Thursday, August 13, 2015

Landscape as Counter-Cultural Ideology in Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Valhalla Rising

Before there is character in Werner Herzog’s 1972 art-house film Aguirre, The Wrath of God or Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2009 metatextual adventure film Valhalla Rising—despite being eponymously-titled character studies—there is landscape. While this may not appear divergent to cinematic history’s tradition of the establishing shot, the diegetic worlds which precede man in these films act as authorial narrative commentary.

David Bordwell speaks of the subjective nature of the art-house film’s use of landscape saying, “surroundings may be construed as the projections of a character's mind. Simi­larly, the syuzhet may use psychology to justify the manipu­lation of time,” but Herzog and Refn invert these conventions: rather than using character psychology to expressively “shape spatial representation,” the weightiness of the formal representation of landscape in these films paints its characters as pawns to nature’s indifferent and immovable will (Narration in 209). 

Landscape, then, becomes a character through its formal representation. The vulgarity of nature is juxtaposed against the violence of civilized man (in the name of religion) as a philosophical, authoritarian response to the marriage of colonialization and mythology. True to art-house convention, each film ties historical colonialization to a social critique of its respective history of cultures prevailing over other cultures. Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Refn’s Valhalla Rising juxtapose unforgiving landscape against religious colonization as a social indictment against cultural violence and the Western inability for communal mythology.

Though handled as a metaphoric and mythological figure within Herzog’s film, Lope de Aguirre cannot be divided from his historic significance as Spanish evangelical conquistador: the product of an ideology which justified its abuse of the New World in the name of God.

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