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Tag Archives: Aguirre: The Wrath of God

Filmmaker Interview: James Gray

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The Lost City of Z is James Gray’s remarkable film adaptation of David Grann’s best-selling novel about Percy Fawcett (played by a revelatory Charlie Hunnam), a British explorer who disappeared with his son (Tom Holland) while searching for an ancient civilization in the jungles of South America in the early 20th century. Many critics have noted this thrilling adventure film is a “departure” for Gray, although the classicism of the filmmaking and the focus on family dynamics make it all of a piece with his earlier New York-set dramas from Little Odessa through The Immigrant. I recently sat down and spoke to Gray about his terrific new film, which opens in Chicago on Friday, April 21.

MGS: Like all of your work, this film is about family. The line early on about Percy Fawcett being “unfortunate in his choice of ancestors” is so funny and ironic…

JG: (laughing) That line always gets a big laugh, which I’ve never understood but I’m glad it does.

MGS: And the relationship between Percy and his son Jack at the end is really the heart of the film. I was blown away by the last 30 minutes and how emotional it was.

JG: That’s my favorite section of the movie. But you need the first hour and 50 minutes to get there. The thing is, I’ve had some people say that to me about the last 30 minutes and would I make the whole film like that? The problem is that it doesn’t work that way. Narrative, it’s sequential linkage. You have to build to it. If you did the whole movie like that, it wouldn’t have any meaning.

MGS: Don’t get me wrong: I loved the whole thing!

JG: No, no, I’m just explaining what I had always designed in that father-son relationship, which to me was always the key to it. That’s what made me want to make the movie. In the end, it’s a tricky thing because my own view is that if you read his obsession as repetitive then that means I failed or you’re not paying attention. Either one, I’m not sure. Because the nature of his obsession changes through the film. It starts, he has no medals. But after that, it becomes a kind of thing where he has to ratify his exalted position with that other guy, Mr. James Murray (Angus Macfayden), who comes along and turns out to be a catastrophe. So rank and honor and glory don’t really mean much after a while. So what’s left? He’s got this kid who he really didn’t spend any time with. The episodic nature of the film was meant to emphasize these chunks of time that he had missed with his wife and children. And, in the end, I didn’t see it as a tragedy because he achieved some measure of transcendence. His son, I’m sure, resented the years he missed but in the end he went along with him and they had seen a part of the world that virtually no one from Western Europe or North America saw or sees today. And that’s not, by the way, Sienna Miller’s story. Sienna Miller’s story is tragic because she was left at home. She wanted to go and she was a woman and she couldn’t. So I saw the film as interesting for story purposes because it’s her tragedy and their transcendence.

MGS: When I think of filmmakers going into the jungle to make epic adventure films, I think about stories of shooting a million feet of film and then finding the movie in the editing room. Were there a lot of scenes left on the cutting-room floor or did you have to be shrewder about only shooting what you needed?

JG: Yeah, we didn’t do that. The age of being able to do that is over. There’s such a level of control that the machine has put on you now, with completion bonds and the way the movies have to be financed, that the ability to be backstopped by Columbia or United Artists, in the case of Lean and Coppola, is over. You have to stick to a plan in a very detailed way. Let me say that in some ways shooting a million feet of film, going a little bonkers and all that, lends itself to a very fantastical, almost sensate experience. It changes the way the movie feels. And you become a different person – Francis Coppola was in the jungle for a year, which I can’t even understand – and you become a different person over that year. And knowing that you don’t have that as part of your weaponry, it has to take on a different feel. Now may I say I think that if I had approached the movie the way that Francis did Apocalypse or Herzog did Aguirre, the means of production being different, I think I would’ve made a really bad and fairly racist movie. Which is not to say they did. They didn’t. Herzog’s Aguirre, for example, is about a man who goes to the jungle – a conquistador – and through greed and megalomania, goes insane. In the case here, I felt that if Fawcett became a madman in the jungle, that would’ve really sucked because the movie wasn’t about that. It was about his confronting, engaging the indigenous peoples of South America. So if he goes mad confronting and engaging the indigenous peoples, that’s a racist concept. I’ve been asked, “Did you think of making him go crazier?” I feel like that’s a covertly racist idea because it means that the viewer cannot accept any sense of “normal” from the indigenous – and that’s pretty dangerous, and a very common error, I think. My own feeling is that the style of production, which you asked about, that this kind of lengthy process where you shoot a million feet of film, lends itself to another kind of filmmaking. And in some ways I think it helped me that I had to stay in a measure of control.

MGS: I’m so glad you shot this on film. In contrast to digital, the texture of 35mm is so thick and moist, which seems especially appropriate for the jungle setting.

JG: What you’re talking about, whether you know it or not, there’s a term for it called temporal resolution. When you say “thicker,” I think it’s very interesting that you use that word because with the digital image you’ve got essentially a grid. The image is made of pixels. It’s a fixed grid. Frame 1, 2, 3, 4: the pixels are in the same position. With film, it’s made of grain. The position of each grain changes from frame to frame. So what you are essentially looking at is a new image every time a frame comes on the screen. Your brain obviously doesn’t process each image individually. It can’t. That’s called persistence of vision. But it adds up and, unconsciously, it makes a difference. So the analog aspect of film, when you say “thicker,” what you’re actually talking about is this idea of temporal resolution where each frame is a different image.

MGS: I wanted to ask about Charlie Hunnam. I know he replaced Benedict Cumberbatch, which is hard for me to wrap my brain around because their energies and their personas seem so different. Did that casting change cause you to make any adjustments in terms of how you decided to portray the character?

JG: It always has to because you can’t make a movie thinking that you have Jimmy Stewart when you want Marlon Brando. And you can’t make the same movie with Charlie Chaplin that you do with Robert Mitchum. It’s a different language. I didn’t know who Charlie Hunnam was, really. I mean, I knew who he was but I didn’t know his work except for Sons of Anarchy. When his name first came up, I said, “I would never cast him.” Because I thought he was some California biker guy with tattoos. And then the producers at Plan B said, “No, no, no, he’s from Newcastle.” So he came over for dinner and I quite liked him. And what I saw in him was a shocking parallel with Fawcett, which is that he was the same age, had the same – not inferiority complex, but a real sense of striving, that he had not done the quality work that he wanted to do, and he had not been able to communicate that to himself and others. And I saw that as directly related to Fawcett. Benedict would’ve focused on more – I don’t want to say “odd,” but the iconoclastic qualities of Fawcett. Charlie almost feels like a swashbuckling actor from the ‘30s, so you use that. You use the weapons you’ve got. You’ve got this handsome, swashbuckling figure, then you use that. If you have this interesting, odd, great movie face with this (does Benedict Cumberbatch impression) “deep baritone,” then you use that. I suspect that Fawcett, with Cumberbatch in it, would’ve been an odder, darker movie. I don’t know if better or worse, just different.

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A New German Cinema Primer

Inspired by the French New Wave, the New German Cinema was formed by a loose affiliation of filmmakers in the late 1960s as a reaction against the commercially-oriented and artistically moribund German cinema of the previous several generations. The movement picked up steam in the 1970s when its three most famous proponents (Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog) became fixtures on the international art house circuit. Although that trio remains the public face of the New German Cinema to this day, there are many other wonderful filmmakers associated with the movement who helped to reinvigorate world cinema and continued the artistic innovations begun by the nouvelle vague in the post-1968 era. Below are 10 essential films by 10 different directors that I consider lynchpins of the New German Cinema.

The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Straub/Huillet, 1968)

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Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet are the odd persons out in this primer both by virtue of their nationality (they were born and raised in France) and in the sense that their works were more avant-garde than the other directors more commonly associated with the New German Cinema. But they made most of their films in Germany contemporaneously with the other filmmakers listed here, were affiliated with the “Oberhausen group” — an important predecessor to the New German Cinema — and collaborated on a 1968 short film with Fassbinder and his theater troupe. That very same year they also released their first feature film, a biopic of Johann Sebastien Bach that consists mostly of static long-takes of the composer (played by virtuoso harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt) performing many of his greatest works live on camera. Linking these scenes are interludes depicting Bach’s domestic life that feature his wife, Anna (Christiane Lang), reading excerpts from her diary. Often referred to as “austere,” “rigorous” and “demanding,” this is probably the least conventional and yet arguably the greatest biopic ever made about a classical composer: by focusing relentlessly on his music, Straub and Huillet bring us as close as cinematically possible to the man.

Aguirre: The Wrath of God (Herzog, 1972)

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Werner Herzog was probably less interested in the specific socio-political climate of post-war Germany than any of his fellow German New Wavers. His point of view was always more cosmic, his great subject always man vs. nature, which is nowhere more apparent than in Aguirre: The Wrath of God, the film many would call his masterpiece. The plot details a 16th century expedition of Spanish conquistadors to South America in search of “El Dorado,” the mythical city of gold, a journey destined to end in madness and despair. Aguirre is notable for being the first of many collaborations between Herzog and his alter-ego Klaus Kinski, unforgettable as the eponymous Don Lope de Aguirre, whose journey into the heart of darkness causes him to lose his grip on reality. The view of human nature on display is as bleak as it is absurd but there’s no denying the conviction of Herzog’s vision, nor the hypnotic quality of the images, impressively captured on location in the jungles of South America.

Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave (Kluge, 1973)

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Everyone should see at least one movie by Alexander Kluge (and if you like it, see more). I recommend starting with Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave, a Godardian/Brechtian account of a housewife and mother, Roswitha Bronski (Alexandra Kluge, the director’s sister), who works part-time as an illegal abortionist. Although she first embarks on her profession merely as a means to pull in extra income for her family, Roswitha becomes increasingly radicalized along political lines as the narrative progresses — particularly after the factory that employs her husband plans on shipping jobs to Portugal. This bold experiment mixes documentary-like scenes (including graphic images of a real abortion) with political slogans and omniscient narration, resulting in a provocative and heady intellectual stew. But Kluge, unlike his countryman R.W. Fassbinder (not to mention Godard), is more interested in sociology than cinema and his movies consequently remain fascinating documents of the time and place in which they were made that do not necessarily transcend them.

Tenderness of the Wolves (Lommel, 1973)

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Out of all the films of the New German Cinema, this is the one that feels the most indebted to the classic German Expressionist films of the 1920s and early 30s — though the tropes of Expressionism have certainly been updated to the 1970s with a vengeance. Tenderness of the Wolves tells the disturbing true story of Fritz Harrmann, a serial killer dubbed the “Werewolf of Hanover,” who molested, killed and cannibalized at least two dozen boys in the years immediately after WWI, which the filmmakers have updated to the post-WWII years for budgetary reasons. This was written by Kurt Raab who also plays Harrmann as a kind of real-life Nosferatu (surely the bald head and slightly pointy ears are no coincidence), and directed by Ulli Lommel. Both were proteges of Rainer Werner Fassbinder who produced and also has a small role. The supporting cast is a veritable who’s-who of the Fassbinder stock company, so fans of the great German director (and/or true crime aficionados with strong stomachs) cannot afford to miss this.

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (Von Trotta/Schlondorff, 1975)

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Katharina Blum, a young “domestic,” has a one-night stand with a man who, unbeknownst to her, is a wanted anarchist-terrorist. The next morning she is arrested by the police and subject to intensive interrogation. Upon being released, she is hounded by an unscrupulous yellow journalist and harassed by both her acquaintances and total strangers. While the film functions as a plea for the civil rights of individual citizens and comes down hard on both the government and the press, this is no simple polemic. Margarethe Von Trotta and Volker Schlondorff (who were married at the time) co-wrote and co-directed this adaptation of Heinrich Boll’s novel, which ambitiously captures the turbulent political climate at the time — when “anti-imperialist” terrorism was rampant in Germany — with all of the intelligence and complexity the subject deserves. Angela Winkler is excellent in the title role but some contemporary viewers might get an even bigger kick out of spying a young Dieter Laser (the mad scientist in The Human Centipede) in an early role as the sleazy reporter.

Hitler: A Film from Germany (Syberberg, 1977)

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Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s colossal, experimental seven-hour anti-biopic considers the rise and fall of Hitler from a variety of perspectives, all of them Brechtian, which play out on a single dark soundstage equipped with rear projection. Through a series of lengthy monologues we see a multiplicity of Hitlers (Hitler as Charlie Chaplin, Hitler as literal puppet, Hitler as M‘s Hans Beckert, Hitler as ventriloquist’s dummy, etc.), a cluster of signifiers that attempt to show not only how Hitler came to power but what he “means” — as lessons from the holocaust continue to reverberate on the world-historical stage. We also meet other figures of the Third Reich both real (Himmler), fictional (Hitler’s private projectionist) or a hybrid of the two (Hitler’s personal valet), each of whom serves to guide us through this long dark night of the German soul. Syberberg also explicitly deals with the problems of representing his subject without sensationalizing it and the deliberately didactic end result consequently alternates between being riveting and boring. Never before have I encountered a work of art that seemed at once so truly great and yet so necessarily tedious.

The American Friend (Wenders, 1977)

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Since the release of his beloved Wings of Desire in 1987, the critical reputation of Wim Wenders has taken a nosedive (at least as a director of fiction features). But for much of the 1970s and 1980s he was considered to be at the vanguard of international arthouse cinema. Wenders has always been deeply indebted to American culture (as evidenced by my favorite of his films, this adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel), which he filters through his distinctly European/existential sensibility. The American Friend revolves around Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper), an American con artist living in Berlin, and how he contracts a picture framer with a fatal disease (Bruno Ganz) to commit murder. But story ultimately takes a back seat to characterization and, more importantly, atmosphere in this slow-paced, moody neo-noir, which features appropriate and delightful cameos from American noir specialists Sam Fuller and Nicholas Ray.

Berlin Alexanderplatz (Fassbinder, 1980)

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Of all the directors associated with the New German Cinema, Rainer Werner Fassbinder was arguably the greatest and, with some 44 titles to his credit — most of them features (in a career spanning just 16 years!) — certainly the most crazily prolific. Berlin Alexanderplatz is my favorite of Fassbinder’s films, a 15-and-a-half-hour made-for-television epic that ambitiously adapts Alfred Doblin’s equally mammoth 1929 novel. The film begins with Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht), the protagonist and tragic anti-hero, being released from prison on a manslaughter charge. From there Fassbinder’s fantasia on Doblin’s narrative follows Biberkopf through the dark underbelly of 1920s Berlin as the country is still reeling from the aftermath of WWI and with the rise of the Third Reich just around the corner. Of special interest is Biberkopf’s psychosexual infatuation with his criminal lowlife partner Reinhold, which is thoroughly explored in Fassbinder’s daring experimental epilogue. This ranks alongside of Fritz Lang’s M as one of the all-time great German movies.

Germany, Pale Mother (Sanders-Brahms, 1980)

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Helma Sanders-Brahms’ controversial Germany, Pale Mother was probably the New German Cinema film that confronted the Nazi era (a topic then still taboo) most directly. It tells the story of the lives of ordinary people — primarily a man, Hans (Ernst Jacobi), and a woman, Lene (Eva Mattes) — based on the director’s own parents, and how their lives and relationships are torn apart by World War II. One powerful montage sequence shows the couple’s daughter, Anna, being born during an air raid (complete with documentary footage), which gives the film something of an allegorical flavor, but this is mostly a realistic and observational portrait that feels as if it were made as a form of therapy by someone intent on better understanding their parents’ generation and thus their country’s history. Mattes, a veteran of films by Herzog and Fassbinder, is phenomenal in the lead role.

Palermo or Wolfsburg (Schroeter, 1980)

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The one and only film I’ve seen by the esteemed Werner Schroeter is this 1980 masterwork that has left me eager to fill in on more. Palermo or Wolfsburg is a three-hour movie about a Sicilian laborer named Nicola who moves to Germany seeking better opportunities in life. He gets a job in a Volkswagen factory, embarks on an ill-fated love affair and tragically ends up committing a double homicide. For most of its length this is an impressively naturalistic culture-clash drama that captures the feelings of homesickness and alienation that should be familiar to anyone who has spent a prolonged time in a country far from home. Then, in the murder trial that serves as the climax, Schroeter daringly switches modes to offer something more subjective and surreal, allowing his penchant for flamboyant, experimental cinema and his side career as an opera director to come to the fore. They just don’t make ’em like this any more.


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