Thursday, 23 February 2012


Some addicts go to drastic lengths to conquer their obsessions, overcoming one all-consuming fixation by replacing it with something equally risky. Many become adrenaline-junkies, turning to extreme sports like bungee-jumping to fill the void left by drugs and alcohol. Amazingly, troubled environmentalist Timothy Treadwell chose grizzly bears.
  Werner Herzog’s astonishing 2005 documentary is a jaw-dropping study of how one man, consumed by his love for nature, decided the answer to his existential crisis lay in the bear colonies of the Alaskan wilderness. Told via a patchwork of fascinating interviews with Treadwell’s associates and excerpts from the eco-warrior’s own amazing video footage, Herzog recounts the staggering tale of a man who survived amongst the beasts for thirteen summers, only for he, and girlfriend Amie Hunguengard to meet their savage end at the claws the creatures he saw as his salvation.
  Enticingly raw and revealing, Treadwell’s videos must have been an absolute gift to Herzog. Some of his wildlife photography, particularly one ferocious brawl between two grizzlies, is quite breath-taking. Crossing a line few would even dare approach, Timothy gets so close to these creatures that he begins to consider them his “friends”. He talks to them. He confesses he feels like one of them. His footage is both beautiful and terrifying and behaviour veers towards the troubling.
  Treadwell enthusiastically confesses that he “loves” these animals and would die for them and this is, at times, irrefutably comical.  His boundless enthusiasm is sweet and his dedication admirable, but his obliviousness to his own ridiculousness makes for entertaining, if uncomfortable viewing. The idea Timothy clearly has of himself as a camouflaged, Rambo-style badass, is at complete odds with his fiercely effeminate inflection that is as camp as Christmas. Giving them cutesy names like “Mr Chocolate” and “The Grinch,” he often harangues the bears, squealing like a shrill, angry mother. Guilty chuckles are to be had, as interviewees express concern that Treadwell had lost his mind, “acting like he was working with people wearing bear costumes”.
 As events unfold, Timothy appears increasingly delusional and paranoid, distrusting of humans. Ignoring federal laws that restrict human interaction with wildlife, he reveals a darker, problematic side, frequently loses his cool in frequent candid, unintentionally hilarious revelations to the camera.  Whether boasting of his sexual prowess or screaming to the heavens for rain, he is compellingly watchable, often disturbingly so.  As interviews with nature experts hint that Treadwell’s efforts could be have done more harm than good, a portrait of a complicated man emerges. 
 Timothy’s story warns against the dangers of infatuation. With delicate handling of the subject matter, Herzog’s message seems to be that the great outdoors is not the sentimental, healing place Treadwell wanted it to be. Like his subject, Herzog goes deeper than the average researcher, earning the trust of the players in this story, while being respectful and indiscriminate in his use the footage Treadwell left behind. The result is a tragic, whimsical, enlightening picture, fascinating in its depiction of man’s search for answers in a wild land that doesn’t do happy endings.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012


Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)
1560, Peru.  A Spanish expedition led by Gonzalo Pizzaro descends from the Andes into the jungle, in search of El Dorado. Encountering difficulty crossing the river, Pizzaro orders a party of forty to forage onwards on makeshift rafts.
  Commanding this expedition is Don Pedro de Ursua, with Don Lope de Aguirre as second-in-command, joined by nobleman Don Fernando de Guzman, Gaspar de Carvajal,  a monk chronicling the journey, Ursua’s mistress Dona Inez and Aguirre’s daughter, Flores.
  Setting off, one of the rafts becomes trapped in a whirlpool, its crew turning up dead before they can be reached. Though Ursua wants the bodies returned for a proper burial, Aguirre orders for a cannon to fire and sink the raft.
  Overnight, rising tides sweep away the remaining rafts and Ursua orders the convoy to turn back. Aguirre rebels, promising fortune for those who follow him. A mutiny follows where Ursua and a disciple are shot.  While Inez cares for them, Aguirre convinces the mutineers to elect Guzman their new leader. The new regime finds Ursua guilty of treason, sentencing him to death, though Guzman shows clemency.
  Setting off on a new, larger raft, the explorers encounter a native couple who are accused of blasphemy and killed when they don’t recognise Gaspar’s bible.
  Guzman has the expedition’s only horse jettisoned overboard as it annoys him. Guzman is later found dead outside the raft’s outhouse, prompting Aguirre to take control. Ursua is taken away and killed.
  Indians attack with arrows and during the battle Inez disappears into the jungle. Aguirre then beheads a would-be traitor.
  Starving and hallucinating, the crew believe they see a sailboat in a tree’s branches. Indians attack again, killing everyone but Aguirre, whose daughter dies in his arms. Aguirre becomes surrounded by dozens of monkeys who he addresses, claiming he will endure and rule all of New Spain.
  At the climax of Werner Herzog’s impressive imagining of a doomed sixteenth century Spanish expedition to El Dorado, the fabled ‘City of Gold,’ Klaus Kinski’s fantastically unhinged commander Aguirre delivers a passionate, frenzied speech to an oblivious tribe of monkeys. Though it is evident the conquistador has finally taken leave of his senses, Aguirre poses some intriguing questions about the correlation between mental illness and strong leadership.
  Historically, some of the greatest leaders, from Churchill to Ghandi, suffered from emotional disorders, yet managed to be astonishingly determined and inspirational in times of despair. Likewise, last man standing Aguirre defies his inner torment, exhibiting the unflappable resilience that convinced so many to follow. So certain of his deserved place in history, the deluded commander is completely uncompromising, inviting interesting comparisons with Herzog himself, a committed, resilient director, rumoured to be mad, who seemingly revels in doing things the hard way.
  This is the auteur who, on Fitzcarraldo (1982), decided that the best way to portray a ship being moved over a mountain, deep in the rainforest, was to actually move a real ship over a mountain and film it, and this absurd resoluteness can be traced right through the bold venture that is Aguirre. Shot in the hazardous jungles of Peru, there is a sense of genuine intense peril in the raft-bound scenes. Cast and crew seemingly risk life and limb in treacherous, choppy conditions to conjure a real feeling of vulnerable isolation, man versus nature in the inhospitable wilderness. Many scenes, such as when a raft becomes stranded in a deadly whirlpool, are downright terrifying, a result of Herzog’s determination to film everything on location. This is real menace, as authentic as it gets, the director showing shades of the film’s titular commander, more than willing to push his performers to the edge.
  You would expect this level of conviction from a man who once ate his own shoe to settle a bet, and the resulting film is fascinating. At times Herzog can be deliberately oblique, often frustrating, such as when he presents a patience testing fifty second sustained close-up of  a roaring river, but the film consistently intrigues. Dialogue is sparse and there are prolonged scenes where little transpires, but with the sustenance of progressive Krautrock band Popol Vuh’s minimalistic score of haunting strings and desolate synths, the effect is often soothingly hypnotic. In fact, Aguirre is often most effective when completely silent, crafting a mood of ominous seclusion, a sense that these travellers are truly lost in the unknown at the behest of a madman.
  In his portrayal of the sneering despot, Kinski is extraordinary, controlling scenes with frightening intensity, intimidating potential usurpers with a smouldering glare. The actor and Herzog shared a famously volatile relationship, but here he displays a remarkably restrained, chilling physicality which would lead the director to cast him a further four times. Kinski deftly depicts Aguirre’s escalating madness, compounding the grisly sense of dread to the point where it is clear that his crew’s fate is sealed long before they drift into a salvo of native’s arrows.
  Based on the Herzog’s conviction and the evident hardships involved in making the film, Aguirre is easy to admire, though it is difficult to totally enjoy. The film sags in places with many supporting players portraying conquistadors and slaves giving static performances, lacking urgency and expression, making them difficult to care for. However the gradual build-up of a supremely brooding atmosphere makes amends. Quiet, contemplative moments are punctuated by sudden bursts of extreme violence and horror and there are wonderful instances of beauty and vision, like Aguirre’s aforementioned demented discourse with his simian counsel, that will live long in the memory.
  As much an exploration of insane perseverance, as a meditation on the folly of delusional, self-righteous colonial invaders, Herzog and Kinski’s first collaboration is an engaging, haunting achievement. It is a film about dogged perseverance that manages to reach places cinema rarely goes, because its architect was crazy enough to push that bit further. Like Aguirre himself, Herzog’s desire to achieve something significant leaves a legacy that won’t be easily forgotten.

Monday, 6 February 2012


My mother likes to put jam on her cheese on toast. In many ways Wisit Sasanatieng’s Thai western- melodrama oddity reminds me of my progenitor’s fondness for curious culinary combinations – it is an undeniably weird amalgam of elements that may work for some, but will inevitably alienate other palates.
  Walking a tightrope between parody and homage, Sasanatieng’s 2000 paean to classic Westerns chronicles the journey of peasant boy Dum (Chartchai Ngamsan), transformed by tragedy into outlaw gunslinger the Black Tiger, and his doomed romance with childhood beau, wealthy Rumpoey (Stella Malucchi), now lamentably betrothed to another. Sounds conventional, but Tears… is far from typical melodrama, thanks to the hyper-stylised, borderline insane manner of its telling.
  Poetic, maudlin, musical moments gleefully give way to breathtaking scenes of surreal Grindhouse ultra-violence that could easily have escaped from the mental, druggy dreams of The Mighty Boosh. Packed with provocative, pastel-hued visuals, the film has the look and production values of a Christmas pantomime, with camp, caricatured performances to match. Ridiculous, eye-patch wearing, moustached villains cackle excessively against vibrant painted backdrops, while cowboys fire bazookas, causing heads to explode invigoratingly like showers of strawberry jam, but the pervading air of cheap naffness is hard to ignore.
  Any film that replays gnarly action sequences for those who missed them first time round deserves respect, but sadly, when teeth aren’t bursting from skulls in fountains of crimson gristle, laboured, syrupy scenes between the romantic leads drag like a ball and chain. Ngamsan is a peculiarly dull leading man, his monotone delivery, lack of charisma, or indeed chemistry with Malucchi, making him difficult to root for.
  Tears… is fun, but so compellingly strange, it is difficult to guess the director’s intentions. Sasanatieng has simmered a bizarre fusion of ingredients into an unconventional stir-fry, bursting with flavour, but overcooks it, leaving a bitter taste of saccharine. My mother might enjoy it.