Wednesday, January 04, 2006

#34: “Seeing What the Jungle Teaches: Brazil’s Babenco & Jackson’s KONG” * 12/15/05 * I confess that I spent three hours yesterday afternoon, mostly on the edge of my seat, at KING KONG. It’s a bandwagon sort of movie, & mostly I agree with the raves, for KONG’s sheer story-telling power, its intelligent self-awareness, & its take on entertainment in times of social crisis. We know Peter Jackson wanted to make his own KONG since he was nine years old & saw the original. This probably helps explain the updated, expanded character of movie-maker Carl Denham, surprisingly well-played by Jack Black. In particular, Denham’s extreme pursuit of the movie-making moment & his eye for opportunity is paired with the final scene’s take-off on Kong’s death as a media event. Jackson perfectly catches the public’s gullibility & rowdy, volatile nature of the Great Depression era’s young, twin industries of celluloid fantasy-creation & news coverage. This analysis makes KONG as much worth seeing as the heart-stopping, nerve-wracking parts, & there are many. But Jackson’s media analysis also makes the way KONG treats race even more disturbing. I forgive the bizarrely-exaggerated jungle chorus line at Denham’s Broadway show as period nostalgia. And strategically, the film’s wisest character – arguably the phrase “most socially evolved” fits best here – is the ship’s Black first mate, who protects the orphaned cabin boy & even lends him a copy of Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS. So, how about those Skull Island natives? Though specifically located in the far South Pacific, I’ll tell you, these islanders are undeniably African-featured. Their remorseless, zombie-like behavior provides the scene that I personally found most terrifying in the whole movie. They are so evil, it’s not far-fetched to see Ann Darrow’s arrival as rescuing Kong’s “better side” from their clutches. More than any other aspect of KONG, the Black islanders stand for uncontrolled Nature’s worst potentials. I have trouble imagining Jackson failed to see this in a movie that’s a virtuoso demonstration of artistic choice. By odd coincidence, there’s another three-hour jungle movie out there too, director/screenwriter Hector Babenco’s 1991 adaptation of Peter Matthiessen’s big handful of a novel, AT PLAY IN THE FIELDS OF THE LORD. AT PLAY is set, & was filmed in, Brazil’s Amazon jungle. I’ve been watching Babenco’s films again lately & AT PLAY just came in the mail this week. It’s hard to find, & like Babenco’s 1987 film, IRONWEED, only available in VHS format. Babenco learned his craft in the 1970’s making documentaries & helped shape Brazil’s socially-conscious “cinema novo” movement. Here, he’s best known for a trio of prison films. His 1981 tale of street kids, PIXOTE, provided Babenco the international boost to make KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN in 1985 for Hollywood, with Raul Julia & Oscar-winning William Hurt as the movie-obsessed transvestite Molina. Most recently, Babenco returned to US screens in 2003 with CARANDIRU, based on a 1990’s prison massacre. The classic enclosure tale is as old as Chaucer’s travelers, stranded by the Plague, who tell stories to pass the time. Babenco uses this durable plot device to portray complex characters trapped by society’s worst excesses, who survive, even flourish, by imagination. It’s these three movies you can rent pretty easily on DVD. After SPIDER WOMAN, Babenco made AT PLAY IN THE FIELDS OF THE LORD & then IRONWEED. Both adaptations of English-language novels with first-rate Hollywood casts, they suggest that civilization’s greed beat any jungle out there for barbarism & feature Babenco’s most memorable women characters. While nobody beats Jackson’s camera for swooping around anymore, Babenco likes the God’s-eye view too. CARANDIRU zeros in on the prison from high above the city, and early in IRONWEED we see Jack Nicholson’s character praying at his infant son’s grave as the son’s ghost might look down on him. In AT PLAY, Babenco makes use of the plot containing two itinerant bush pilots, one a half-breed American Indian named Moon, played by Tom Berenger. The pilots collide with an Army plan to push natives deeper into a shrinking jungle, even as some evangelical missionaries want to convert them. Early on there’s an extended, lovely sequence in which Moon’s tiny, dilapidated plane soars over the jungle’s vast expanse. Then, almost out of gas, he bails out – parachutes out of God’s eye, out of civilization itself. Once on the jungle floor, Moon casts off his clothes, entering naked a shy native community whose spears are initially poised. While transvestites populate his prison films, AT PLAY gives us one of Babenco’s brilliant women in a missionary wife played by Kathy Bates. Hazel Quarrier’s raging, fearsome unraveling explains just how easily some demonize & destroy wild places without blinking. For jungles close to home, Babenco’s adaptation of William Kennedy’s novel IRONWOOD endures, one of the finest ensemble recreations of the Great Depression on film, both visually & dramatically. Helen Archer rates among Meryl Streep’s best roles - a fragile former singer, living hour to hour on 1938 Albany’s frigid streets – like Hazel, unraveling, enraged, terrified. There’s as much violence in Helen’s short brawl with Francis as in that first clash between islanders & expedition in KONG. In our own cold winter of increasing gulfs, revisiting Babenco’s films reminds us. The jungle’s in us, you know. * Nancy Keefe Rhodes * (860)