As a tribute to the late Roger Ebert, some members of the Letterboxd community are spending May visiting films in his Great Movies series. Since this dovetails with my personal project of filling shameful voids in my film education, I decided to commit myself, once more, to a regimented schedule for which I don’t really have time, but hey, you know. Movies.
Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972)
One of the things I went into this challenge swearing was that I was going to source every movie from my collection, local library system, or Netflix, and then I proceeded to immediately violate that vow. I had long meant to break my fast of non-documentary Werner Herzog, and there had been a box set of all the movies he had made with Klaus Kinski, put out by Anchor Bay in the 00’s. This monumental temptation combined with it being at its lowest price ever on Amazon – somewhere in the $25 range – tipped over into scheduling two of his most famous works for the month.
Aguirre takes place during Gonzalo Pizarro’s disastrous expedition to the Amazon River to find the fabled golden city of El Dorado. He did this by trekking his army – of soldiers and lots of Indian slaves – over the Andes mountains, and that is where the movie begins, with seemingly hundreds of people in period costumes (including two women) carefully picking their way down a mountain path, burdened by baggage and equipment. There is no trickery involved, no matte paintings or CGI, that is a bunch of people literally climbing down a mountain. This seems to be a prime indicator of how Herzog works.
Once at the immense river, Pizarro decides to send a party on rafts to see if they can find any indication of El Dorado within a week. He places Don Ursua (Ruy Guerra) in charge, with Aguirre (Kinski) his second. Against Pizarro’s better judgement, Ursua’s wife Inez (Helena Rojo) and Aguirre’s daughter Flores (Cecelia Rivera) are allowed to accompany them.
The raft-borne party is almost immediately in trouble, encountering rapids that leave one raft trapped in an eddy against a cliff wall, and this is where the true power of Herzog’s approach is revealed: those are his actual actors on the rafts, in the rapids, and his actual cameras. Though you can never claim the movie employs a documentary approach, there is a visceral, fearsome quality to the footage that cannot be matched.
Things get worse: the trapped raft is slaughtered in the night by unseen Indians. The Amazon rises fifteen feet, carrying away the original rafts and drowning much of the shoreline, denying the new rafts any but the rarest opportunity to make landfall. Rather than turn back as ordered, Aguirre leads a mutiny, intending to claim the city of gold not for Spain, but himself. Cannibals are encountered. An increasingly creaky and ill-kept cannon is employed. Starvation, fever, and sudden death by arrow, dart and spear become the norm, until the totally insane Aguirre finds himself master of a raft populated by corpses and monkeys.
Starvation and fever are probably apt terms for the grueling movie shoot. This is the movie that gave rise to the legend of Herzog pulling a gun on Kinski to keep him from walking off the set (if you can truly refer to these shooting locations as “sets”). Kinksi himself provides some pretty top-notch madness in his portrayal, his body seemingly becoming as contorted as his mind as the picture progresses. Though I never really got over the novelty of hearing Spanish conquistadors speaking German, the rest of the cast scurries to keep up with Kinski, and the ensemble is remarkable, not only in their acting but their stamina.
Mere summaries of the plot of Aguirre cannot match the visceral punch of the movie itself. This truly is a movie that must be seen, on its own terms, to truly appreciate. The money for that box set was damned well spent.
The trailer’s dubbed, but it is a very good dub:
It was almost impossible to not follow up Aguirre with Fitzcarraldo, as Herzog and Kinski return to Peru for another grueling historical adventure. This time we’re in the early 20th century and Kinski Is Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (called Fitzcarraldo because the natives can’t pronounce “Fitzgerald”), a man who’s bankrupted himself attempting to build a Trans-Andean railroad. His main dream, though, is to build an opera house in this Peruvean rubber boom town, and since he can convince none of the rubber barons to put their money into this, he must become a rubber baron himself.
After a meeting with the most sympathetic of the barons, Fitzcarraldo has a daring plan: there is a section of the rain forest that is so far unexploited because of treacherous rapids. He aims to get to this unspoiled region by actually porting his 300-ton second-hand steamship over the narrowest isthmus between two rivers, a plan so daring that even the mechanic, a spy for the rubber baron, is impressed and joins in whole-heartedly. Clearing the jungle from the proposed path and actually moving the ship overland is only possible because the feared Jivaro natives, impressed by the boat, Fitzcarraldo’s immaculate white suits, and his phonograph records of Caruso, feel the boat is a holy vessel on a mission to purge evil spirits.
Fitzcarraldo is almost three hours long, but it’s one of those movies where it doesn’t feel like three hours, but at the end, you are exhausted and feel like you’ve been on that trip down the river yourself. True to form, Herzog doesn’t cheat with miniatures on that impossible portage – that is a real damn ship being dragged up an impossible slope, something engineers warned against. There is a part of Les Blank’s documentary on the making of the movie, Burden of Dreams, that shows a scene where one of the cables snaps during filming, and it’s quite likely that Kinski himself as well as other actors could have been decapitated or otherwise maimed. This is lunatic filmmaking at its finest, and the scenes of the ship slowly moving uphill invoke an incredible amount of tension in the viewer that would be impossible with models or CGI.
The movie also has lush scenery to spare and several shots that must have been ravishing on a big screen. Jason Robards at one point had the title role, but fell ill and was forbidden by his doctor to return to the production. Apparently Jack Nicholson at one point was the replacement, but felt the production was too insane, even for him. So it fell to Kinski, Herzog’s “best fiend”, and it has to be admitted that he brings to the role an injured vulnerability that plays well against the character’s seemingly unrealistic optimism. The experience would have been markedly different with the either of the earlier two actors.
And now I have got got got to see Burden of Dreams. I only know of that one scene through Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)
The movie version of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls made money, so a sequel was inevitable; Susann herself wrote one, but Fox didn’t like it. The conditions of the contract gave them the right to make the sequel, with or without Susann, so somehow it fell into the lap of Russ Meyer, leading to the disclaimer at the very beginning that this is not a sequel to Valley of the Dolls.
As Ebert points out on his commentary track on the DVD, Meyer wasn’t all that interested in making sex movies; his primary interests were melodrama and comedy, something that is apparent to anyone who ever watched more than one of his movies. And Beyond the Valley of the Dolls offers melodrama in great dollops. Meyer and Ebert found Valley to be the tale of young innocents in the showbiz trade having their lives wrecked by sex and drugs, but it was sadly lacking in rock and roll. Ergo, Beyond is the tale of a female rock trio who move to LA, hit it big and immediately life gets complicated and melodramatic.
The screenplay is nothing special, outside of a few quotes that have become memorable camp classics. What Beyond does best is remind us of just how good a filmmaker Russ Meyer actually was – those montages over the rock songs of the Carrie Nations are superbly done, and actually progress the story. There is a backstage scene after one of their gigs that could have been crowded and sloppy, but instead clearly establishes every major character arc and relationship – it is really a small master class in managing such scenes.
Quite a bit is made of the blood-soaked ending, inspired by the Manson Family killings while Meyer and Ebert were still formulating the movie. You can see how actually conservative are the underpinnings of the story when the dead include the lesbian and the one character to have an abortion; but in case you missed it, the voice of Marvin Miller will appear at the end to recap what lessons you should have learned.
The acting is often as ripe as the dialogue, but that just serves to cement that everything here is of a piece. The Carrie Nations consists of two Playmates and a model, and they do just fine. John Lazar as quick-tongued promoter Z-Man is given all the best lines and delivers them with a quicksilver panache that makes you wonder why the hell you haven’t seen more of him in the intervening years. David Gurian, as the band’s unsophisticated manager, deserves some kind of acting award for making it look like having sex with (future Mrs. Russ Meyer) Edy Williams was a chore.
There is absolutely no use pretending Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is anything but trash. But as entertaining, well-made trash, it has very few real competitors.
El Topo (1970)
It was either sheer perversity or sheer traditionalism that made me hit “Play” on El Topo at midnight. This is the movie that single-handedly started the Midnight Movie phenomenon, a phenomenon that even hit my teenage Texas town, which had a large college population. My midnight movies usually ran to Amicus double features or an amazing night with all four Beatles movies in a row, but their ancestry can be traced to El Topo, John and Yoko, and Beatles manager Allen Klein, who is the Abkco Films you see at the very beginning.
El Topo begins as an existential Western, with the title gunslinger (director Alejandro Jodorowsky himself) traveling the desert with his naked 7 year-old son, dispensing harsh justice to a murderous villain called The Colonel and his bandits. He leaves his son with a group of rescued monks and heads into the desert to face the Four Masters that reside there. He defeats them by trickery, which exacts a large cost on his psyche when he realizes exactly what he has become, and what he has destroyed. At this point we are not even halfway through the movie; the rest tells of his redemption by helping a group of crippled outcasts escape from their underground prison.
Like The Holy Mountain – a Jodorowsky movie I much prefer – a spare synopsis is not going to even begin to replicate the experience of actually seeing the movie. Jodorowsky’s imagery is not as outlandish here, but it is still lush and plentiful. A small town massacred by the Colonel, where there is so much blood in the streets it looks like rain puddles. The grave of the first Master becomes a beehive. The third master lives in a corral of rabbits, who start keeling over dead as El Topo approaches. A church where the worship service is composed of the congregation playing Russian Roulette. It goes on and on to a dizzying, violent end that makes a little more sense than The Holy Mountain, but only a little.
2013 is a pretty good year for Jodorowsky. His first movie in 23 years, The Dance of Reality is poised for release, a documentary about his aborted attempt to make the movie version of Dune has done well at Cannes. But all this serves to point up that the man has only made 9 movies in his life, and not for lack of trying. I have only seen three of those movies, and those were enough to convince me that this paucity of Jodorowsky movies is a damn crime against humanity.
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