Seven Chances (1925)

Seven Chances (1925) movie poster

director Buster Keaton
viewed: 08/31/2012

Vying for variety in our ever-changing, weekly movie night experience, I queued up another Buster Keaton feature that we had yet to see, his 1925 film, Seven Chances.  The plot device was adapted from a play and is something we’ve seen time and again ever since.  He’s a failing businessman who receives note of a $7 million inheritance that stipulates that he must be married by 6pm on that very day.  When he manages to offend his long-time girlfriend, it’s up to his buddy and an attorney to try to get him set up.  His comic foibles of attempting to woo women add up to zilch.  Until his friend posts in the newspaper that this millionaire is out looking for a bride and to meet at the chapel by 5 o’clock…well then.  Half of Southern California’s female populace are suddenly on the scene.

And that’s where the movie gets going.  Literally.  Keaton spends almost the rest of the film running from a mob of angry women as he tries to get back to his girl.  He races over hill and dale, through a train yard, down a steep hill with tumbling rocks, leaping, bounding, pratfalling.  Maybe it’s not the pure brilliance of some of his other films, but the last half hour of non-stop gags and action are top-notch Keaton and hilarious, inventive, physical genius.

The first part of the film is a bit slow and the comedy doesn’t really snap quite as cleverly as it might.  But the finale, a sort of formula for Keaton films, of the big hectic action, chase, what-have-you is ultimately what he’s all about.  The kids enjoyed it quite a bit, not in comparison, but just plain enjoyed it.  Which is really what watching Keaton is all about.  Fun.  And his daring stunts, which you have to remind yourself and the kids at times were physical stunts without nets or tricks make him, like Jackie Chan after him, such an incredible unique talent.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) movie poster

director Werner Herzog
viewed: 08/30/2012

After watching Werner Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), I bethought myself that I would do well to see, or in this case, re-see, his early feature films.  I had seen Aguirre, the Wrath of God when I was a teenager, oddly enough, experimenting with foreign films from the video store (and I think probably recommended by Siskel and Ebert).  I probably didn’t have the knowledge and perspective to fully appreciate the film at the time, though the images stayed with me in large part.

It’s an amazing, crazy film.  Fictionalizing an account of some real conquistadors, the film follows a large army as it gets lost in the Peruvian wilderness.  A group, including Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) gets sent off to try and meet up with another party.  They’ve been on the hunt for the famed city of gold, El Dorado, and they live out the metaphor that such a quest has evolved into, a quest to the death, searching for an illusion.  Aguirre quickly turns on his captain, mutinying the crew and electing the one noble among them a new king, really machinating his way to leadership.  Aguirre is mad as a hatter, tromping around like a paranoid Richard III, bug-eyed and dangerous.

The crew lived out a version of this metaphor, right along with the characters.  They dragged their crew and equipment up into the mountains, rode rafts made by the indigenous people who worked on and appeared in the film, suffered starvation and hardships and they had a super-crazy megalomaniac on the set too in Kinski.  Herzog reflected on the production of Aguirre in his documentary My Best Fiend (1999), how the local Indians offered to kill Kinski for him at one point, as a way of being helpful.  The film, as naturalistic as the cinematography is, deep in the muck and the mud, carrying a massively heavy canon through the jungle, it’s a quest of its own kind on a shoestring budget.

The film’s best moment comes toward the end, when Aguirre sees a ship hanging from some trees, with its rowboat dangling below.  It’s a harbinger of doom.  Was it the other lost Spanish ship?  Is it a hallucination?  As delirium takes over and Aguirre is left aboard the raft, the only living thing surrounded by a teeming swarm of monkeys, delusion or reality, it doesn’t matter anymore.

It’s quite brilliant, quite simple, beautiful as well.  It raises more questions for me about Herzog as a filmmaker.  He was clearly quite the wunderkind at one point.  His modern self seems like a fascinating, kind, interesting soul, still cranking out films at a great rate, both documentary and fictional, still delving into areas of madness, inspiration, individuality, the extremes of life.  His modern fiction films have felt much more hackneyed, so it’s interesting to see his work when it had its full verve.