Perfect for cinephiles. Everything is a metaphor for a movie, a story, or filmmaking. There’s a thin construction apparent, the beginning and the ending are acted out by Jarmusch and Fuller, but just to frame the movie, which is a documentary about the Karuja tribe in Brazil. Forty years ago, Samuel Fuller traveled there to shoot research footage for a planned project at Fox which was set to star John Wayne as a fearless jaguar hunter attuned to the dangers of the jungle. The project never materialized, but Fuller held on to the footage and in this documentary he returns to the village to show it to the inhabitants and to discuss with Jarmusch his various ideas for the movie that was never made.
Jarmusch, had already directed Paradise, Mystery Train, Down By Law, and so was already an established director with a particular auteur style. Fuller on the other hand, is double his age, and a completely different beast. Someone who had to work under the studio system but still remained an outsider, creating stories with strong idealist characters, with complex moral issues, struggling in a deterministic violent world. Violence is the keyword, but not the superficial, glossy, Tarantino type. Violence as a reality with moral implications, emotionally charged.
On the other hand, Jarmusch is cool and contemplative. His stories are also character based, and this includes the personality of the actor playing the character. Tom Waits, John Lurie, Ricardo Benigni, Beatrice Dalle, Screamin Jay Hawkins, are just a few of his bit players. The stories then become entwined with the personalities, life is fixed in an imaginary world of overlapping references, inside jokes within inside jokes. If you don’t get it then it’s not meant for you, but if you do then it’s kind of like an intimate concert. The complete opposite of elitist, superficial, and convoluted. It is a bit like music, and friendships.
So what would these two filmmakers, from very different eras, have anything to do with each other, specially in the middle of a Brazilian jungle. Well, it turns out that this place in the jungle and what happened to it in between Fuller’s coming and his return, also serves a metaphor for the relationship between these two image creators.
Forty years before, when Fuller first set foot on land along the Amazon River and met the Karuja tribe, they had yet to encounter their government’s effort to civilize them. They still lived with the same habits as their ancestors and this is what Fuller remembered and was hoping to again encounter. However, at the making of this here film, the tribe had undergone a deep change. They now wore t-shirts and baseball caps, had electricity, and watched television. They still performed their rituals, and lived at their own pace, but something had changed. Fuller shows them the footage from forty years ago, and some of them recognize their now deceased family members, and get very emotional when interviewed about it on camera. They appear to be at a standstill, suspended between eras, unsure of the future, but regardless still living their lives, despite the Western accoutrements, still hunting for food, still dancing for fertility, still marking their bodies, still honoring the sun and the moon.
Jarmusch and Fuller are not unlike the Jaruka people. In the jungle of world cinema they are the primitive ones, speaking from a primal place, instinctive, holding on to their humanity, staying away from mechanical gratification. Fuller is visibly disappointed at the intrusion of modernity into the tribe’s lifestyle. Jarmusch is wide-eyed, wondering, filming empty space with his digital camera. In between, we learn about initiation rituals, dances for fertility, the original script to Tigrero, and a few filmmaker secrets handed down by the master himself.
This movie is as meaningful as it gets, if you are into filmmaking as art, personal visions, and the human spirit. The main character in Fuller’s unfinished film (John Wayne) loves himself a little bit more than he loves his wife. Fuller’s own words. He is supposed to be vain, patriarchal, machistic, and stupid (not unlike the real-life John Wayne). This was supposed to be Fuller’s most subversive project. No wonder the producers pulled the plug on it!
Suddenly, Fuller confronts us with the question: “Are we prepared to die for something other than ourselves?“
Depends. what you believe in?