Thursday, November 05, 2009

Movies: Learn to live like an animal.

Though it may be the product of some sort of strong blow to the head - most likely suffered in childhood - I actually enjoyed Jonathan Henseigh's 2007 Welcome to the Jungle, a clumsy first-person-shooter jungle romp that owes a huge debt to the vastly overrated Cannibal Holocaust and the still hotly debated Blair Witch Project. And I say that knowing, on an objective level, W2tJ is a very, very dubious flick.

The plot of W2tJ is simple: Four ex-pats - one stick-up-the-butt couple and one boozin' and sexin' pair of goofs - living in Fiji get wind of a old white dude spotted amongst the cannibal tribes of New Guinea. After a bit o' research, the quartet decide that the mysterious white shadow must be none other than the vanished Michael Rockefeller, who vanished in the cannibal jungles of New Guinea in 1961. (The true story of the young Rockefeller is fascinating and, while it hardly justifies the "based on a true story" tag this flick gets, it does justify a quick Google exploration of your own.) Visions of tabloid gold dancing in their head, the quartet grab some jungle-grade camping gear, get two camera, and set off into New Guinea to find the famed missing scion of the Rockefeller empire. In the tradition of Cannibal Holocaust, they run afoul of locals - from crafty urban traders to the cannibals that act as the film's final baddies - and, in the tradition of BWP, they turn on one another under the stress. As a result, our heroes fare little better than characters from either of W2tJ major inspirations (indeed, one is even dispatched and displayed in a manner that alludes to Holocaust's infamously grisly girl-kabob gag).

There's ample reason to consign W2tJ to the dustbin of horror film history. Primarily, there's the first-person camerawork. Taking all the wrong lessons from Cannibal Holocaust, W2tJ mixes what appears to be vérite style third-person shots with first-person subjective camera work. But, unlike Holocaust, there's no in flick justification for the back and forth. Consequently, there are several scenes where the viewer is left pondering whether or not they are supposed to think anybody is behind the camera - a distraction that break you out of the film and diminishes the impact of the visual style by underscoring how contrived it is. Even when the film does fully commit to the premise of first-person p.o.v.'s, the conceit make a hash of certain scenes. Most notably, there's a scene is which our young cannibal kibble run into a particularly testy set of New Guinean military patrolmen. There's some sort of dust-up between the smart-ass male of the group and one of the army men, but the whole thing happens mostly off scene and what we do see, shot in low-light and with the camera's stabilizers set to Parkinson's, is fairly incomprehensible. One could argue that this sort of low resolution opacity fairly mimics the nervous isolation of our main characters and communicates to the viewers as sense of their own frightened ignorance of what's going on. But the result of repeatedly leaving the viewers literally and metaphorically in the dark doesn't heighten the tension. Instead, it give the viewer the sense that plot incidents are happening willy-nilly, so investing the mental bandwidth to attempt to puzzle out what's happening and why we should care seems like a bad call. The result is a sense detachment. We begin to feel like what we don't get wasn't getable and doesn't really matter.

But let's accentuate the positive!

W2tJ was sot on location, in jungle surroundings so beautiful that its almost cheating. There are a few set ups in a the flick that, despite the hand-cam conceit, look epic. Given the ever increasing quality and portability of film equipment, it's kind of a mystery why small budget filmmakers don't get out more. If you lack the budget to create the lavishly squalid dungeons of Jigsaw, go find a rotting hospital structure like the one that practically stars in Session 9. Think of the brilliant way the birch trees in Blair Witch became a grim, minimalist series of white slash marks on a pitch-black background. You aren't going to get that in a studio. Perhaps it's a genre-specific distrust of the beautiful: Other than the occasional final girl, horror too often seems to pride itself on the rigor of is grotesquery and see the beautiful as a sort of softening, feminizing indulgence. There also a distinctly American strain of fantasy that focuses on the intrusion of violent or uncanny of the quotidian - a manifestation of America's defensively suburban mentality - that has long replaced the early modern gothic of Poe and Hawthorne or sci-fi-hued apocalypses of the early Atomic Era. The sets for such horrors are cookie-cutter tract homes, shopping malls, and high schools proms. There's little room for for the spectacle of beauty in such flicks; it's a cinema of touchy possessiveness, a horror that wants you off its lawn. In contrast, there's an expansiveness to W2tJ visuals that is pleasing. It wants to explore new places and pit its characters against the challenges that await those bold or foolish enough to venture forth. It speaks to a sense of heroic questing, rather than peevish insularity. That said, Henseigh's vision falls a bit short of the naturalistic poetry in recent Aussie flicks like Wolf Creek, Rogue, or Black Water. In those flicks have an almost pagan vibe. Nature is vast, ancient, and possessed of a brutally serene indifference to the activities of the mortals who intrude in her realm. Steeped in classic action tropes, Henseigh treats his jungle more as a series of tests for his characters rather than something that exists on another plane of being.

W2tJ also gets points for being happily free of the untidy, ill-concived "philosophical" baggage that makes Cannibal Holocaust such a particularly embarrassing failure. Admittedly, the "who are the real savages" nonsense in Deodato is little more than a beard, a clumsy bit of misdirection meant to justify the film's energetic wallowing in exploitation extremism; but it's a beard Deodato seems determined to sell. We get our cheap kicks smothered in in a overly generous helping of the unearned and juvenile revelation that modern man can be cruel; a philosophical "discovery" that is all the more embarrassing for the fact that Deodato doesn't seem to believe it himself as he takes pains to make the cruel documentary freaks who act unlike any of other folks in the flick. (Curiously, the idea that all humanity is inherently evil and incapable of evolution past its most essential and savage core must be a great comfort to artists from formerly fascists nations who must otherwise ask themselves the less comfortable question of how rational, well-meaning human beings commit unspeakable evil.)

In contrast, W2tJ plays strictly for kicks. This isn't without its problem: The specters of Burroughs, Haggard, and the worst of Kipling haunt the film, not full exorcised by the native's bloody revenge at the end. But we're mercifully spared the hectoring voice of the filmmaker trying to convince us that he's speak great truths. In this aspect at least, W2tJ is far superior to is deluded predecessor.

Henseigh's cannibal flick also shows cannibals that act like humans rather than excitable zombies: They hunt their food carefully and strategically, they ration out their meat, they even keep a separate butchery and killing field so as to not litter their home with messy people parts. That's a real step forward in the presentation of cannibals.

W2tJ is great film. In fact, with it's occasional lapses into visual incompetence, I can't even say its a very good film. Furthermore, because its aims are so much more modest than Blair Witch, it never achieves that flick's creeping existential dread. However, it's a honest flick with some well-made scenes. If there's room enough on your Netflix queue for such easy and unremarkable pleasures, you could do worse.

And now, because we've all got it stuck in our heads now . . .

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