“Fantastic Fungi” - Louie Schwartzberg (2019)

Fantastic Fungi (2019) is an entertaining documentary film that explores various aspects of  ubiquitous but often overlooked participants in our biosphere – fungi, and in particular, their usually above-ground fruiting components, mushrooms.  This film brings to the viewer’s attention the fact that fungi are absolutely crucial to the sustenance of life on earth. The film was directed and photographed by Louie Schwartzberg, whose demonstrated expertise in time-lapse cinematography and CGI (computer-generated imagery) is a spectacular feature of the film.  In fact the time-lapse imagery is so frequently occurring and dazzling that it may perhaps sometimes distract the viewer from some of the film’s other virtues.  

Fantastic Fungi was written by Mark Monroe (among whose earlier writing credits is the fascinating documentary The Cove (2009) [1]), and it was edited by Kevin Klauber and Annie Wilkes.  There are numerous voiceover narrations from the various talking heads in this documentary, but one special narrative element is provided by previously Oscar-winning actress Brie Larson, who serves here as the unseen metaphorical voice of the fungi kingdom.  I am not sure how well this particular narrative innovation works in this case, but it does provide an unusual twist to the presentation.  Another aspect of the production that deserves comment is the music by Adam Peters.  Unfortunately, I found much of the music to be littered with rumblings and  mostly distracting from the viewing experience.  In any case, the film has been largely well-received by a range of critics [2,3,4,5,6,7].

Although Fantastic Fungi rambles back and forth between various topics about fungi, we can say that the film covers roughly four general areas of interest:
  • The science of fungi
  • Fungi in ancient mythology
  • The impact of hallucinogenic drugs that have been derived from Fungi
  • Practical and medicinal uses of fungi
Throughout much of this journey, we are shepherded by Paul Stamets, a lifetime amateur mycology (the science of fungi) enthusiast.  Despite having limited formal training in mycology, Stamets’s passion for the subject and hands-on explorations have enabled him to make a number of discoveries and contributions to the area.  And as the film demonstrates, he is a rather glib communicator on the topic.  

1.  The Science of Fungi
In this topic area the viewer is given some interesting scientific information about fungi.  The expert narrators concerning this material are, for the most part, Michael Pollan and Eugenia Bone, who are food journalists, and Professor Suzanne Simard, who conducts research on fungi at the University of British Columbia.

Fungi are a primitive form of life that predates plants and animals.  Indeed the oldest fossil remains of life are those of fungi dating back 2.4 billion years ago.  And of course fungi are still prospering today, and there are now several million fungi species, more than six times the estimated number of plant species.  

A fascinating and most important structural component of fungi are the thin filamentary hyphae that exist mostly below ground and serve as the roots of the fungi.  They spread out into incredibly complex network structures that are known collectively as mycelia, and they can form even more complex mycorrhizal networks with plants that a mycelium network may connect to.  The expert commentators in the film liken the complexity of these network mycelium structures to that of the human brain, and it seems that these mycelium networks can facilitate the exchange of nutrients and information between the nodes (plants and/or fungi) that are interconnected in these networks.  For more information concerning how these mycorrhizal networks facilitate the essential vitality and harmony of nature, I recommend you see Suzanne Simard’s TED talk, "How trees talk to each other" [8].

2.  Fungi in Ancient Mythology
It seems that fungi have been known and cherished since very ancient times – even to ancient hominids that flourished before the appearance of Homo sapiens.  This was presumably due to the powerful mind-altering properties of some mushrooms.  The film has some commentary about this and refers to and shows some ancient temples in this regard.  

Reference is also made to the Stoned Ape Theory that was proposed by Terence McKenna in 1992, which advanced the idea that the movement from the early human species Homo erectus to the current species Homo sapiens was connected with the hypothesized increased consumption of psilocybin mushrooms (“magic mushrooms”) about 100,000 years ago.  This allegedly gave consumers of those mushroom improved acuity and cooperation capabilities that ultimately provided them with evolutionary advantages.  Thus, so this story goes, the consumption of magic mushrooms led to the emergence of Homo sapiens.

3.  Hallucinogenic Drugs
At the beginning of the 1970s, 15-year-old Paul Stamets became inspired by reading some writing by an advocate of alternative medicine, Dr. Andrew Weil, about altered states of consciousness.  This was when Timothy Leary, LSD, and other hallucinogenic drugs derived from mushrooms were in their heyday.  Consequently Stamets was eager to try out some psychedelic mushrooms.  So he consumed a whole bag of magic mushrooms, and the resulting experience that he had changed his life.  For one thing, it instantly cured his til-then lifelong stuttering problem.  In addition, it launched his unquenchable fascination with the mind-bending possibilities of fungi.  However, about this time there was a decades-long U.S. governmental suppression of psychedelic drug research (1970s - 2000), which hindered work in this field  by Stamets and others.  So Stamets started his own mushroom business and moved to Canada.  In some respects this film is intended to renew a wider scientific interest in this area, such as existed in the 1960s and 70s.

4.   Medicinal Uses of Fungi
A fascinating element of Fantastic Fungi is its discussion of some of the promising medicinal uses of fungi.  However, because of time constraints, only a smattering of this material can be offered.  A key item with respect to this topic is the fact that the human brain has neuroplasticity.  That is, the neuronal structure of the human brain can change and grow throughout the course of a person’s life.  But to facilitate this activity, the brain needs assistance to generate new neurological pathways.  And this is where mushroom-derived chemicals such as psilocybin can play an important role in the brain’s chemistry.  This is an ongoing topic of current research.

Overall, there is an important message we can take from Fantastic Fungi.  We learn that fungi are fundamental instruments for the regeneration of life, and that as Paul Stamets tells us, “the entire ecosystem is infused with fungi.”  Our reductive scientific models of the natural world have too often focussed on the individual entity or agent, and they have thereby overlooked the intertwined, multi-generational nature of life, in connection with which fungi play a fundamental role.  Indeed what is emphasized here in this film and the essential point we come away with, in fact, is how fungi underlie and facilitate a most crucial aspect of the world, something that Buddhist and other spiritual masters have long taught – the interconnectedness of all living beings.
★★★

Notes:
  1. The Film Sufi, “‘The Cove’ - Louie Psihoyos (2009)”, The Film Sufi, (26 July 2009).   
  2. Rex Reed, “Charming Documentary ‘Fantastic Fungi’ Explores the Miracle of Mushrooms”, Observer, (15 October 2019).   
  3. Matt Fagerholm, “Fantastic Fungi”, RogerEbert.com, (11 October 2019).  
  4. Jeannette Catsoulis,”‘Fantastic Fungi’ Review: The Magic of Mushrooms”, The New York Times, (10 October 2019).   
  5. Josh Kupecki, “Fantastic Fungi”, Austin Chronicle, (6 December 2019).   
  6. John Defore, “‘Fantastic Fungi’: Film Review”, The Hollywood Reporter, (8 October 2019).  
  7. Robert Abele “Review: Mushrooms are the new superheroes in documentary ‘Fantastic Fungi’”, Los Angeles Times, (24 October 2019).      
  8. Suzanne Simard, “How trees talk to each other”, TED, (31 August 2016).   

Louie Schwartzberg

Films of  Louie Schwartzberg:

“Aguirre, the Wrath of God” - Werner Herzog (1972)

Werner Herzog, one of the most versatile and creative film directors, has had a remarkably successful career spanning across a number of genres over more than fifty years.  However, I would say one of his greatest works came relatively early on in his career, with his third fiction feature film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes, 1972).  This is a historical drama set in 16th century Peru and concerns the activities of some Spanish conquistadors in search of the legendary city of gold, El Dorado [1].  But the film’s subject matter stretches far beyond its overt topic of Spanish conquistadors in South America and extends off into vistas relating to Herzog’s characteristically gloomy view of human existence as a whole.  

You might think that such a film focussed on a pessimistic view of humanity would not attain widespread popularity, but Herzog’s unique cinematic vision led to the fashioning of one of the all-time great films.  Upon its release, ,Aguirre, the Wrath of God quickly acquired cult status, and it is said to have directly influenced subsequent important works, such as Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) and Terrence Malick's The New World (2005).  And over the years, the critical appreciation of the film has only grown [2,3,4,5,6,7].

Actually, the making of Aguirre, the Wrath of God has acquired a somewhat legendary status in its own right [5,6,7].  Herzog took a small film crew to shoot on location in Peru.  But the harsh, life-threatening shooting conditions in the Amazon rainforest and Herzog’s customary extemporaneous shooting style (he often made things up as he went along, which meant that the film had to be shot in narrative sequence) made things almost impossible for the frazzled crew.  In addition, there was the further matter of working with hot-headed lead actor Klaus Kinski, who was characteristically stubborn and maniacally volatile.  Nevertheless, Herzog somehow got a brilliant performance out of Kinski, and in fact this film was the first of five Herzog-Kinski collaborations.  (How Herzog managed to work with the temperamental Kinski over the years is covered in some detail in Herzog’s later documentary film My Best Fiend (1999)).  

Despite these trying and dangerous production conditions, however, the resulting film that Herzog and his team produced was masterful all across the board.  The acting from a diverse collection of actors was excellent, and the cinematography was superb.  Indeed the cinematography fashioned by Herzog and cinematographer Thomas Mauch plays a key thematic role in the film.  Equipped only with a 35mm camera Herzog had stolen from the Munich Film School, they managed to convey the dense imagery of the Amazon rainforest as a symbol of the oppressive and entangling nature of man’s unfeeling natural environment.  Thus Nature, itself, was rendered to be a cruel player/antagonist in this story.  Moreover, because of Herzog’s extemporaneous filming style, skilled post-production work in the editing room on the part of Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus was undoubtedly crucial to the film’s smooth narrative flow.

The story of Aguirre, the Wrath of God is based on a real historical figure, Spanish conquistador Lope de Aguirre (1510-1561), who was active in Spanish colonialist activities in South America during the 16th century.  However, Herzog massaged various facts and events from that era to come up with his own, more streamlined storyline that has many fictional elements.  In particular in Herzog’s version, several separate historical sequences of events have been combined into a single expedition.  So in this (Herzog’s) story, Aguirre is part of an expedition undertaken by Hernando Pizarro, (one of the famous conquistador Pizarro brothers), who,  after the conquest of the Inca empire, led an expedition of several hundred Spanish soldiers over the Andes mountains in order to go down the Amazon river in search of the fabled city of El Dorado.  But, as I mentioned, Herzog’s refashioned story is not so much one concerned with historical accuracy as it is one constructed instead to evoke Herzog’s grim vision.  In fact the expedition depicted here in Aguirre, the Wrath of God can be considered to be Herzog’s vivid nightmare of a willful descent into Hell.

The narrative of Aguirre, the Wrath of God can be viewed as made up of three unequally lengthed sections.  

1.  Descent into the Maelstrom
In 1560 Gonzalo Pizarro (played by Alejandro Repullés) leads several hundred armored Spanish conquistadors and a similar number of Indigenous slaves down a steep mountain path in the Andes towards the Amazon River.  They have heard that somewhere along that river is their hoped-for destination, the legendary city of El Dorado.  The heavily forested path is so steep and narrow that it seems almost impossible for them to make the journey, themselves, not to  mention transport their cannons and provisions, too.  How Herzog and Thomas Mauch managed to film this harrowing sequence must have been a story in itself.  As the single-file descent, which includes equipment accidents and injuries, proceeds, it almost looks as if Mother Nature is enshrouding her new captives in green leafy burial garments.  

When they reach the river, Pizarro, assessing that their slow progress has left them very low on provisions, decides to have a group of forty men take four constructed rafts and go on an advanced scouting mission down the river.  If they don’t return within a week, they will be presumed lost, and the rest of the party will travel back up over the mountains to their main fortress.  For this scouting mission, Pizarro selects Pedro de Ursúa (Ruy Guerra) as the commander and Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) as second-in-command.   Also assigned are Fernando de Guzmán (Peter Berling) as a royalty representative and Brother Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro) to bring religion to the natives.  And accompanying them, surprisingly, will be Ursúa's fiancé, Doña Inés (Helena Rojo) and Aguirre's 15-year-old  daughter, Flores (Cecilia Rivera).

2.  The Ursúa-led Mission
The scouting mission sets off, but one of the four rafts gets stuck in an eddy and is unable to get free.  The others of the group stop and make camp, but they are unable to help their comrades trapped in the whirling eddy.  Then overnight the men on this trapped raft are mysteriously shot and killed. Ursúa wants the dead bodies to be brought back to camp for proper burial, but Aguirre, not wanting to be delayed, conspires to have the raft and bodies destroyed by cannon fire.  Up to now Aguirre’s presence has been relatively minor, but from hereon we see his malevolence coming to the fore.

During the night, the river rises and sweeps away the remaining rafts.  Ursúa has now had enough and orders the end of the scouting mission and that they should all return to Pizarro's group.  But the greedy Aguirre doesn’t accept this and leads a mutiny against Ursúa.  Aguirre gains support among the men for his mutiny by pointing out that Cortes conquered Mexico and achieved wealth and power by staging a mutiny.  When Ursúa tries to thwart the mutiny, he is shot, but not fatally, and Aguirre takes over as the leader.  Inés proceeds to care for the seriously wounded Ursúa.  When she appeals to Brother Carvajal to intercede against Aguirre’s rebellious takeover, he cynically informs her that the Church has always backed the strong.

3.   Aguirre Takes Over
Aguirre has the soldiers elect the indolent Fernando de Guzmán (because the man is a royal ornament) as the new leader of the expedition, and then goes even further and has Guzmán identified as the new imperial emperor.  But of course the swaggering Aguirre is the real man in charge.  In fact the very way that Aguirre swaggers and struts, as performed by Kinski, seems to be an  instrument of control in itself.

Aguirre orders a new, larger raft to be built, and his deranged descent into Hell continues.  With precious food supplies running out as they drift downstream, greed, jealousy, and eventually madness begin to take over.  When their raft is approached peacefully by an inquiring Indigenous couple in a canoe, Brother Carvajal has the visitors killed for allegedly insulting God.  The sight of the portly Guzmán gorging himself on their scant food supplies leads to some of the men to secretly kill their new “emperor”.  To the real man in control, Aguirre, this hardly matters.  He simply declares himself to be the new emperor, and he orders Ursúa, whose life up to this point  had been preserved by Guzmán, taken ashore and hanged.  

But the isolation of he group continues, and their attempts to engage with the Indigenous people gets nowhere.  Apart from that one friendly but ill-fated approach by the native couple in a canoe, these people are basically invisible to the invading conquistadors.  But their presence is felt by occasional salvos of lethal arrows that are frequently directed at them from behind bushes and trees.  Gradually, Aguirre’s people are getting picked off one-by-one by an invisible mortal force.

And as crazed desperation sets in, the starving men begin to wonder what is a hallucination and what is real.  Are these silent deadly arrows appearing suddenly from out of nowhere real, or are they imaginary?  At one point they all stare in amazement at a large wooden ship perched in the highest branches of a tall tree.  (To many viewers, this weird image will seem to be an eery foreshadowing of the later Herzog-Kinski movie Fitzcarraldo (1982)).

Eventually everyone besides Aguirre on the slowly drifting raft is dead, even Aguirre’s teenage daughter, Flores, towards whom he had incestuous urges and whom he wanted to make his queen.  The movie ends with the crazed figure Aguirre continuing to rant and rave his mad dreams of power, with the only ones available to hear being a band of monkeys who have boarded the raft.


These closing images of self-destructive greed and madness are so powerful that they linger in the minds of many viewers long after seeing the film.  In fact it is the visual images, rather than dialogues, that are the cinematic keys to Herzog’s greatness.  As mentioned, Herzog tends to make up the spoken words on the fly during the shooting of his films.  The focus of his narrative imagination is the stream of visuals that he has in his mind.  Even principal actor Klaus Kinski, in the role of Aguirre, doesn’t have that many lines to speak in the film.  The key to Kinski’s performance is his physical posturing throughout the film.  Kinski is constantly shown leaning at an angle, but not usually holding onto anything for support.  This leaning posture is suggestive of someone engaged in momentary pondering just prior to some firm, impending negative action.  Thus Aguirre’s visual imagery suggests a man always on the verge of something emphatically contrary.  And that threatening imagery is what we remember about him.

So what is Herzog’s message in Aguirre, the Wrath of God?  I would say it is based on two relatively somber themes that have long underlain his work:
  • His concern that so much of European (i.e. Western) civilization has been based on greed and selfish utilitarianism.  This egoistic focus has fuelled exploitative Western imperialism and colonialism across the globe and continues to this day.  It was this that drove Aguirre’s desire to go to any lengths to find and plunder the legendary city of El Dorado.
     
  • His glum recognition that the natural world, i.e. “Nature”, is devoid of the human values of beauty and harmony that we sometimes attribute to it.
In support of my assertions here, I offer the following quotations from some of my reviews of other Herzog films.
  • From Lessons of Darkness (1992) [8]:
     
    “The demonic forces that lurk inside the hearts of men seem to be beyond civilized understanding or rational control.  These issues of cruelty and madness are as elemental as fire, itself . . .“
     
  • From Heart of Glass (1976) [9]:
       
    Man’s efforts to understand the universe and build a humane civilization are doomed to failure in the face of his own depravity and the incomprehensibly vastness of great Nature. The universe is infinite and brutal, unmindful and unaffected by our puny efforts to find truth and beauty. Our so-called civilisation has tried to tame nature, but it is based on reductionist mechanism and increasingly drives us further away from any chance of harmony within it. “
     
  • And from Herzog, himself, (from my review of Into the Inferno (2016) [10]):

    “I don’t see [the jungle] so much erotic. I see it more full of obscenity. It’s just – Nature here is vile and base. I wouldn’t see anything erotical here. I would see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away. Of course, there’s a lot of misery. But it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing. They just screech in pain.” [11]
       
    and
     
    “There is a harmony [in nature] . . . it is a harmony of overwhelming and collective murder.” [12]
So I would say that Herzog’s two rather pessimistic notions have been present throughout his work.  And in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, both of these sentiments are on full display and symbolically facing each other – Aguirre, the self-centered and exploitative European, is fighting a losing battle with an even more unfeeling and exploitative force: Nature, itself.  Indeed these two notions have probably been no more vividly and aesthetically expressed than here in Aguirre, the Wrath of God.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. “El Dorado”, Wikipedia, (27 August 2021).  
  2. Peter Bradshaw, “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”, The Guardian, (17 August 2001).   
  3. Peter Bradshaw, “Aguirre, the Wrath of God - review”, The Guardian, (6 June 2013).    
  4. Fernando F. Croce, “Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Werner Herzog / West Germany, 1972): (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes)”, Cinepassion.org, (n.d.).   
  5. Jeffrey M. Anderson, “Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Herzog's Mad Journey”, Combustible Celluloid, (1999?).   
  6. Bruce Bennett, “An Infamous Mutiny, A Descent Into Madness”, The New York Sun, (20 October 2006).   
  7. Roger Ebert, “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”, RogerEbert.com, (4 April 1999)..   
  8. The Film Sufi, “‘Lessons of Darkness’ - Werner Herzog (1992)”, The Film Sufi, (30 May 2010).   
  9. The Film Sufi, “‘Heart of Glass’ - Werner Herzog (1976)”, The Film Sufi, (6 September 2008).   
  10. The Film Sufi, “‘Into the Inferno’ - Werner Herzog (2016)”, The Film Sufi, (11 November 2019).   
  11. Werner Herzog, “24 Wonderfully Bonkers Werner Herzog Quotes”, (Compiled by Nico Lang), Thought Catalog, (24 April 2013).   
  12. from Les Blank’s film, Burden of Dreams (1982), which is about the shooting of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982).

“Black Orpheus” - Marcel Camus (1959)

Black Orpheus (Orfeu Negro, 1959) is a wondrous film with a rich range of thematic features – romance, tragedy, music, dancing, life in Brazilian pardo favelas (poor, mixed-race neighbourhoods), and the evocation of a Greek mythological legend.  Each of these layers of Black Orpheus adds further richness to what is ultimately a spectacle of sensuality and passion. And it is for this reason that Black Orpheus seems to be relatively beyond routine comparison with other films.  

The film was directed and co-scripted (with Jacques Viot) by Frenchman Marcel Camus, but it was shot in Brazil with an almost exclusively Brazilian cast of nonprofessional actors and released in Brazilian Portuguese.  It was based on Vinicius de Moraes’s Brazilian stage play Orfeu da Conceição (1956), which, itself, was a modernization of the ancient Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice.

In that legend, Orpheus, the son of the god Apollo and an irresistible lyre player, falls madly in love with and marries the beautiful nymph Eurydice.  However, shortly after their marriage, Eurydice is bitten by a poisonous snake (an incarnated symbol of death) and dies.  Orpheus is inconsolable and decides to try and descend to Hades, the underworld, to see his beloved.  With his magical lyre-playing, Orpheus secures permission from the gods to escort Eurydice back to the world of the living, but with one condition: while walking out from the dark underworld, Eurydice must follow behind Orpheus, and he must not look at her before they come out into the light.  In the event, however, Orpheus cannot resist the temptation to turn and look at her, and he loses her forever.

In this modernization of that Greek legend, the setting is Rio de Janeiro during their famous Carnaval festival, which is held just before the Lent period prior to Easter and which features massive displays of singing and dancing.  The Brazilian Carnaval very much forms the colorful backdrop to this story, and the film’s excellent production values reflect and reinforce the festive  mood summoned by this festival.  In particular, both the cinematography by Jean Bourgoin and the film editing by Andrée Feix are very effective in this regard.  But even more special attention should be directed to the music by Luiz Bonfá and Antônio Carlos Jobim.  I especially liked two songs composed by Luiz Bonfá,  "Manhã de Carnaval" [1] and  "Samba de Orfeu", that were so good that their presence could even have been accentuated in the film.  They still ring in my memory.

The story of Black Orpheus has three main sections to it.

1.  Orpheus and Eurydice meet
In the beginning of the film, Eurydice (played by Marpessa Dawn) arrives in Rio de Janeiro looking for the home of her cousin Serafina (Léa Garcia).  She takes the trolley north to the end of the line, where the tram driver Orfeu (“Orpheus”, Breno Mello) notices his tram’s lone occupant and introduces her to station master Hermes (Alexandro Constantino), who gives her directions to Serafina’s home area up in a favela in the surrounding hills.  

After she departs, Orfeu is then shown with his possessive fiancé, Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira).  Mira is glamorous but very jealous about any women with whom Orfeu associates, especially since Orfeu can be clearly seen to be something of a playboy.  Then Orfeu goes back alone to his own hut that is in the same favela and next door to where Serafina happens to live.  There he is greeted by two neighbour boys, Benedito (Jorge Dos Santos) and Zeca (Aurino Cassiano), who love Orfeu’s guitar playing and who believe Orfeu's story that his entrancing                 guitar music makes the sun rise every morning.  Orfeu then plays and sings for them the beautiful song “Manhã de Carnaval”.

Meanwhile Eurydice has found Serafina’s hut and has been explaining to why she has come to Rio.  It is not for the Carnaval, but to escape and hide from a mysterious stalker who she thinks is trying to kill her.  Afterwards, both Eurydice and Orfeu are delighted to discover that they are next door neighbors.

2.  Carnaval Dancing 
It turns out that Orfeu, Mira, and Serafina are all skilled samba dancers and will have prominent roles in the Carnaval street dancing coming up.  Eurydice is a good dancer, too.  At a rehearsal coordinated by Orfeu, the many participants all dance madly to the rhythmic music, and this is beautifully shown by the coordinated cinematography of so many dancing feet, including one breathtaking shot lasting 50 seconds.  However, during these festivities Eurydice’s silent pursuer, dressed in a skeleton costume, shows up and threatens Eurydice.  Orfeu comes and chases away this stranger (Adhemar da Silva), whom we shall call “Death”, and Orfeu protectively allows her to stay at his place for the night.  In the process, Orfeu and Eurydice fall in love.

Later at the Carnaval festivities, Serafina gives her own dance costume and mask to Eurydice so that the girl can dance with Orfeu without Mira knowing.  But Mira manages to discover this chicanery and rips off Eurydice’s mask and attacks her.  Eurydice runs away both from the uncontrollably vengeful Mira and also Death, who had been looking for her.  Eventually Eurydice, hoping to find refuge with Hermes, makes it to the now dark and deserted end-of-the-line tram station, with Death in hot pursuit.  Orfeu has been following the two of them, and when he shows up, he tries to find the hiding Eurydice by going to the switchboard and throwing on the master power switch.  But Eurydice has been holding onto a live wire, and she is instantly electrocuted.  Death then confronts Orfeu and tells him, "she's mine now," before knocking him out cold.

3.  Looking for Eurydice 
When Orfeu comes to, he is informed that Eurydice is dead, but he can’t accept it.  He rushes off to the hospital and then to the Bureau of Missing Persons, but to  no avail.  A sympathetic janitor at the latter office takes Orfeu to his Macumba cult religion ritual, where a symbolic, song-filled rite is conducted.  During the ritual, Orfeu is urged to sing out, and when he does so, he hears from behind him Eurydice’s voice clearly calling to him.  She warns him not to turn around or he will lose her forever.  But unable to suppress his desire to see his beloved, Orfeu turns anyway and looks to see the voice calling him is coming from an old woman sitting behind him.  Eurydice is gone.

Still grieving, Orfeu goes to the city morgue and retrieves Eurydice's body, which he carries away in his arms back toward his home in the cliff-lined hills.  When he nears his home, he sees that it has been set on fire, and an enraged Mira is running toward him.  A rock she throws at him strikes him in the head and knocks him over the cliff to his death.  Although Mira was Orfeu’s legitimate fiancé, by this point she had become the film’s symbol of vengeance and oppression.

In the final scene the next morning, Benedito retrieves Orfeu’s guitar and urges Zeca to play it like Orfeu in order to make the sun rise.  Zeca plays, and the sun rises as the children dance around joyfully.

These closing images reinforce the theme that reverberates all through the film – that the ephemeral raptures of love and life are best experienced by immersing ourselves in the songs and dances that embody those joys. These songs and dances give us the opportunity to rapturously express ourselves in ways that words can never accommodate.  This is what the revelrous dancing of Carnaval is intended to evoke.  So the delirious dancing sequences shown in Black Orpheus are not only bewitching; they are also an intrinsic part of its story in visual and musical form.  

However, despite the many thematic dimensions of Black Orpheus, there have been some critics who have wanted the film to take on additional, more socially oriented, aspects.  These have included 
  • The nature and ongoing causes of poverty of favelas in Rio de Janeiro
  • The extent of racial discrimination in Rio de Janeiro and in Brazil overall
  • The lasting effects of European colonization and exploitation on Brazilian life
  • The degree to which there is exact adherence to the original Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (concerning which there are in fact several different versions [2]).
The more vehement of the film’s naysayers went further and complained about the film’s “simplified and sanitized portrayal of happy-go-lucky dark-skinned people just dancing and making merry, oblivious to the systemic corruption and injustice that keeps them living in squalid run-down shacks” [3].  But I don’t go along with such judgements.

While all of the above issues may be of interest in the appropriate context, it is not necessary that every film that is set in a Rio favela or touches on a Greek myth must specifically address those issues.  Black Orpheus can stand on its own merits.  And in my view, those merits are clearly evident for all to see.  Moreover, the overwhelming majority of critics and viewers over the years have felt the same way (e.g. [4,5,6,7,8 ]).  More formally and industry-wide, Black Orpheus was awarded the Palme d'Or at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, the 1960 U. S. Academy Award (Oscar) for Best Foreign Language Film, and the 1960 Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Film.

So I recommend you just enjoy the film’s samba-driven narrative that is driven by the vivid rhythmic theatrics of its four iconic figures – Orfeu, Eurydice, Mira, and Death.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. “Manhã de Carnaval”, Wikipedia, (14 July 2021).   
  2. “Orpheus and Eurydice”, Wikipedia, (30 July 2021).   
  3. David Blakeslee, “Black Orpheus (1959) - #48", Criterion Reflections, (10 May 2011).   
  4. Bosley Crowther, “Screen: Legend Retold; 'Black Orpheus' Bows at the Plaza”, The New York Times, (22 December 1959). 
  5. David Ehrenstein, “Black Orpheus”, “The Criterion Collection”, (7 June 1999).   
  6. James Bowman, “The Great Illusion of Carnaval”, The New York Sun, (24 February 2006).   
  7. Michael Atkinson, “Black Orpheus: Dancing in the Streets”, The Criterion Collection, (18 August 2010).   
  8. Glenn Heath Jr., “DVD Review: Marcel Camus’s Black Orpheus on the Criterion Collection”, Slant Magazine, (18 August 2010).  

Marcel Camus

 Films of Marcel Camus:

“Eat Drink Man Woman” - Ang Lee (1994)

Taiwan-born Ang Lee (pinyin: Li An) has been a highly successful film director whose versatility over the years has been demonstrated with productions undertaken across several different continents and with themes spanning multiple different genres and social contexts – for example: The Wedding Banquet (1993), Sense and Sensibility (1997), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Brokeback Mountain (2005), Lust, Caution (2007), and Life of Pi (2012).  But I think Lee’s greatest film was one of his earliest, Eat Drink Man Woman (1994).  This is a compelling work that, despite its Taiwanese/Chinese cultural context, is concerned generally with how romantic concerns can interact with family values, and so it can be appreciated by just about everyone [1,2,3,4,5,6].  

The film’s story about a master chef in Taipei and his three grownup daughters was scripted by Ang Lee, James Schamus, and Hui-Ling Wang.  And the film’s overall production values, including the acting, were excellent, but extra special praise should be singled out for the cinematography by Jong Lin and the film editing by Ang Lee and Tim Squyres.  In some respects it is the cinematography and film editing that help elevate this film to a truly high status.

The film opens with a detailed presentation of Lao (“Old”, an honorific in Chinese) Chu preparing an elaborate dinner for his three grownup daughters.  The daughters are unmarried and so live at Chu’s home, but they are often out attending to their own personal affairs.  However, Lao Chu expects, indeed demands, that they all unfailingly attend the Sunday dinner that he prepares for them every week, as a ritual and as a precious instrument for family bonding.  Chu has been a widower for the past sixteen years and has largely raised his three daughters during that time on his own.  And like many parents, he is concerned that his daughters, who are all exposed to modernist influences of contemporary Taiwanese society, will start drifting away.  So for Chu, the weekly Sunday dinner is crucial; but for the three daughters, the dinner is boring and almost a form of torture.

For the rest of the film, the viewer is treated to four parallel and interlaced narratives that trace the mostly separate and interpersonal concerns of Chu and his three daughters.  We soon discover  the following basic information about them.
  • Lao Chu (played by Sihung Lung) is an aging but famous chef in Taipai and is the master chef at a huge and important hotel in Taipei.  In fact it is widely said that Chu is Taipei’s finest chef, and he is generally used to being in command of those around him.  However Chu is now losing what is critical for a chef, his sense of taste.  So he has to rely on his old friend and fellow master chef Lao Wen (Jui Wang) to sample all his food concoctions to make sure they have been seasoned properly.
     
  • Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang), Lao Chu’s oldest daughter, is about 29-years old and works as a high school chemistry teacher.  She is sensitive and reserved and, compared to the other sisters, an upholder of traditional values.  In addition, she has recently become a devout conservative Christian.  Jia-Jen has a close woman friend, Liang Jin-Rong (Sylvia Chang), who was a former school classmate and with whom she often gets together to share concerns, such as Jin-Rong’s drawn-out divorce process.  Jia-Jen’s other friends, worried that she is getting old to find a marriage partner, try to help her in this area, but Jia-Jen shows no interest in dating anybody.  She still hasn’t gotten over a failed love interest when she was in college nine years ago.
     
  • Jia-Chien (Chien-Lien Wu) is the second-oldest daughter and quite different from Jia-Jen.  Unlike her attractive but quiet and modestly dressing older sister, Jia-Chen is glamorous and outgoing.  She is an energetic, rising executive for an airline company, and she is accustomed to expressing her opinions when she feels like it.  She is also the least tolerant of their father’s Sunday dinners and intends to move out of the home as soon as the new apartment she has purchased is ready.  On the romantic front, she is confidant and bold, e.g. she has a purely sexual relationship with a male friend, Raymond (Chit-Man Chan),  that involves no commitments from either party.  She treasures her independence.
     
  • Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang), the youngest sister, is 20-years-old and works at a Wendy’s fast-food restaurant while attending college classes.  She is generally upbeat and usually deferent to her more opinionated older sisters.
So all four members of the Chu family, though different, are relatively well-balanced; and in accordance with family traditions, they are expected to share with each other what is happening in their respective lines when they get together on Sunday for dinner.  But over the course of this film, we see that all four develop romantic relationships concerning which they feel guarded about sharing with each other on Sundays.  And the presented subtlety of those guarded feelings is part of what makes this a great film.  

In this connection there is an early scene in which a Chu family Sunday dinner is interrupted by an emergency at Lao Chu’s posh hotel.  We learn that a big feast for an important gathering at the hotel is in preparation but due to some cooking hitches is evidently headed for disaster.  Lao Chu is summoned to rescue this desperate situation, and in a highly professional way he does indeed save the day – and, in the process, demonstrate his impressive culinary prowess.  Afterwards, Lao Chu and Lao Wen become somewhat inebriated and reflect on what they have learned over the courses of their long lives.  In a reflective moment of gloom, Lao Chu asks his friend,
“Eat drink man woman.  Food sex . . . Is that all there is?”
The rest of the film offers an answer to that question.

As the interlaced narratives of the four Chu family members unfold, the viewer learns about the evolving romantic relationships that develop for them. 
  • Jia-Jen is not looking to date anyone, but she has an accidental encounter with her school’s new volleyball coach, Ming-Dao (Chin-Cheng Lu), and further encounters stir an interest on Ming-Dao’s part,  Ming-Dao is naturally outgoing, and his interest shown is gradually reciprocated by the shy Jia-Jen.
     
  • Jia-Chien finds herself attracted to Li Kai (Winston Chao) a handsome and suave new manager at her airline company.  It looks like they are certain to become lovers, but at the last minute she learns that Li Kai was the man who broke Jia-Jen’s heart nine years ago.  So Jia-Chen has to call things off with Li Kai.  About this time Jia-Chen also learns that Raymond has chosen to break off his relationship with Jia-Chen and get married to another woman.  So now for the time being at least, Jia-Chen is bereft of lovers and “alone”.
     
  • Jia-Ning’s close friend and coworker at Wendy’s, Rachel (Yu Chen), appears to be in the process of dumping her heartbroken boyfriend Guo Lun (Chao-jung Chen), and knowing that Guo Lun will always be waiting for her outside of Wendy’s after work, she asks Jia-Ning to shoo the lovesick boy away.  But Jia-Ning’s sympathetic encounters with Guo Lun soon lead to a mutual attraction between the two.  It turns out later that Rachel was only toying with her boyfriend and didn’t want to lose him, but her turnaround is too late.
     
  • Lao Chu does not appear to be looking for any romantic liaisons, but his three daughters worry that he must do so or he will wind up lonely once the daughters eventually all leave home and attend to their private lives.  Lao Chu’s isolation is only worsened when his longtime friend and confidante, Lao Wen, suddenly dies of a heart attack.  But when the daughters learn that their friend Liang Jin-Rong’s widowed mother, Madame Liang (Ah-Lei Gua), has just returned to Taipei from overseas and is now sometimes socializing with Lao Chu, they optimistically assume that, even though the woman appears to be pushy and overbearing, she would be a suitable marriage partner for their father.  However, Lao Chu devotes most of his attention to affectionately spoiling Liang Jin-Rong’s young six-year-old daughter, Shan-Shan (Yu-Chien Tang), by secretly making the girl tasty lunches to take to school every day.  For Shan-Shan, Lao Chu is like a substitute daddy.
Finally, mostly at Sunday dinner confessions, the viewer learns how these relationships have turned out.  Jia-Ning announces that she is leaving home to marry her secret lover, Guo Lun, by whom she is already pregnant.  Jia-Jen marries Ming-Dao and even gets him to convert to Christianity.  

But most shocking of all is what happens with Lao Chu.  At a family dinner to which the Liang family (Madame Liang, Liang Jin-Rong, and Shan-Shan) have been invited, Lao Chu makes a marriage proposal not to the one everyone expects – Madame Liang, but to Jin-Rong, with whom Lao Chu has been having a secret affair.  This explains why Lao Chu has been showering Shan-Shan with paternal affection for awhile.  And it also means that the daughters will not be abandoning their father to loneliness.

So romantic love appears to have conquered all, and, in particular, to have overshadowed traditional family mores.  Is that the film’s final message?  Not entirely [6].  Jia-Chen, the most glamorous and attractive of the three sisters, was always the one who was least affected by traditional values.  She always found her father and his Sunday dinners insufferable, and she was the first daughter to announce her plans to move out of the family home.  But by the end of the film, she has changed.  She abandons her affair with Li Kai out of concerns for her older sister’s feelings.  And she declines a promotion from her airline company to be an overseas vice president, because she wants to stay closer to her family.  In the final scene she is shown cooking a meal for her father at the old home and showing hitherto unseen warmth for him.  So traditional family values now apparently have meaning for her.
 
Consequently we can say that what we have here is not just a battle between Modernism and Tradition or between East and West.  Overall, what makes this a great film is the display of subtle and complex interacting feelings presented by the main character actors.  My favorite performance was that of Kuei-Mei Yang as Jia-Jen, but they are all compelling, and you may have another favorite.

Also outstanding is the cinematography.  There are many emotive closeups that help convey the feelings in this story.  I would also like to call your attention to three extended tracking shots that I thought were very effective.  One is a two-minute shot showing an early conversation between Jia-Ning and Guo Lun.  A second is s 90-second shot of a conversation between Jia-Jen and Liang Jin Rong.  And a third sequence that lingers in my memory is a two-minute shot of Jia-Jen and Li Kai conversing while walking through a store.

So getting back to Lao Chu’s question that he asked early on in the film,
“Eat drink man woman.  Food sex . . . Is that all there is?”
We can say that the film’s response is,
“No, there is much more.  And it all comes from love in all its various guises and modes.”  
Love can be manifest in both traditional and modern circumstances.  The key thing is that, no  matter what the situation, love represents the most sincere and authentic aspects of who we are.  And this is what Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman puts on display for us.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. Hal Hinson, "‘Eat Drink Man Woman’", Washington Post (19 August 1994).   
  2. Desson Howe, "‘Eat Drink Man Woman’", Washington Post, (19 October 1994).   
  3. Marjorie Baumgarten, “Eat Drink Man Woman”, Austin Chronicle, (19 August 1994).  
  4. Janet Maslin, “FILM REVIEW; Avoiding Basic Human Desires, or Trying To”, “The New York Times”, (3 August 1994).   
  5. Norman N. Holland, “Ang Lee, ‘Eat Drink Man Woman’ (1994)”, A Sharper Focus, (n.d.).   
  6. David Sorfa, “Eat Drink Man Woman: Summary & Analysis”, Jotted Lines, (23 February 2020).   

“The Spirit of the Beehive” - Víctor Erice (1973)

The Spirit of the Beehive (El Espíritu de la Colmena, 1973) is a Spanish drama with a haunting flavour that sets it apart from almost all other films.  It is a story concerned with imagination, in particular the rich, fertile narrative imaginations that most children are endowed with.  This outstanding film was the inaugural directorial effort of Víctor Erice, who, regrettably, has gone on to direct only one other feature fiction film (El Sur, 1983).  Based on the cinematic skills on display here in The Spirit of the Beehive, Erice deserved to have a long and prolific career in feature filmmaking.  

Other specific aspects of the film’s overall production values are also excellent, with a fascinating original story by Erice and Ángel Fernández Santos, emotive cinematography by Luis Cuadrado, meaningful evocative editing by Pablo González del Amo, and atmospheric music by Luis de Pablo.  In particular, there is a lot of symbolic dynamic imagery, such as the liberating feelings evoked by showing steam trains rapidly moving across the countryside (an image frequently invoked by great filmmakers), that contribute to the film’s poetic canvas.  The result was a film whose reputation has grown steadily over the years [1,2,3,4,5] and is now considered by many to be the greatest Spanish film ever made [2].

The story of The Spirit of the Beehive is set in 1940, just after the end of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), in the small town of Huelos on the Spanish Castilian plateau.  By 1940 the victors in the civil war, the right-wing forces led by Francisco Franco and supported by the German Nazis, having defeated the progressive Republican government, were fully in power.  Franco would remain in power until 1975, so The Spirit of the Beehive was made while Spain was still under the Francoist regime. Although the Spanish Civil War provides a background political and social context for some events in the film, nevertheless, I do not believe that that aspect should be overemphasized.  It is just one element that colours the thinking of the two principal adult characters in the film.  

The events in the film are centred around a family of four who live in a fading manor house in Huelos:
  • Fernando (played by Fernando Fernán Gómez, the only professional actor in the film) is an elderly gentleman apparently in his fifties who is something of a scholar.  He spends much of his time studying and writing about bees, and he has his own apiary for this purpose.
     
  • Teresa (Teresa Gimpera) is Fernando’s much younger (thirtyish) and very attractive wife.  She spends much of her ample free time (they have a full-time maid) longing for and writing love letters to her absent paramour, who was a Republican soldier and now may be a refugee.
     
  • Ana (Ana Torrent) is Fernando’s and Teresa’s shy and impressionable six-year-old daughter.  She is the main character of this story.
     
  • Isabel (Isabel Tellería) is Ana’s older sister by one or two years.  Isabel is a good-natured but naughty girl who relishes playing tricks on her innocent and gullible younger sister, Ana
All four of these characters live to some degree in isolation from others, and so they have concocted dreamworlds to occupy their imaginations.  
  • Fernando is obsessed with speculations about his bee colony and how the constant agitation on the part of the worker bees seems to be ultimately pointless.  He can artificially stimulate these bees to be even more agitated without their apparently being aware of it.  And he sees this as a metaphor for the purposelessness of all life, including human existence.
     
  • Teresa lives in her own dreamworld of lost love.  She is not intimate with her husband, Fernando, and prefers her dreamworld to the real world in front of her.
     
  • Isabel concocts dreamworlds of silly games she likes to play with her schoolmates and false stories she tells to Ana.
     
  • Ana’s dreamworld, which is the main focus of the film, is, as I will discuss further, different from the others, because she doesn’t see it as a dreamworld.  She sees it as an opportunity to have authentic, meaningful engagement with another person who seeks her company and could enrich her life.
The Spirit of the Beehive narrative passes roughly through three main phases.

1.  The Family’s Dreamworlds
In 1940 a travelling cinema projection team has come to Huelos to setup their projector in the town hall and show the film Frankenstein (1931) to the locals.  All the kids, including Isabel and Ana, are excited about seeing the film and flock to the makeshift projection theater.  Meanwhile Fernando is shown immersed in attending to his bee colony.  And his wife, Teresa, is shown at home writing a forlorn love letter to her distant lover, whose current circumstances are unclear.

While watching Frankenstein, Ana becomes particularly fascinated with a scene in which Frankenstein’s Monster befriends a young girl of about Ana’s age and winds up accidentally drowning her.  Later that night when Ana and Isabel are in their bedroom, Ana wants her sister to explain to her why the Monster killed the young girl and why the villagers then killed the Monster.  Isabel, who delights in fooling her gullible younger sister, tells her that the Monster was not killed and in fact she has seen him living in an abandoned farmhouse nearby.  She also tells Ana that the monster is really a spirit and cannot be killed.  She adds that the Monster only comes out at night, but if you’re his friend, you can talk to him anytime – just say “It’s me, Ana”.

Ana fully buys into Isabel’s story and becomes obsessed with finding this spirit so that she can become its friend.  Clearly the innocent Ana has been bewitched by the tender scene between the girl and the Monster she saw in the movie, and she wants to find the spirit and become its friend.

2.  Ana and Isabel
In the next phase we see more of the contrast between Ana and Isabel.  While Ana is innocent and shy, Isabel is devilishly provocative.  And the film artfully shows their distinctive natures by means of natural behaviours.  In particular, Ana’s inherent wonder at the world around her is sensitively displayed by means of her earnest gaze.  

One especially important issue for kids, which they think about all the time, is the subject of death.  Adults, including Fernando and Teresa in this film, assume that death is a matter that is too complex and profound for kids to think about, but they are wrong.  Kids are at least as perplexed and disturbed by death as adults are, and I can remember when I was about Ana’s age often thinking and worrying about death and what it meant.  Certainly Ana and Isabel are not exceptions, and, of course, seeing the movie Frankenstein only fanned the flames of their fascination.

To further expand on her monster story that she told Ana, Isabel takes her sister to the abandoned farmhouse that she mentioned in order to look for the Monster.  Of course, they don’t find anything, but Ana is convinced that the Monster/Spirit must be there at night.  So she later several times sneaks out of her house at night to visit the farmhouse and see if she can find the Monster.   

There are other death-oriented scenes in this section, too.  One shows Fernando taking his daughters out in the forest to warn them about the deadly effects of eating a toadstool.  The thought that such an innocent-looking little plant could have such lethal consequences has a disturbing effect on the quiet Ana.  

In another scene, Isabel is shown experimentally choking the family’s pet cat almost to death in order to explore her fantasies of killing a companion.  Most disturbing of all is a scene in which Isabel convincingly pretends to be dead in front of Ana.  Ana’s attempts to revive her sister are of no avail, and she becomes greatly disturbed.

So for Isabel, life is a set of games.  But for Ana, life is a mystery.

3.  The Monster/Spirit Appears
Later we see a Spanish Republican activist on the run from the Francoist authorities.  He leaps from a speeding freight train, injures his ankle, and manages to limp his way to the abandoned farmhouse, where he seeks temporary refuge out of sight.  That night Ana makes one of her middle-of-the-night inspections of the abandoned farmhouse and encounters the Republican activist, who she takes to be the embodiment of the Monster/Spirit she is seeking.  Ana quickly tries to help her new spirit friend, as she tends to his injured ankle and brings him some food and her father’s coat.  

But when Ana is away, the Francoist police come to the farmhouse and machine-gun the Republican activist to death.  Since the police found Fernando’s coat and pocket watch with the activist when they killed him, they place Fernando under suspicion.  And Fernando, in turn, suspects Ana stole his coat.  

The next time Ana goes to the farmhouse looking for her special spirit friend, she is dismayed to find only bloodstains.  When her suspicious father tracks her there and calls her to come to him, the horrified girl runs away into the fields and disappears from view.

A massive village search operation ensues that engages in looking for Ana through the night, and she is finally found the next day, barely conscious.  Although Ana was physically unharmed, she is now uncommunicative, or so it seems.  Her only attempts at communication now are when she is alone at night and goes to the window and calls out, “it’s me, Ana”.  

So Ana, like her mother and father, ends up isolated and living in a dreamworld.  But their dreamworlds are all different.  Fernando’s dreamworld is one of lonely scientific investigation in order to unlock the objective truths of uncaring nature.  He is despondent over his own pessimistic speculations concerning the absurdity of existence.  Teresa’s lonely dreamworld is one of hopeless and forlorn love for a lover who may no longer even exist.  Ana’s dreamworld, however, is more mystical and more selfless.  She is seeking to reach out and engage with a magical, spiritual other, whose interactive possibilities seem to be thrilling and boundless.  

In fact if we stop to think about it, most of us are, at least unconsciously, in similar shoes.  When we seek God, we are hoping to find profound engagement with a supreme spiritual agency – a dynamic agent-to-agent interaction, not just arrive at some state of lifeless static perfection.  We intuitively feel that life inherently involves interactive dynamism, not stasis, and, like Ana, we are looking for the blissful possibilities of potential interactions that may be out there.  

The Spirit of the Beehive beautifully explores this space in perhaps the only way possible – through the eyes of a sensitive, innocent child.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. Nicolas Rapold, “The Depth of a Child's Gaze”, The New York Sun, (27  January 2006).   
  2. Paul Julian Smith, “The Spirit of the Beehive: Spanish Lessons”, The Criterion Collection, (18 September 2006).  
  3. Bill Gibron, “Past Perfect: Criterion Classics – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)”, PopMatters, (28 November 2006).   
  4. Roger Ebert, "Everything in the movies is fake", Great Movies, RogerEbert.com, (20 November 2012).   
  5. Acquarello, “The Spirit of the Beehive (El espíritu de la colmena), 1973", Strictly Film School, (24 December 2017; 8 January 2018).    

Víctor Erice

Films of Víctor Erice:

“Wheel of Time” - Werner Herzog (2003)

Werner Herzog, one of the greatest filmmakers, is one of my favorites.  Over the course of his prolific career covering the direction of some twenty dramatic feature films and more than thirty documentary features, he has invariably cast his unique vision across a wide range of subject matter, much of it with an existentialist philosophy tinge.  Thus he often travels to remote locations to observe how people deal with the extreme conditions there.  This is what I find particularly fascinating about Herzog: he is a philosopher with a movie camera.  The Herzog film I will be discussing here, Wheel of Time (2003), which he wrote, directed, and narrated, is very explicitly aimed in this philosophical direction, because it is concerned with the passions and rituals of Buddhist monks.  The film featured cinematography by Peter Zeitlinger and film editing by Joe Bini, and as usual with Herzog films, one gets the feeling that a good part of the film’s story was composed in the editing room.  And also as usual with Herzog films, it was well-received by a range of critics [1,2,3,4,5].

The specific subject matter of the film concerns the elaborate Kalachakra Initiation ceremony for Tibetan Buddhists (note that ‘Kalachakra’ is a term in Vajrayana Buddhism that means "wheel of time") that is held every two or three years at a place chosen each time by the Dalai Lama.  This event typically attracts some 500,000 Tibetan initiates and pilgrims from all over Asia who wish to participate in the elaborate rituals over the course of ten days and ten nights.  On this occasion, in January 2002, the chosen place for the Kalachakra ceremonies is very special – Bodh Gaya in Bihar, India.  It was here some 2,500 years ago that Siddhartha Gautama spent seven weeks meditating under the Bodhi Tree (a sacred fig tree there) and reached enlightenment, thereby achieving the status of the Buddha.  Bodh Gaya is also the site of the associated Mahabodhi Temple.

The film begins with some physical shots of the Bodh Gaya area, and then it shows the many pilgrims arriving for the Kalachakra events.  Some of these pilgrims are so devout that they make their jouney to the Kalachakra event entirely on foot, and after every step or so they fully prostrate themselves in obeisance.  Herzog shows some of them reverentially following this practice over all sorts rough terrain, and the whole journey to their holy destination can take many months, even years.  These pilgrims are mostly poor people, but some of them at least bring pup tents in which they can sleep in the temple yards overnight.  The rest of them must just sleep outside in the open.  

The principal activities of the Kalachakra activities fall into three main categories:
  • Buddhist teachings and prayers conducted by lamas and monks,
     
  • The construction and display of the great Kalachakra Mandala, an elaborate symbolic design made out of colored sand that is an important artefact of Tibetan Buddhism [6,7], 
     
  • The closing initiation ceremonies for the aspirant Tibetan Buddhist monks.
Of these activities, a considerable amount of Wheel of Time screen time is devoted to showing the detailed construction of the Kalachakra Mandala.  This is made of loose, colored sand, the tiny individual granules of which must be so carefully placed  that they collectively form an incredibly intricate design.  This takes a number of sand artists manydays to complete. Once completed, the Kalachakra Mandala is seven feet in diameter and displays visual references to 722 deities.  Since the mandala is made only of loose sand, it must be protected from the approach of onlookers and even casual breezes which could disturb it, so it is walled off by a glass partitioning surrounding it.  

But after the mandala’s construction and display to the monks and pilgrims at the end of the usual Kalachakra ceremonies, all the sand of the entire mandala is collected and ritualistically thrown into the river, thereby symbolizing the utter ephemerality of existence.  
 
Just before the halfway point in the film, Herzog takes time out to go off on his own with his own camera and visit another sacred Buddhist site, Mount Kailash in western Tibet.  Thousands of pilgrims come to this 22,000 foot mountain at a specific time every year  (Herzog came in May 2002) to carry out a high-altitude circumnavigation of the peak, which they believe will bring them holy salvation.  The 52 km trek around the peak that the pilgrims take is at an altitude of 18,000 feet, and sadly every year, some pilgrims who are not appropriately acclimatized to these heights die from exhaustion.

At other points in the film we see brief clips of the Dalai Lama speaking in closeup on a few topics.  He is always relaxed and reasonable, and one his more interesting remarks was his comment that all religions carry the same message.  It would be good if more people felt that way.  The Dalai Lama is, of course, the star personage of the Kalachakra Initiation ceremonies, but unfortunately his health at this time was not good, and he was unable to carry out his required, full participation in the ceremonies.  This was naturally very disappointing to the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who had come to Bodh Gaya, as well as to the Dalai Lama, himself.  But he promised to all the practitioners that he would come back there to see them all the following year.

The scene now shifts to another ten-day Kalachakra Initiation ceremony that was held later that year – in October 2002 in Graz, Austria.  This time the attendees are mostly European Buddhists, and the number of participants are in the thousands, rather than the hundreds of thousands.  And  now the Dalai Lama is healthy and fully participating.  Also present is famed Buddhist monk and communicator Matthieu Ricard, who often serves as the Dalai Lama’s translator.

One of the highlights of this section of the film is the showing and description of a Tibetan Buddhist monk and pilgrim, Takna Jingme Sangpo, who, partly thanks to international protests, had recently been released from prison in Tibet after being held there under cruel conditions by the Chinese overlords for 37 years.  Sangpo’s only crimes were apparently his public expression on a few occasions that he supported a “Free Tibet”.  Despite his extreme hardships, Sangpo, is now overjoyed that he now, finally has the opportunity to see the Dalai Lama in the flesh for the first time.

At this Kalachakra Initiation event in Graz, another elaborate Kalachakra Mandala is duly constructed out of colored sand and displayed.  And at the end of these ceremonies, a healthy Dalai Lama performs the ritual act of dispersing the collected mandala sand into the Mur river there.  

Overall, Herzog’s Wheel of Time does provide a lot of information about the Kalachakra ceremonies.  But what lingers most in my mind after watching it is something else that he has captured on film.  And that is the extraordinary religious fervor that you can see silently expressed on all the faces of the vast crowds of pilgrims shown.  These dedicated practitioners are not boisterous; they are not broadcasting. Instead, they are wholly devoted to their spiritual path of seeking total purity and enlightenment.  Herzog does not articulate or discuss this issue.  He directly shows it on a thousand faces.
★★★½

Notes:
  1. Walter Addiego, 'Wheel of Time', Film Clips, SFGATE, (22 July 2005).  
  2. Dennis Schwartz, “Wheel of Time”, Dennis Schwartz Movie Reviews, (n.d.).   
  3. Ed Howard, “11/8: Wheel of Time; The Flowers of St. Francis”, Only The Cinema, (8 November 2007).   
  4. Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, “Wheel of Time”, Spirituality & Practice, (2005).   
  5. Stephen Holden, “With Herzog, Inside a World of Devotion”, The New York Times, (15 June 2005).      
  6. “Mandala”, Wikipedia, (15 June 2021).   
  7. “Sand mandala”, Wikipedia, (29 April 2021).