National Lampoon’s Vacation + Aguirre: The Wrath of God

Double feature: This double feature isn’t meant to cross the border into flippancy.

Sure, only one of these films has among the most breathtaking opening shots in all of cinema, along with Spanish Baroque tableaus echoing Zurbaran’s gestures and Velasquez’s clarity.  (Guess which.)  But both center on conceptually doomed, constantly thwarted quests that drive their primary questers into the isolating depths of insanity.

In both, the quest’s subject is a place of fantasy – in one case, of pure myth; in the other, of half-myth, with a material form that inevitably falls short of expectations.  “Aguirre: The Wrath of God” makes the futile nature of its mission known up front, while “National Lampoon’s Vacation” maintains its characters’, and viewers’, hopes of satisfaction to the very end.

Where “Aguirre” invents a historical expedition, “Vacation” reenacts a journey most of its viewers have personally experienced.   Thus, each invokes a different form of its audience’s sympathy – for the former film, sympathy of imagination; for the latter, sympathy of identification.

“Aguirre” is so serious, so deadly serious, that at times it verges on satire.  “Vacation” is so hysterically satirical that it occasionally approaches genuine pathos.  Both films feature mutinies, vehicle trouble, unceremonious burials, delusions of grandeur, and humans reneging on their responsibility for an animal in their care.

Each film is impelled by its protagonist’s belief in his natural birthright to the best of the land through which he traverses – its hidden bounties, its buried happiness.  Each depicts a mad hunger to continue, not despite the travails along the way, but because of them.

For a marathon: “Aguirre” shares with “Mysteries of Lisbon” static, weighty visuals and a similar intermingling of Church counsel and laic endeavor.

(Creative Commons licensed original images courtesy of “wine me up” and “Emily Barney” at Flickr)

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