity that kicks off the Coen brothers’ masterful Fargo, or those same filmmakers’ insistence that O Brother, Where Art Thou? owes its allegiance to Homer; which is to say Herzog’s claim is an amusing bit of auterist fabrication which reminds us that, for all its attempts to recreate historical reality, Aguirre is a movie, filtered through the perceptions and preconceptions of one man. And what a man this is. As Outlaw Vern might note, one masterful filmatist; to the rest of us, one Werner Herzog.

Once one moves beyond this opening bit of posturing, it is tempting to assert that Herzog’s theses in Aguirre are completely realized in the film’s opening and closing scenes. Of course, to do so would be to underestimate the power, magnificence and importance of the film’s intervening 90 minutes, but still, the temptation remains. As I am, like Oscar Wilde, able to resist everything except temptation, why not explore it?