Tag Archives: Aguirre The Wrath Of God

Vinyl en Vogue

Commedia Sexy All Italiana

Though the soundtrack music of a film often escapes serious consideration in most formal film criticism, anyone who has made a film and had the luxury of an original soundtrack is well aware of the importance of the music that lends itself to the image. I found this to be particularly true for myself with regards to my last feature, scored by Stephen Mercy. Luckily, with vinyl in vogue again, there are a number of labels issuing the formal debuts of soundtracks as well as reissuing established favorites and cult classic soundtracks. The overwhelming majority of these releases is catered to the latter genre of cult films. This shouldn’t be surprising considering the ample opportunities for profit permitted by special and limited editions of novelty items in any collector’s market.

Perhaps the strangest novelty release, that I am aware of, is Commedia Sexy All’ Italiana (published by Mediane Libri in 2007). This is a handsome hardcover book of stills from Italy’s “sexy comedy” genre that also comes with a CD that anthologizes a number of the themes from the most notable of these films such as Bora Bora, Loving Cousins, Prickly Pears, Chaste and Pure, etc. The music is varied, covering a number of genres but always with that distinct Italian sound that those familiar with the Crippled Dick Hot Wax label’s Beat Of Cinecitta Vol. 1-3 will certainly enjoy. Most of the films covered in the book’s single essay by Gordiano Lupi are unavailable in the United States. So this “document” of film stills and musical themes is really the only extensive insight we have into this genre of Italian filmmaking available in English. Though it may not seem essential to the study of Italian cinema or world cinema as a whole, the once enormously popular films referenced in this book speak to a nation during a specific period. Not to mention the role this release could play in expanding the surveys of sexuality in the cinema.

Bobby Beausoleil's Lucifer Rising soundtrack

Another impressive releases of this re-issue frenzy was the boxed set The Lucifer Rising Suite: The Music Of Bobby Beausoleil. Released by The Ajna Offensive in 2009 and again in 2013, this release collects not only the final score for Kenneth Anger’s last epic, but also a number of alternate versions and outtakes. The set, pressed on colored vinyl, also includes an in-depth booklet charting the evolution of Beausoleil score as well as two full color posters of original artwork by the composer. Anyone interested in the history of Lucifer Rising’s production history or Kenneth Anger in general will find this release essential. Not only does it do a thorough job of casting the now infamous production of Lucifer Rising perpetuated by Kenneth Anger and his unauthorized biographer Bill Landis in a new light, it also dispels the notion that Beausoleil was an opportunistic hack.

A similar package was put together by Blue Jazz Records in 2015 for the release of Kailash. The music contained within this set is composed of solo piano versions of music for the film Kailash (directed by Florian Fricke and Frank Fiedler) and the Popol Vuh versions of the same compositions. This release also anthologized a number of related piano recordings by Fricke made between the sessions for the soundtrack in 1978 and as recently as 1989. So like The Lucifer Rising Suite: The Music Of Bobby Beausoleil, Kailash is a compact history of a musical document and its relationship to the images that inspired it. It is also worth noting that a DVD of Kailash is included in this double album set.

Florian Fricke

Kailash, in the Blue Jazz Records package, pinpoints succinctly the aesthetic exchange at work between filmmaker Werner Herzog and the band responsible for the scores to such films as Aguirre The Wrath Of God, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht and Heart Of Glass. Fricke and Fiedler’s film, Kailash, functions as a meditative travelogue of their pilgrimage to the far east. But their choice of images, and the duration with which they confront us with them, all signify an opening up and expanding of Herzog’s aesthetic treatment of place. In this way Kailash is far more comparable to Herzog’s own Fata Morgana than it is to his more traditionally narrative features. For Fricke and Fiedler the emphasis is the effect of space on man within a context that requires far more in terms of audience participation than Herzog’s own films which are in many respects often hindered in this mode by their narrative which permits a notion of removal in its spectator. Fricke’s compositions, spartan and ethereal, reflect this sense of space and duration, obscuring and abstracting the musical themes that came to define his work with Herzog.

The last release that I think is worth discussing in-depth is the Death Waltz Recording Company release of Joe Delia’s soundtrack to Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 in 2014. Despite the popularity of Ferrara’s film, Delia’s score had never been pressed to vinyl before. Here one can hear the original soundtrack remastered under Delia’s supervision in a clear, crisp mix. This pressing also includes extensive liner notes and comments by Delia, as well as an original poster by Alice X. Zhang. Fans of Ferrara’s work will find all of this to be great fun as well as an excellent tool for dissecting and re-evaluating Ferrara’s first truly successful feature.

Previously I have discussed at length Dagored’s re-issues of Claudio Gizzi’s soundtracks for Paul Morrissey’s films Blood For Dracula and Flesh For Frankenstein. I’m happy to say that Dagored has maintained their output of high quality soundtrack reissues. Similar labels have also put out equally impressive editions. Doxy Cinematic has released the soundtracks to Orson Welles’ The Trial and John Cassavetes’ Too Late Blues while the label Finders Keepers has issued releases of Andrzej Korzynski’s score for Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession and Jean-Bernard Raiteux’s score for Jess Franco’s Les Demons; to name just a few that I have been most excited about.

Ms.45 gatefold

This is not merely a renaissance of sorts solely to be enjoyed by avid record collectors. The information and insights provided by releases such as those mentioned above provide serious and compelling insight into these comparatively obscure films. For the first time, the soundtracks to films are being released with the same care and attention to detail as the films from which they have originated. This affords new frontiers in many respects for the critical discourse surrounding these films. I believe it is essential not to allow such opportunities to slip away (especially when so many pressings are in limited editions).

-Robert Curry

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All American Enigma

In 1962, with the issuing of the Oberhausen Manifesto, New German Cinema began.  For twenty years a generation of German filmmakers produced small, personal and decidedly nationalist films in response to the Americanization of West Germany and the stagnation of any national unifying notion of Germany.  Of these filmmakers, only one fixed himself to narrative subjects that existed almost exclusively outside of the contemporary West German setting, preferring the Romantic and Operatic of German folk tales and literature, his name is Werner Herzog.

In his book The Altering Eye, Robert Phillip Kolker refers to Werner Herzog as the “self appointed Holy Fool” of New German Cinema, citing Herzog’s rejection of contemporary subjects as a lack of seriousness, an evasion of social commentary and national urgency.  Though, in superficial terms, this may appear to be a valid assessment of Herzog’s position within the movement, such an assumption negates the unifying obsession at the heart of almost every Werner Herzog film, the investigation of what it means to be an outcast.

Werner Herzog in 1968

This obsession, appearing in varying degrees of abstraction reoccurs in not just Herzog’s films, but also in the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Alexander Kluge, Wim Wenders, and Volker Schlondorff.  The working-class subjects of Wenders’ early films as well as those of Fassbinder focus on the contemporary disenfranchisement of various social demographics within German society.  In contrast, Herzog’s protagonists handle the same issues of isolation, but within the singular context of the film’s narrative.  The most dramatic example of this is in Herzog’s The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser (1974).  Hauser, raised in isolation till his release in his early twenties, must adapt to the German society of the late eighteenth century just as that society must in turn adapt to his sudden emergence.  Indirectly, Herzog is presenting his commentary on West Germany’s reemergence as a serious world power in the early seventies for the first time since the end of WWII.  The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser then serves as the same social commentary as lets say Wenders’ The American Friend (1977), yet remains far more distinct in its ability to retain a national notion of Germany by framing its commentary within the narrative of one of Germany’s most infamous folk tales.

The device I have outlined within Herzog’s film The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser recurs in all of Herzog’s period dramas of the seventies, from Heart Of Glass (1976) to Woyzeck (1979).  Still, it isn’t entirely surprising that Kolker overlooked this aspect of Herzog’s style.  One must remember that America’s perception of Herzog today is still very much what it was when he first became known on the Art House circuit in 1972 with Aguirre The Wrath Of God.  The stories and legends that have arose around Herzog over the years, though some are true, often overshadow or at least color the critical readings of his films.  Herzog himself has propagated many of these myths himself, and has done very well to preserve them by taking only the most bizarre acting assignments in other filmmakers’ movies.  That said, it seems only logical that Kolker’s equating Herzog’s own presumed obsessive behavior with that of the protagonists in his films is the product of Herzog’s own presentation of himself.

A critical misinterpretation of Herzog’s early filmography is only half the problem with the American understanding of the director’s work, the other half lies with the audience itself.  As with any foreign film in the seventies, Herzog’s films weren’t likely to screen in America till they had already played in West Germany for a year.  Couple that delay with America’s ignorance of West German politics and social movements and the reasons for all misinterpretation become clear.  If one is unaware of the social problems facing West Germany, how is one to interpret or even recognize Herzog’s commentary in The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser?  What if, in addition to socio-political ignorance, one was also unaware of the Kaspar Hauser folk tale?  Herzog’s film would then probably read as the obsessive musings of a demented German philosopher, an image of Herzog that many Americans carry today.  It is the other worldly reading I have just described of Herzog and his films that has become a generalization of all German films amongst American audiences.  It doesn’t matter if Herzog is involved or not, the popularity of his “other-worldly” cinema in America is the basis of America’s expectations of a German film, Wenders, Fassbinder, Syberberg, Kluge, or otherwise.

Werner Herzog’s last film to adhere to a distinctly German world view was his first Hollywood film Invincible (2001), which is also the first of three films that function as character studies of protagonists in environments that reflect their inner psychological turmoil; Rescue Dawn (2007) and The Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans (2009) being the other two.  Invincible follows a Jewish strongman struggling to survive as a performer in Nazi Germany.  Herzog’s two follow up narratives have Americans as their protagonists who are forced to navigate two American tragedies; the Vietnam War and New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  These three films represent a closing down of Herzog’s political and social commentaries, preferring to investigate internal moral dilemmas and personal struggles.  Herzog’s internalization at this late point in his career is the direct result of the documentary films he had begun to make in 1997, beginning with Little Dieter Needs To FlyLittle Dieter Needs To Fly (1997) along with Grizzly Man (2005) represent documentary portraiture along the same lines as Flaherty’s Nanook Of The North (1922), Clarke’s Portrait Of Jason (1967), and the Maysles’ Grey Gardens (1975) to name but a few.  This style of documentary filmmaking emphasizes intimacy, and through observation offers an astute psychological analysis of a subject.  This mode of investigative filmmaking is the primary purpose of Herzog’s first three American narrative features.

But Herzog would close in even more in his narrative work with his feature My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (2009).  This film, unlike the three that preceded it, is not grounded in any national catastrophe, but rather unfolds as a psychological thriller.  In essence Herzog has retreated from the wider context of German heritage in his earlier films and the national crises of his later films to explore exclusively the cause and effects of obsessive behavior.

Mendes, Herzog & Cage

Though Herzog’s aesthetic has transformed and narrowed itself down in terms of portraiture, the appraisal of his American films by Americans is still within the context of an “other-worldly” German filmmaker making films in Germany.  Even without the distinctly German themes of his classic period, Herzog’s films are still understood to be imports, with vague signifiers and an elusive context.  Werner Herzog as a brand has become more significant then Herzog the artist.  Most people I have encountered who are familiar with his later work still asses and read Herzog’s films as though they were derivative of a context akin to Signs Of Life (1968) or Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), going so far as to say “his films don’t usually seem to make sense” (anonymous).  What the image of Werner Herzog has become in American culture prevents Americans from understanding and engaging Herzog’s narrative films within the context of his aesthetic evolution.  As a result, because of Herzog’s good standing with film critics in the 2000s, people will go and see a Werner Herzog film with no intention of understanding the concerns of the narrative, but simply because it’s “cool” to see a Werner Herzog film.

-Robert Curry

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