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.