Monday, October 29, 2007

Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made

Certain directors have a particular fascination with Latin America, at times verging on obsession. Orson Welles, for instance, continually returns to the region: in It's All True, The Lady from Shanghai, and Touch of Evil. European directors are especially prone to a Latin obsession, or perhaps it's just that whereas Latin Americanism is already programmed into the structure of Hollywood and the US cinematic imagination, for a European to make a film about the region he or she has to be unusually motivated. Werner Herzog is an obvious example, but also Ken Loach as well as the Finn Mika Kaurismäki.

Kaurismäki is the brother of better-known Aki, director of Leningrad Cowboys Go America and The Man Without a Past. His focus is on the Amazon and on Brazil, where he eventually settled and founded a music club, "Mika's Bar." And his Latin films include Amazon, Moro No Brasil, and Brasileirinho.

Tigrero posterTigrero: A Film That Was Never Made is a movie about film-making and directorial obsession. It also ends with the fantasy of a director who come to Brazil and stays, who literally goes native. The director is Jim Jarmusch, and he's one of three who are involved in the movie: Kaurismäki who's making this odd quasi-documentary; Sam Fuller, who's returning to the indigenous Amazonian village where he shot footage for a projected film project that never got made; and Jarmusch, who's apparently just along for the ride, but spends the time chatting to Fuller when he's not shooting his own video footage before he's finally seen with his face and arms painted in traditional patterns while Fuller sets off home in a small boat.

The original 1954 film Tigrero would have been a big-budget Hollywood production starring John Wayne, Ava Gardner, and Tyrone Power. But what Fuller shot when he came to Brazil in the 1950s was scene-setting imagery of the Amazon river and the indigenous inhabitants of the forest. And it is this gaze of the curious independent film-maker that has survived the demise of the studio system and is taken up by a subsequent generation of young directors, both the indie icon Jarmusch (here almost never without his black jeans and Ramones t-shirt) and the peripherally-located Kaurismäki.

Tigrero the three directorsThe film's conceit is to confront the Karajá Indians with the recordings of their former lives and former selves, as though they constituted a time vault by which to measure their culture's continuities or changes. Equally, of course, these three representatives of technological modernity are themselves confronted with both the ways in which film-making has changed and with the distorting mirror that the indigenous hold up to their gaze.

Perhaps the most remarkable moment involves two male dancers performing for a rather bemused Sam Fuller, chomping on his ever-present cigar. They approach and then retreat, circle and move away, chanting over and over again something that sounds suspiciously like "Hollywood! Hollywood!" And neither Fuller nor (on the DVD commentary track) Kaurismäki or Jarmusch are ever quite sure if it's their own imagination that is projecting this mishearing onto the native ritual, or whether in fact this is indeed some kind of ironic commentary on the part of those who have been cast as authentic objects of the camera's gaze.

And it's this slippage between Western projection and native response, revolving around an intractable opacity, an inevitable miscommunication, that lies at the heart of all directorial adventures in Latin America. It ensures that every film set in the region is always as much unmade as made, is inescapably incomplete.

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