Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Major Arcana #16: THE TOWER - Lars Von Trier

This is the seventeenth in a series of blog posts discussing major figures in film and literature, based on the Major Arcana of the Tarot. I'll be using the 21 Major Arcana of the standard Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck. For some more background on the deck's history and its elusive role in popular culture, see this post from HiLowBrow, which is a good primer on the Tarot, and pretty fascinating in its own right.


THE TOWER: Lars Von Trier

As two troubling cards follow one another in the Major Arcana, so two provocateur directors follow each other in my list of associations. If the Fool follows the path laid out by the trumps, he has just experienced the turmoil of self-bondage with the Devil, and now, with the Tower, he hits rock bottom: the structure he has been building for himself is collapsing, and he will have to emerge from the rubble, or be washed away entirely by his trials.

Von Trier and Gaspar Noe both trade in the psychology of anxiety and crisis, but their approach is strikingly different. Gaspar Noe's films feel undeniably like punishment... there is very little in them that feels enlightening, or feels like any sort of opportunity for growth. The send the viewer through the ringer, and then the credits roll, and we take a deep breath and hope a pint of ice cream will salve our wounds. Von Trier, on the other hand, builds his films around crises that are part of a broader journey. They are still often depressing and nihilistic, but they also reveal something redemptive about their main characters, even if they're ultimately broken.

Of all Von Trier's movies, Anti-Christ is probably his most pessimistic -- it feels the most like a product of the Devil, leaving only ruins of its protagonists. The only enlightenment to be had in Anti-Christ is the knowledge that both He and She are reaping the consequences of their own sins. But Trier's more recent film, Melancholia, is more hopeful, even though it's a meditation on depression and despair.

In Melancholia, there is a binary system of support and collapse: first, there is the collapse of Justine's personality, as she sinks into self-destruction and sabotages her own wedding. With her sister's help, she eventually rises from the rubble of her life, reclaiming her composure. As she does this, there is a larger collapse: the collapse of the planet Earth, which is being devoured by a wayward planet, an agent of the end of the world. This is a crisis from whence there can be no recovery; but Justine has already looked into this abyss, and she alone is equipped to face down a future without hope. Through Justine, the small family has an opportunity to find peace, and even dignity, in the shadow of an approaching cataclysm.

Von Trier's emotional machinations are subtle, but they are multi-dimensional. His preoccupation with human behavior in the shadow of crisis goes back to his earlier films, with Breaking the Waves as an especially poignant example. In Breaking the Waves, Bess must face the crisis of her husband's paralysis, occurring just after they have been married. In a misguided attempt to heal him, Bess sacrifices herself through perversity and self-denial. And though the whole edifice of her peaceful life collapses, the film ends on a surreally redemptive note -- a sign that in the ruins of the fallen tower, some people, at least can stand back up.

And where Gaspar Noe's films let darkness consume us, Van Trier's films shake the tower we're cowering in, until the structure starts to topple and lets in the first shafts of light.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Walking Dead: On Rick and the Governor in Arrow on the Doorpost

So The Walking Dead is churning out new episodes, new zombies and little twists and candid conversations and artificially dirty sweaty actors, and there's a lot to talk about with regards to the way it's written and paced. It's a messy show, afflicted by constant inconsistencies and missteps, and in a way, that aspect makes it even more interesting to talk about than a deliberate, immaculate show like Mad Men, or its widely acclaimed AMC brother, Breaking Bad.

After all, we can trust the critics when they tells us what's good, because they tend to all settle into agreement on the strengths of the show. Mad Men is good for its casting and production, its slow and discerning character evolution, its moments of neorealistic honesty, its self-conscious critique of its own nostalgic charm. What's bad about it? Who cares? It's not about those things. But with a show like The Walking Dead, there's this massive subjective tangle of opinions around the show... every merit and flaw is a point of contention. In any particular episode, a scene will hated by an army of fans, at the same time that select others see it as the redeeming point in an episode.

In last week's episode -- Arrow on the Doorpost -- you can go through the important scenes, one by one, and each one will have a significant number of bitter critics, but also a small group of enthusiasts who claim it's the best scene in the episode. Does the confrontation between Rick and the Governor drag on, or does it give subtle shade to their characters? Does the bromance between the henchmen provide a moment of welcome frankness and levity, or is it a crap cliché without any sticking power? Does the final scene give an extra layer of gravity to Rick's moral reasoning, or does it just ruin his credibility in the eyes of the viewer? It seems like the only thing people can all agree on is that they hate The Governor (in a good way), they hate Andrea (in a bad way), and they approve of Michonne and Herschel.

One of the reasons for this endless, widespread controversy on every nuance is that these characters show striking inconsistency, to the point where they seem to be mere plot devices, rather than characters. I mean, I don't entirely put stock in that criticism, as I'll get to... but I can certainly see where it's coming from. There have been long stretches of show, like almost the entirety of Season 2, where there didn't seem to be any guiding motivation or intelligible development for these characters at all. The show lost all its momentum, and at the same time, it lost any sense of intimacy that it might have used to cover its weakness.

In the last episode, Clear, there was a marked (I'd even say "massive") improvement in this tendency. The episode-spanning objective was simple: check out Rick's old hometown, collect guns and ammo. This framework allowed the writers to steer clear of the convoluted "Prison versus Woodbury" mess and focus on a few particular points of tension and backstory, and they used that opportunity to reinforce some important characters: Michonne as a struggling ally -- Carl as a kid still working on growing up and dealing with trust and authority issues -- and Rick walking that line between guarded optimism and pragmatic ruthlessness.

Back to this week, there were a lot of questions about pacing, but all the questions about coherence -- about the realism of the characters' behavior -- seemed to center on one question: why, after all the bad blood, were these men able to sit down and talk in private, albeit tensely and unproductively? Why didn't the Governor, being a demonstrably ruthless tyrant, just shoot Rick? And why didn't Rick, being a ferocious pragmatist who's convinced of the Governor's evilness, just shoot him immediately and stop the war from happening?

The Onion AV Club asks the first form of that question here: "Why the hell doesn't the Governor just kill Rick when he has the chance? He's demonstrated he has no compunction about betraying his enemies' trust when it suits him. I guess he might be worried that Daryl would put up a fight if Rick went down, but I still don't understand his motivation here. But then, that's nothing new."

To me, this question is less baffling than its reverse. The Governor doesn't kill Rick for a couple reasons... first, he doesn't entirely trust his henchmen to keep him safe from Herschel and Daryl, so he doesn't want to light the fuse that leads to his own pointless murder. Second, and more importantly, he's tipped his hand already this episode: he wants Michonne. Killing Rick wouldn't guarantee that he got to kill her, especially in the personal, painful way he wants to do it.

You could also easily argue that The Governor has more faith in his machinations... his ability to play on Rick's humanity... than he does in his own ability to get a fatal shot off. He sincerely thinks he can nail Michonne, and guarantee a clean, dominant defeat of the Prison leaders.

Andy Pants, a commenter on that Onion AV Club write-up, gave a great account of The Governor's character, construing him as a tyrant who thinks himself an absolute realpolitick juggernaut, and perhaps even a benevolent leader. It makes a lot of sense, although in my opinion, you still have to allow that he's a bit emotionally disturbed, as well:

"Since his introduction it's been made clear that the Governor doesn't want anyone knowing about or living anywhere near (and therefore potentially finding out about) Woodbury who aren't willing to submit to his authority. Hence why he killed the military guys (they would have taken over), welcomed in Andrea when it seemed like she'd likely join the town and sent Merle to capture and kill Michonne when she tried to leave. It's also telling that he never revealed any of these activities to the towns civilians. He knows they'll probably be alienated by this strategy of pre-emptive strikes and refusing to tolerate the existence of a potential threat.

His motivations make sense to me. He's egotistical and doesn't want to give up the power the post-apocalypse has brought him and twice as paranoid about outside dangers as Rick. The Governor has always been just a little further down that path than Rick has. I think the Governor has always suspected that even if the Prison Group might not have posed a threat at first, once they became hungry and desperate enough they would attack.
He's not crazy, so much as rational and extremely aggressive. Unlike his comic book counterapart all of his actions make sense when you really think about them. Even the fishtanks filled with zombie heads, as a commenter pointed out last week, were there for a logical reason, so the governor could directly confront and conquer his fear of the Walkers."

This speaks to the character's consistency, and in this light, it makes sense that he is trying to orchestrate a political betrayal that leads to a total defeat of the Prison group, with special consideration given to Michonne, his most dangerous enemy. In comparison to this master plan, Rick's assassination seems like a messy, incremental step.

The question is more valid, I think, when it comes to Rick. Why doesn't Rick use this as an opportunity to end the war and take out a dangerous enemy of his own group? Rick knows The Governor is ruthless... he knows what happened to Maggie and Glenn, he's seen the public fights, and he's endured an assault on his own home territory. Rightly, he's already come to the point where he considers The Governor an enemy of his group, at the very least, if not an absolute existential threat and abomination. I think we would all forgive Rick for killing Phillip, and even for killing the soldiers outside, given the circumstances. In this regard, I'm sure many of us can relate to Merle and Michonne, who kind of just want to go kill the guy and get it over with.

Rick's indecision on this point goes hand in hand with his later moral ambivalence, when he seems to consider The Governor's offer to take Michonne in return for an end to hostilities. Rick seems to have made the right decision – The Governor is not dealing in good faith, and they'd better prepare for a war – but lots of people are troubled by his talk with Hershel, thinking it inconsistent for a guy who's proven both his worth as a leader and his ruthlessness. I think some fans' discomfort with this waffling is linked to their misgivings about the whole development of the show, wherein characters seemed to lack any consistency, and seemed to act irrationally or incongruously simply to further particular contrived plot points.

It's important to note, though, since these episodes have gotten a bit better: the criticism needs to consider context. Rick's behavior (along with the apparently unstable behavior of some other characters) is erratic because that's how your behavior would become if you were stuck in crisis mode. Some other characters – Hershel, for instance – are clearly handling it better, probably because, it Hershel's case, he's older, more tested, and bears less pressure of being an active tactical commander. But Rick is struggling between two competing philosophies – humanity versus stone-cold pragmatism – and he's working with lots of unknown variables.

  • First, he hasn't absolutely settled on Michonne's membership in the group, despite Carl's sanction last episode.
  • Second, he's got lingering doubt about his own reliability, considering a hallucination about his wife recently caused him to make a major political decisions (re: Tyrese's group) entirely by accident. 
  • Third, the moral question that dogs all leaders – is the safety of each individual worth more than the safety of the largest number? – hangs over his head as a dark cloud, probably much more since he's the leader of a group full of family, that's become very close-knit.
These points of inner conflict articulate some of the differences between Rick and The Governor, a contrast that the show is obviously trying very hard to highlight (especially in this episode). The Governor makes decisions impulsively, tactically, erring on the side of ruthlessness so that he expands and upholds his power. If you're on his side, you see him protecting you at all costs; if you array yourself against him, you discover the nihilistic void of a manipulative, uncompromising aggressor. Rick, on the other hand, feels the weight of responsibility... not only to his own group, but to civilians involved on both sides, and even, to a steadily-declining degree, to certain higher moral standards. He creates space around him, giving the world a chance to pass over him and his loved ones, rather than forcing the world into a straightjacket of control.

The twitchy, violent indecision and inconsistency we see among decision-making characters may have seemed like a plot point for quite a while, but now it's settling into a form of workable realism. These characters are bound to seem erratic, when they're living under a 24/7 cloud of stress. The ethics of targeted assassination, the burdens of loyalty to a group: these should be difficult decisions, even now, after all the conflicts and conditioning. These are the uncertainties this episode is exploring, and rather than I weakness, I suddenly find that to be a strength.

So, for that reason, it worked for me. It wasn't as good as last week's, but I think it's by far the best episode in this Woodbury plotline.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Major Arcana #15: THE DEVIL - Gaspar Noe

This is the sixteenth in a series of blog posts discussing major figures in film and literature, based on the Major Arcana of the Tarot. I'll be using the 21 Major Arcana of the standard Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck. For some more background on the deck's history and its elusive role in popular culture, see this post from HiLowBrow, which is a good primer on the Tarot, and pretty fascinating in its own right.


THE DEVIL: Gaspar Noe

In a timely coincidence, Gaspar Noe has recently surfaced after a while under the radar; at the beginning of February, his video for the Animal Collective song Applesauce appeared, in which the inky silhouette of a mouth eats a fruit, lusciously and sensuously, before a background that cycles rhythmically and rapidly between bright primary colors.

This video distills one of Noe's essential characteristics: he is a filmmaker of the senses, and if nothing else, this music video is a pure sensory composition, a synaesthetic torrent of colors, shapes, and allusions to smells and flavors and textures. Working in the limited palette of sound and moving image, Noe wants to evoke, as much as possible, a completely immersive multisensory fugue.

So Gaspar Noe, the Devil of contemporary cinema, emerges from the ether: a creature of self-indulgence and materialism, of the loss of self within the ocean of sensory overload. The Devil represents the triumph of the physical and the primal over the spiritual and the cerebral; he is the collapse of moderation in favor of perpetually indulged but inexhaustible desire. Like Noe, he is the taboo-breaker, the transgressor of successive boundaries, the poet of vice and the stylist of the flesh.

The Devil often represents slavery, either to an outside force or to an inner master, a particular impulse or obsession. This is a running theme for Gaspar Noe's main characters: Marcus, the main character in Irreversible, is a slave to his excesses, first in sex and drugs, and then in bitterness and vengeful wrath. They are not evil, but the circumstances -- the cruelty of a malignant force guiding their fates -- maneuvers them into vicious, amoral actions, perversions of their own natures. As a nameless character says in the first scene in Irreversible: "I guess we're all Mephisto. ... It's no big deal."

If that's not a clear enough announcement of the presence of the Dark Lord, consider, also: in film after film, Noe creates a transparent allegory for the journey to the underworld, which is often juxtaposed with a return to the womb, or to a more primordial state of being. In Irreversible, it's the red passageway beneath the street; in Enter the Void, it's the first jarring trip through the pipes in a building in Tokyo, as Oscar's troubled soul falls out of his ruined body.

This is the journey Gaspar Noe insists on taking us on, through a sensory slipstream of disturbing imagery and reeling camerawork: a journey of torment, punishing, but, at its best, cleansing and cathartic, allowing us to come out the other side purged of our own Devils.

Friday, March 08, 2013

The Major Arcana #14: TEMPERANCE - Terrence Malick

This is the fifteenth in a series of blog posts discussing major figures in film and literature, based on the Major Arcana of the Tarot. I'll be using the 21 Major Arcana of the standard Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck. For some more background on the deck's history and its elusive role in popular culture, see this post from HiLowBrow, which is a good primer on the Tarot, and pretty fascinating in its own right.


TEMPERANCE: Terrence Malick

Temperance is the third of the three virtues, preceded by Justice and Strength. Of the three, Temperance is the calming force, a uniter of opposites; where justice decides and strength enforces, temperance compromises and harmonizes. There is something gentle and spiritual about her, something protective; she is the healing virtue and the guiding, grounding spirit, following Death, smoothing the path into Hades.

Terrence Malick is an odd duck of a director. He comes from a literary and philosophical background, and his writing and directing rhythm is so gradual as to be glacial; he infamously spends years in post-production, and he took a 20-year break after directing Days of Heaven (still his masterpiece, IMHO), during which he wrote and published and contemplated the universe.

Days of Heaven exhibits some of Malick's quintessential tendencies. At its center is a human drama of love, manipulation, and irresponsibility, emotional betrayals that shatter the lives of their participants, but that seem inconsequential, played out on the cosmic stage that Malick establishes. This conflict -- the love triangle between a worker, his lover, and their wealthy but fragile employer -- is disjointed at times, following narrative logics of prophecy and contingency, rather than simple dramatic convention. It is enough to know that man is petty and selfish, but that he is also part of a larger, more selfless universe.

And this is the frame that defines Days of Heaven, and can also be found in Malick's other films: the context of the witness, the eye and the voice watching the conflicts and always taking their measure. At the lowest level, this witnessing is represented in the voiceovers: naive ruminations from a young itinerant teenager, or from a lost and frustrated soldier on the front lines of a war. And as these characters bear witness to man's folly, so the universe seems to bear witness as well, arranging these actors within a greater familial system. The wheat fields, the cicadas, the endless roads; the jungle, the desert, the sea; architecture, the seasons, and Earth's primordial history. Every short-sighted gesture and mistake is understood... and if necessary, forgiven... by the transcendent consciousness, the mind of an elusive God, to which Malick is always alluding.

It's telling that in the end of each of these stories... Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World, and Tree of Life... there's always a sense that peace and equilibrium prevail, even when it comes on the heels of war, tragedy, and disillusionment. The fabric of the cosmos is truly absorbent (har har), cushioning the blows that men aim at one another. This is the Temperance of the universe, and it's the tone that always manages to prevail in Malick, no matter where his films take us.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The Major Arcana #13: DEATH - Darren Aronofsky

This is the fourteenth in a series of blog posts discussing major figures in film and literature, based on the Major Arcana of the Tarot. I'll be using the 21 Major Arcana of the standard Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck. For some more background on the deck's history and its elusive role in popular culture, see this post from HiLowBrow, which is a good primer on the Tarot, and pretty fascinating in its own right.


DEATH: Darren Aronofsky

In both the movies I've seen and in the occasional real-life readings I've gotten, the Death card is always handled gingerly. Card Readers tend to equivocate around it a bit... "Oh, Death doesn't just mean someone is dying, or something terrible is happening. It just means one phase is ending, and something new can begin!" Yes, Fortune Teller, we understand. You don't want us to think we have cancer or anything.

So we could equivocate in choosing a representative from pop culture to correspond to the Death card, with its mounted skeleton like something from The Elder Scrolls, and its kings and beggars alike being trampled by that harbinger's deadly hooves. We could choose someone totally unexpected, like Walt Disney, or someone fun and trivial, like M. Night Shyamalan.

Luckily, we don't have to equivocate. We can look Death straight in the face, because as art-house cinema nerds, we know exactly who it is. It's Darren Aronofsky.

You may object! "But Aronofsky makes lots of different types of films! They go from gritty and realistic, like The Wrestler, to The Fountain, which is so soaringly New Agey that our Wiccan grandmother liked it!" Well, yes, the guy has crafted lots of different films, and he's explored lots of different styles. But come on. Look at every one of his films and consider how it ends. The Fountain may be a little more obscure, but it definitely shares the basic thematic preoccupation... and Requiem for a Dream, his only film that doesn't end with a single, literal, plot-sealing death, is so filled with misery that the whole thing could be read as an extended, fatal seizure of dissolution.

There's a deeper truth, though, something necessary and compelling about this unbreakable habit that Mr. Aronofsky has exhibited. He doesn't make films about fleeting dramas or poignant moments in his characters' lives... he doesn't make films about a hero winning a decisive victory over a scenery-chewing villain. Even the best of his contemporaries are still making that type of film, but all of Aronofsky's films point in a different direction: his films point to an absolute ending.

The way he makes this beautiful is that he dramatizes the throes of self-discovery and redemption and closure that lead to that final resolution. In a sense, each of these characters -- Max from pi, Randy the Ram,  Nina from Black Swan -- discovers him/herself in the final, strained, often crushing revelations that lead them to their fates. Death is not interesting because "Oh, it's not really death"... it's interesting because of what you discover as you approach the precipice.

And yes, it IS death. Darren Aronofsky draws the card for each of his protagonists, and when they look at him with sad eyes, he says, "Sorry. That's just how it is."

Monday, March 04, 2013

The Major Arcana #12: THE HANGED MAN - Andrei Tarkovsky

This is the thirteenth in a series of blog posts discussing major figures in film and literature, based on the Major Arcana of the Tarot. I'll be using the 21 Major Arcana of the standard Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck. For some more background on the deck's history and its elusive role in popular culture, see this post from HiLowBrow, which is a good primer on the Tarot, and pretty fascinating in its own right.


THE HANGED MAN: Andrei Tarkovsky

For me, personally, the Hanged Man was one of the more confusing of the Major Arcana (and, thus, one of the more interesting). There's already a Death card, a Devil card, a Justice card, and a Judgement card... what can the Hanged Man archetype bring to this whole network of similar symbols?

The card itself is sinister, but also oddly peaceful: the Hanged Man has a halo around his head, and he seems placid in his suspension. If you go by Ye Olde Christian interpretation, this is a particular sort of Death that will inevitably lead to New Life (although that symbolism is supposedly implied in the Death card itself, as well). As it turns out, it's really the suspension itself, the prone physical condition of being "hanged" above the Earth, that's the decisive turn in this symbol. Death isn't such a big issue... I mean, look at the card. Is this character even dying? Or is this just some sort of performance art and/or public humiliation?

The card is really about the yawning gap between decisive moments, the blank abyss of contemplation, often in lieu of having any immediate control of the situation. This allows the subject to change as fortune changes, taking on a new trajectory... but at the moment the card is in play, there is a moment of absolute stillness and surrender and clarity, the pause between leaping from the cliff and hitting the water.

Who represents this suspension better than Andrei Tarkovsky, celebrated Russian film director of avant garde triumphs like Stalker, The Sacrifice, and the original Solaris?

If you've gone into Solaris unprepared, you may have felt, in fact, like you were hung upside down over an abyss for an arduously long period of time, and then finally denied any closure that might have made it rewarding. You don't go straight from Guy Ritchie to Tarkovsky. But the long, contemplative sequences in Solaris, and some of Tarkovsky's other films, are absolutely part of his vision and his rhythm... it's part of the suspension, the absolute inaction and uncertainty, that you're supposed to feel, trapped in a sort of emotional nexus on a planet that recreates your suppressed desires.

Part of the eventual character development in Solaris calls for reversal of purpose, as the main character, Dr. Kelvin, renounces his assigned mission and accepts a new directive, dictated by the planet itself. This, the Hanged Man's prerogative, is echoed in Tarkovsky's other films, as well... in Stalker, the journey to find a wish-granting room, deep in a dangerous quarantine zone, leads to a radical new understanding of that very power they've been seeking. In The Sacrifice, Tarkovsky's final film, a man facing the end of the world has to  reframe the universe to the point where he makes himself the ultimate agent in deciding the world's destiny.

In every Tarkovsky film, there is a pause -- usually taking up practically the whole film -- that leads to a primal inversion of the dramatic situation. He carves the cross, and lets his audience fall from its branches; as we lose control, we discover a new purpose that unites the whole cosmic arrangement.

Friday, March 01, 2013

The Major Arcana #11: JUSTICE - Werner Herzog

This is the twelfth in a series of blog posts discussing major figures in film and literature, based on the Major Arcana of the Tarot. I'll be using the 21 Major Arcana of the standard Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck. For some more background on the deck's history and its elusive role in popular culture, see this post from HiLowBrow, which is a good primer on the Tarot, and pretty fascinating in its own right.


JUSTICE: Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog is a strange cat, and a strange attribution for the Justice card. So much of what happens in his films -- in Stroszek, in Heart of Glass, in Fata Morgana and Wild Blue Yonder -- just seems random, and radical unfairness seems to be sort of a theme. Yet, in their otherworldly impulses, Herzog's films do have a sort of cosmic balance to them, and this is the logic that orders their chaotic surfaces.

Justice, the Major Arcana, is not Judgement. That one's later in the stack. Justice doesn't represent retribution or the hand of vengeance falling upon doers of evil. Rather, Justice is one of the Virtues, along with Strength and Temperance  It is reason and detachment, the capacity to observe and assess a situation. It is balance and accountability (the symbols to the right and left of the figure in the illustration); it also takes on certain stern qualities like coldness, insensitivity, and severity.

Among Herzog's best-known documentaries is Grizzly Man, and it is one of cinema's most compelling documents of antagonistic justice building a bridge between Nature and Man. It is a film about Timothy Treadwell, a young, naive environmentalist who gets into the annual habit of traveling into a remote Alaskan forest to become one with the wildlife. Treadwell was one of the staunchest advocates for bears, and he came to know them better than he knew the human community that surrounded him.

In the end, Treadwell grew paranoid and obsessive, and he overstepped his bounds, remaining in Alaska during a period of stress and scarcity. In no time at all, one of the enormous bears in the forest restored order, killing and devouring him and his girlfriend. An unhappy conclusion to an erratic life, but there was a great deal of justice in't... a restoration of the true natural order, even as the radical difference between man and beast was reinforced.

There is a similar nihilistic sense of spiritual equivocation in all of Herzog's films. His cult classic, Aguirre: The Wrath of God, is about a conquistador who plunges into delusional hubris as he infiltrates the Amazon rainforest. A dark cloud grows around him, his crew assaulted and dying of disease, his path hindered by natural disasters; yet, these hardships only strengthen his resolve and his madness, until finally he is consumed in the self-destruction that he spent the whole story courting like a diseased lover.

Or take Klaus Kinski's other Herzog triumph, Fitzcarraldo: an aristocrat dreams a hopeless dream of building an opera house in the jungle; in pursuit of this desire, he orchestrates a grand, dangerous, opportunistic plan to harvest rubber from hostile native territory. He defies every warning and dissuasion in turn, until at last, by a monumental effort of will, he manages to transport a steam ship over a mountain to reach his destination. Having accomplished this impossible task, he finds his narcissistic vision crushed by the hostile will of nature, and he is left with only his own senseless accomplishment to accompany him home.

Honestly, it's hard to cover all the man's films. Is there a sense of Justice in Stroszek? At the very least, there seems to be a sense of symmetry and order to the universe, a sense of inevitability that can't be cheated, however cruel it might be to the hero. It's cold, and it's severe, but it has lessons to teach: that justice itself can seem random, vicious, and petty, but it must be rigid and consistent, like the police officer who arrests Scheitz for petty theft, or like the towing vehicle that picks up the Germans' mobile home and repossesses it.

Admittedly, Stroszek's justice is not karmic. It is cruel and unthinking, an otherworldly force that maintains the status quo, even to the detriment of hope and humanity itself. If you want karma, you have to go to Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo... and even then, it's not a kind or forgiving aspect of nature.

That's what the card holds, and that's what we find in the evolving cinema of Werner Herzog... sometimes Justice serves an ethical impulse, turning karma back upon its offenders; other times, it simply upholds the impersonal balance of the universe, punishing the innocent and guilty alike, according to whatever rules bind them together.