Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) represents cinema at its most evocative, elusive state. Last year, Jim Emerson added Aguirre to his massive Opening Shots Project, an entry that includes a reader's remarks as well as a few of Jim's own. They both commented on the total indifference of nature towards human beings as suggested by the stark images and sounds of the opening sequence, one of the most masterful of cinematic moments. The scene is almost hypnotic in its ambiance and atmosphere. It's underscored with the echoing, drawn out notes of the film's score as the ant-like soldiers descend down the mountain seeking to bring Western culture to a land they soon discover is incongruous with their ideas of God and society. The movie left an indelible imprint on my mind, and for some reason I kept thinking back to that opening sequence. It's amazing how those evocative moments stand out, not just on first viewing but seen in relation to the rest of the film. I remember being so enamored by the images and music when I first saw them that I felt somehow honed into the sensibilities of the film before it really unfolded. Only in retrospect can one appreciate the thematic depth of the images.
After seeing the whole film, I went back and watched the opening sequence again, which was both the same but also different because I had the knowledge of the film's events, characters, themes and images already fresh in my mind. The aura of feeling still remained, but I could detect more subtleties within the compositions, framings, and sounds, and I essentially experiencing them differently even though they have not changed. By the third time of watching the opening sequence, I realized that many of the central tensions and themes of the film itself are suggested in that descent that lasts only a few moments. It builds wonderful contrasts and relationships through its images and sounds, essentially planting them in the first-time viewer's mind, not allowing her/him to really understand them but rather to allow them to blossom and come into focus (however subconsciously) as the film plays out.
Throughout the film, we see the banality and insistence with which the conquistadors attempt to conquer the jungle and its natives. They seek to reach the city of El Dorado, but as their journey descends to madness they are slowly enveloped and eventually swallowed by their surroundings. All the customs, traditions, and social contructions that constitutes their Westernized lives are rendered totally insignificant. Herzog's observations of this with his stark compositions, gritty atmospheres of quietness, and long interludes of nature's own wrath (e.g. the mesmerizing slow pan of the rapids) effectively contrast but eventually coincide with Aguirre's own madness as the batallion of conquistadors slowly dwindles into oblivion.
I suppose the beauty of great opening moments in films such as this is the elusiveness of feeling created within sounds and images as they interact. It reminds how essential a film's opening moments are; they set the tone for how one sees the rest of a movie, as Jim explains in the introduction to his project. We see them differently as we would images later in a movie after we've become accustomed to its rhythms. But since the opening of a film establishes those rhythms, the experience of seeing those initial images is radically different. The viewer has no sense of the styles, rhythms, or temporal and spatial relationships. Without that knowledge, seeing an image is a wholly different experience. The moods, feelings, and thoughts provoked by the sights and sounds of a great film's opening moments both tells the story of a film, yet remains intangible to the viewer and digs deeper than the story. Those feelings and thoughts build, shift, and evolve as the movie plays out. In Aguirre, there's no dialogue or discernable character that we're following, but instead a line of people carrying their riches and armor through mud and water, shrouded and mist. Somehow, on a more abstract level, the whole movie is in those moments; not the story, but the movie.