Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Voyage into the Jungle

I recently saw Apocalypto and quite enjoyed it. It's a well-made action film -- essentially a revenge narrative dressed up with some thematic ambitions that don't quite hit home. Still, I think it's one of the better films of the year, and I'm convinced it would have gotten far better reviews if Mel Gibson weren't carrying quite so much baggage.

Apocalypto has got me thinking of some other films that have been shot in a jungle. There's Herzog's classic Aguirre: The Wrath of God with its unforgettable performance by Klaus Kinski. Later, Herzog would venture back into the Amazon and make Fitzcarraldo, again with Kinski. And Fitzcarraldo, of course, was the subject of one of the best making-of documentaries of all time, Les Blank's Burden of Dreams. But my favorite jungle picture is John Boorman's The Emerald Forest. I hadn't seen the film for about twenty years and after recommending it to a couple of people (apropos of Apocalypto) I thought perhaps I should reacquaint myself with it. I netflixed it. I'm glad to say it still holds up.

Boorman is a badly underrated filmmaker. He has made a lot of really interesting films: Hell in the Pacific, Point Blank, Deliverance, Hope and Glory. His trademark is the mythic sweep of his stories -- perhaps that's why I'm a such sucker for him.

The Emerald Forest is based on a true story. An American has come to build a dam in the Brazilian jungle. His son (played by Boorman's own kid, Charlie Boorman) is kidnapped. We cut to ten years later: the father has spent the intervening time looking for his son. Finally, he finds him, now completely acculturated to his adoptive tribe. The film is about their re-encounter.

The writing and performance in the first fifteen minutes is a bit plastic, but as soon as the story gets into the jungle it comes to life. Boorman and screenwriter Rospo Pallenberg pay careful attention to the ethnographic details of an Amazonian tribe, but this is primarily a great adventure yarn and ultimately, a very effective environmentalist allegory. Really worth renting if you haven't seen it (and maybe even if you have.)

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