Thursday, September 6, 2007

The Power (and Indifference) of Nature in Cinema

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.


Adam Ross said...

I also recently re-watched this. Herzog plays that opening shot like some old magician: he reveals the magic with such precision and timing that you flat give up thinking about how he did it.

I haven't read much about "Aguirre" but one thing that struck me was how it was shot in full frame instead of widescreen. Herzog's other movies are in WS, I wonder what went into this decision.

Ted Pigeon said...

I didn't know that about the full screen, Adam. I'm glad you pointed that out. I have a widescreen television, and since the image filled the screen I just assumed it had a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Now I'm wondering if part of the image was cut off without my knowing. I know it wasn't stretched (as a full-screen DVD would be), which is the absolutely worst way to watch a movie, but it may have been cut off.

Also, about the opening sequence: I listened to a bit of Herzog's commentary, and he said the mist was so bad for days that they weren't sure they were going to get the shot. But he said one morning it was perfect and, in a very modest manner, downplayed his own genius in staging those shots and attributed it to nature and pure happenstance that it worked out. I guess that would be consistent with how he sees nature.

Adam Ross said...

I just double checked to make sure it wasn't my DVD, and IMDB says it was shot in 1.37:1

Ted Pigeon said...

Nice bit of news, Adam. Thanks. I wouldn't have even thought about it otherwise. But it got me thinking, especially since so many of Herzog's movies are shot with a higher ratio and he uses every corner of the frame to heighten the sublimity of his compositions. In Aguirre, he offers up some of his most striking images (of the movies of his I've seen). I know it's not uncommon for more full-screen like images to be so striking, since movies for decades were shot this way. But I guess I'm just surprised not only because Herzog elected to shoot the film this way, but that it worked so effectively. One would think that he's shoot it as widely as possible; but would that opening shot be as effective if it were stretched, perhaps with the mountain not centered?

I was also thinking about the title of this post, and how little it relates to what I actually wrote about. (I always struggle with titles!) But it helped me to think about all those things I didn't write about, since I was, after all, writing about the mystery of cinema to some degree. One of my recent thoughts regarding nature and cinema is their relationship. Of course, cinema is a medium of many media and the result of human technology and communication. However, where I think many would end the thinking there, further rumination reveals a strong relationship.

To me, nature is intagible, impossible to grasp because it is not something to be grasped or understand. Attempt to do so demonstrates how human beings are inexorably separated from it. "Nature", then, is more of a broadly stated notion representing to us all that purely cannot be made sense of, all that is abstract.

Cinema may be just as that as well. As Aguiire shows, the best of cinema has little to do with storytelling and more to do with abstraction; the spatial and temporal relations forged in the marriage of sight and sound. It affects us, and we can wield great influence over it (since we make films), just like nature. But in the end, it may just be out of our hands. It only becomes real or true when it locates the intangibilities and ambiguities of lived experience. The moment one can identify its qualities to encompass this, it's gone; no longer cinema. Thus, we are bound to experience it like that nature inasmuch that the best we can do is try to understand, when it only takes effect simply because we cannot understand.

Crazy thinking? Perhaps. But I just may explore these ideas a bit more.

Adam Ross said...

Good point about the opening shot in full screen. The FS also works well on the raft scenes, because it feels more claustrophobic.

Just as you said about how nature cannot be grasped, the same is true about the soul. One of my favorite parts of Aguirre is the native who is killed for blasphemously trying to "listen" to the Word of God from the Spaniards' Bible. In the same way that Aguirre's group cannot deal with nature's domination over them, they also can't grasp why this savage land doesn't desire salvation.