quick review: “the embrace of the serpent.”

This is an unusual tack for this blog (although not unprecedented) but I’m putting up a capsule review of the film El Abrazo de la Serpiente/The Embrace of the Serpent because I was moved out of a writing slump to say something about it. I also, more importantly, like to think that the few people that mosey over here dispiritedly, kicking rocks, incapable of finding anything else to read on the internet, have good taste and might agree with me that this film is great. Like the other film review, it is political in orientation, which I’m not sure is something I’d like this blog to be on a regular basis. In any case, Serpent is dreamy, disturbing, surprising, and has a bit of the fantastic about it, so I hope it could be of interest. If you’ve not seen it, go on and get tickets, then come back; everything to follow is a massive, fun-puncturing spoiler:

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I think I’ve just been floored by Ciro Guerra’s The Embrace of the Serpent. It’s not every director that would choose to shoot a tropical/rainforest film in black and white, and it’s the perfect choice here. On one shallow hand, it makes me think of Sebastiao Salgado, but what it really does is make the viewer focus on the movement of the water, the movement of the leaves, the glowering and kneading movements of the sky. These three – water, flora, sky – become contiguous, as they really are.

The scene where Theo breaks his prohibition and spears a fish and tears into it raw, his eyes blazing and delirious, will likely remain with me longer than the other images. Karamakate says, in response not just to Theo, but to the colonialist white-supremacist project which Theo stands in for, “You have no self discipline. You will destroy everything.” We see in the first scene at the Mission colonialism’s tragedy, and in the second scene, its farce. In the first, it is clear how colonialism eradicates culture and amputates history, using its favored blade, a weaponized Christianity – the sacred bones of Christ taken from their reliquaries and sharpened into clubs, the rosary kept as a thief’s garrote. Not only does the white man destroy everything else, he even destroys his own religion, plunders it for its monetary worth. The water and wine bunkum is pure cat-piss, utter flim-flam; the only transubstantiation the white man believes in is the conversion of the world into capital.

In the second scene at the Mission, things have slowly grown surreal, that ill-fated spot of suffering and violence having shot up some truly weird flowers. In this, we see the final conclusion of white civilization: totalitarian fascism. The white Spaniard in charge has cannibalized his own god, literally this time, and says, “I am the only sacred thing in this forest.” I remember that Robert Lowell wrote, “I will catch Christ with a greased worm,” and in this film Ciro Guerra seems to make a connection between Theo’s devoured fish and the Spaniard’s digested Jesus of Nazareth, the poor mutilated cross-maker of a god who rises up only in belches of arrogance from the dreadful man’s mouth.

Karamakate says over and over again in this film that white civilization’s pursuit of knowledge is really the pursuit of death. Theo’s successor Evan may pull out his notebooks with renderings of plants and indigenous art, swearing his disinterested love of knowledge, but he is after yakruna for the same reason the rubber barons are after rubber trees. The world is transubstantiated into capital at cost of death, and that capital is then transubstantiated into more death by way of atom bombs, nerve gas, tanks rolling on rubber wheels, etc. Karamakate may be a feebler man when Evan arrives, he may be a chullachaqui, but he is no fool. When Evan offers Karamakate what he presents as “a lot of money,” holding out two crumpled dollar bills, Karamakate laughs.

While it may register as a surprise at the end that Evan is working for the same interests as the rubber companies, everything we need to know about his character is shown in that early scene. And though Evan’s arrival must take place sometime in the 1920’s or 30’s, his dress reminds me very much of a Google executive: the fine watch, the strangely clean white shirt, the neatly trimmed beard, the glasses. One could write a whole essay about Evan’s glasses in this film, how they both hide and frame the cold calculation in his eyes, how they symbolize white male intellectualism, the clinical watching of science. I don’t think it is a coincidence that in the scenes where Evan is most vulnerable, he has taken his glasses off (while captured at the mission, ingesting yakruna at the end, etc.)

Guerra’s film seems to do a lot of wordless, visual work with gaze in this film; this is most clear early on when Evan leans down over a distraught Karamakate, crying in his bunk at night. The face is still, a cold and empty house, but the eyes burn like fire-wood behind the iron grates of the spectacles.

It is worth mentioning that both white characters in this film are more or less scoundrels. Evan is a ruthless scout for private interests (unlike Theo, who works for universities), whereas Theo has become a totally selfish being, interested only in saving his life from the disease tunneling through his nervous system “like horse piss eats deep snow” (Norman Dubie, “The Funeral”). Karamakate gives him caapi to give him visions, but all Theo can think or say when he takes it is, “I don’t want to die.” When Karamakate burns the yakruna at the tree to prevent its mass harvesting/mass production and abuse as a recreational drug, he can only scream “Karamakate!” in frustration over and over again while the tree burns. He is unable, understandably to a degree, to think about why Karamakate would do such a thing, or to be concerned about the degradation of the villagers, who seem to stuff their bodies with yakruna in order to deal with the terrors of the rubber barons and the Colombians. It is important to note also, that Karamakate, in his anger, is sticking it to Theo. To paraphrase the character himself, if Karamakate is not one of the most complex figures in recent cinema, I am a snake.

An important scene for how Theo reinforces colonial ideology under the guise of anthropology comes when, on leaving a village, he realizes someone has kept his compass. He becomes violent and demands it back. When Karamakate questions him why it matters, he responds that their tribe is a culture that navigates by wind and stars. Karamakate says, in effect, that this is stupid white man bullshit and that knowledge belongs to everyone. You see there the contradiction: anthropology demands that you do not tamper or change in any way the cultures you investigate, yet the colonial project which anthropological study is a part of is predicated on the eradication of cultures. A people have been displaced and murdered for rubber trees, but let’s not be irresponsible and give them a compass because we might alter their culture. This high mindedness manifests primarily as withholding knowledge and power.

Guerra’s directorial choices are assured, David Gallego’s cinematography is lovely and in control, the dialogue is written with a fine ear. It is gorgeous, strange, horrifying, surreal, and calming. The friend who recommended it to me said that it blew her away, and I can’t say otherwise for myself. 

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step across the border: the (not at all) as usual dance.

Last night I re-watched Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel’s 1990 documentary about Fred Frith, Step Across the Border. I watched it with my housemate who had never seen it before. I had not seen it for about seven years, since I was in high school. To say that it was an invigorating and inspiring experience was to say the absolute, minimal least. I can say without hesitation that it is one of my all time favorite films, from the perspective of musical performances captured, cinematic beauty, and the exciting interplay of editing and found sound which I have not seen in many other documentaries.

If you are unfamiliar with Fred Frith, he is an avant-garde multi-instrumentalist and composer, primarily known for his work on the guitar. You can look up his work, an overview of his discography. His tenure with Henry Cow, Massacre, Skeleton Crew, and the Art Bears. His solo work for prepared guitar. You don’t need to know any of it to be stunned and pleased by this film. (Even my high school girlfriend who I watched it with seven years ago, who mostly liked bland indie pop music, was charmed by Frith.)

Frith is captured in this film as an unabashedly arty man, charming and practically detonating with talent. It was once said of comedian Peter Cook that he was “funny in the same way some people are beautiful.” Fred Frith is musical in the same way some people are beautiful. Un-self-consciously, constantly. Joyfully. This is a man who can be captivating by doing nothing more than casually humming out bars from compositions he has written, using his hands against the couch for percussion. One of my favorite scenes from the film shows Fred Frith from distance at a beach, wrapped in thick layers of coat. Above, seagulls whirl through the air and fill it with their cries. The camera zooms in and you realize that Frith is holding a violin and mimicking the seagulls, scraping the strings in imitation of their nasal cackling. We stay with him while he tries out five or six different calls, each time finding the exact note for the gull’s voice, such that if you had your eyes closed you might suppose the filmmakers had decided to include a lengthy scene of gulls crying for atmospheric purposes.

There are many highlights, however. The scenes of Massacre rehearsing their dissonant, free-jazz Balkan punk; “The Morning Song,” featuring an alarm clock; a jam between John Zorn and Frith in a dimly lit room, so that Zorn appears to be some sort of alien insect hidden inside a jacket (shades of Wollheim’s “Mimic”), blowing out something resembling interstellar blues; a mind-erasing piece featuring Frith playing percussion on prepared guitar and a Japanese percussionist wielding hammers against an indomitable wall of drums. Little in the film is forgettable.

It is apparent that Frith sees a connection between his music and his (left) politics. Just as his musical work seeks to estrange and distance itself and deviate from standard structures, he hopes his music, in some humble way, can help others to see through the mist of pre-given opinion. He says in the film that he has given up on his youthful hopes of changing the world and has instead seen the value in challenging, if for a moment, the expectations a listener had for music or what their definition of music was. If he can get a few listeners to come up to him and ask, “What in the world was that about?”, then he has done something of value. From the Skeleton Crew song, “The Border”:

A step across the border

One foot after another

Think! Think!

A small step into elsewhere

To follow the quick light

Tom Cora, Iva Bittová, Pavel Fajt, Arto Lindsay, and many other figures wander through Step Across the Border. It is a charming and enervating film, a chaotic coughing of musical spores into the air. They get into your throat, they get stuck in your eyes. The next few days, you find yourself feeling their effects, tapping out rhythms on inappropriate surfaces, speaking with greater confidence about art and why it is important. You cough a few spores yourself. It travels round.