Aguirre: The Wrath of the Screaming Piha ((Lipaugus vociferans)

February 19, 2009


I am fan of Werner Herzog films, not least of which is Aguirre: The Wrath of God. For those of you unfamiliar, it's a film about a group of Spanish conquistadors in the middle of the Amazon, and their decent into madness via the main character Lope de Aguirre (played with seething and sinister precision by the late Klaus Kinski). I've always been drawn to Herzog's relationship to nature in his films, especially in this one and in Fitzcarraldo. The Amazon rain forest isn't just a back drop for these stories, it is a character thrumming with fecundity, and impartial to the whims of man. Love it or hate it, Aguirre has been tremendously influential (Apocalypse Now, for one), and is almost as famous for the well documented histrionic tensions between its director and lead actor.

Why post about this here? Well, for years I have been obsessed by a bird call that can be heard prominently in many of the scenes of Aguirre (and Fitzcarraldo). These are the scenes, usually, in which Kinski twists to face his comrades, falling silent with the pall of madness over his face. You can almost hear all of the other conquistadors think "Hoo boy. It's OVER!!!". Instead, though, you hear the call of this bird: the Screaming Piha or Lipaugus vociferans. Perhaps I would have figured this out sooner had I ever been to South America, as it is a pretty common bird, but I had to wait until I saw it in David Attenborough's "Life of Birds". Screaming Pihas are small, rather drab birds of the upper canopy. Though drab in appearance, they have one of the most piercing, extraordinary calls. It's so loud and piercing that you begin to wonder if that is what finally pushed Aguirre over the edge. Kinski faces the camera as if to say "Will someone PLEASE, turn that bird off!"

For your listening pleasure and own decent into madness, here is a LINK to Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Macaulay Library natural sound and video archive. Just search under "Screaming Piha" and you will turn up a number a recordings. Audio recording ML 62564 is particularly good.

4 comments:

  1. Wonderful film. You've probably seen My Best Fiend, Herzog's documentary about his relationship with Kinski. It's hilarious. Kinski's autobiography is quite strange, he is very open about how vile he is.

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  2. My Best Fiend is great, and yes agreed, really funny. Burden of Dreams is really good too (doc. on making of Fitzcarraldo), if you haven't seen that yet.

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  3. I did see Burden of Dreams, probably in the 1980s shortly after it was released! British Channel 4, when it was good, ahh those were the days.

    Cobra Verde, the last film they made together, was based on Bruce Chatwin's novel The Viceroy of Ouidah. Chatwin visited filming in Ghana and published an essay on the madness. It's available in his collection What Am I Doing Here?

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  4. Hey, thanks for identifying this bird, I had a lot of trouble figuring out what this distinctly Herzogian avian was actually called, although I did remember that it appeared in Attenborough's documentary and that I had once known its name. It also makes its way to Southeast Asia in Rescue Dawn--the worst, the most mediocre, Herzog film I've ever seen.

    It's making an appearance in a hallucinatory short story of mine, and I might not have figured it out without your help. Thanks a lot!
    Ian

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