WHO THE HELL’S YOUR TRAVEL AGENT?
Sometime after my friend, the intrepid Phineas Foggybottom, went missing, I found myself the recipient of his steamer-trunk. Wiping away mud, blood and other less identifiable substances, I opened the lid and found his journal, accompanied by reels of film labeled mysteriously CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. Hoping for explanation, I opened the journal and started to read: In my quest to find this infamous relic of cinematic trauma, renowned yet unknown, famous for it’s infamy, forever spoken of in the hushed tones reserved for urban legends, abattoir of defenseless animals and offensive to good taste in general…
That was as far as I read before I set aside the journal and lifted the film reels from the trunk. What could be this Cannibal Holocaust? Were ever two words used in tandem more provocative? Determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, and perhaps learn something regarding Foggybottom’s disappearance, I threaded the first reel into my projector, sat back, and started to watch… Oh that I could go back to that moment, before the loss of all innocence.
The flickering lights, typically a source of warmth and comfort, soon made me squirm as the madness on screen unfolded before me like a malodorous serpent uncoiling on the screen. The narrative involves a crew of documentarians who have travelled into the Amazon to film the indigenous cannibal tribes, only to vanish without a trace. Hoping to solve the mystery of their disappearance, anthropologist Monroe follows in their footsteps. Accompanied by a couple of guides, Monroe ventures into the jungle, and encounters the local tribes. He’s immediately confronted with hostility and suspicion, and learns this is due to the poor treatment the natives received from the documentary crew. Having eventually earned their trust, members of the tribe lead Monroe to the remains of the missing documentarians and the reels of exposed film they left behind. Returning to New York, Monroe views the footage, and discovers the civilized world is a better place without the supposed documentarians in it.
Like a travelogue conjured by a sociopath, we watch as the documentarians traipse into the majestic Amazonian jungle, an encroaching blight upon the vegetation. Their presumed superiority allows them to behave in ways far more primitive than the primitive behavior of the indigenous people they pretend to document. Soon enough we learn that bestowing the term documentarians upon this crew of charlatans is charitable at best, as they prove themselves perfectly willing to stage scenes for the camera, even resorting to violence for drama’s sake. Initially, the interactions between documentarians and indigenous hosts are peaceful, if awkward. They “break bread” together, a true sign of communal spirit, except this time it involves the broken bones and rent flesh of animals.
Thematically, the slaughtering of animals serves as carnal appetizer, but these so-called documentarians have the perceptive skills of a deaf, mute and blind man in an isolation tank, so of course they respond with increased condescension, disrespect and violence. From there things go considerably south, and more depraved, with rape, disemboweling, beheading, and gut munching on copious display. It’s hard to escape the reality that this intrepid crew of documentarians are only realizing self-prophesized destruction, brought on by their own malicious behavior. I mean, really, who hasn’t hosted a Thanksgiving with the in-laws and not wanted to throw them into a pit.
As the reel reaches its end and the film starts to repeatedly spin like a fan on the projector, I wipe the sweat from my brow and start to consider what I’ve just beheld, this cinematic construct that is spoken of in the sort whispered voice usually reserved for reporting sexual assault. Then I realized I needed a shower and a stiff drink.
After a shower, I endeavored to screen the movie again. This time, with all of my preconceived prejudices and notions dispensed with, I started to see the film in a new light. My previous observations are unchanged, and while I’m unconvinced Ruggero Deodato isn’t a sociopath, I started to see that perhaps there is a message in this madness, even if the message is delivered with all the subtlety of a child who’s just discovered profanity.
Perhaps the brutality is meant to say something about the industrialized world chewing up the primitive world. What is a camera if it’s not a machine, and what is the greatest threat to the natural world, and especially places like the untouched Amazon if it’s not machines? Who wouldn’t defend their home violently, if confronted by forces that not only disrespect your home, but treat you as archaic for wanting to defend it? The anthropologist Monroe makes this point explicitly when pondering the question, “I wonder who the real cannibals are?”
Now, any conversation about this movie has to address the fact there are animals killed on camera for shock value. I’m sure that Deodato would argue it was a matter of verisimilitude, but it’s pretty obvious the motivation was less artistically motivated than that. Killing animals for sustenance is one thing, but doing so to create unease in a film-viewer is distasteful, and effective only in so far as it makes the viewer feel they’ve been made an accomplice in an act cynical at best, and utterly inhumane at worst. Torturing and killing animals on camera is no more indicative of filmmaking artistry than is squashing a bug.
As a piece of cinema it’s as primitive as the primitive people the fictional film crew sets out to document, but that’s exactly the point. Whether it should be revered or reviled is a difficult distinction to make. It deserves reverence for it’s unquestionable effect, but should be reviled for the questionable methods used to achieve that effect. Regardless, it would be wasted breath to attempt to argue the film isn’t provocative, and that has to be credited to Deodato for better or worse… probably worse.
While I pondering this dichotomy, the bell rang at my front-door. Happy for the distraction, I went to answer it… and was confronted by my missing compatriot Foggybottom. Overjoyed to see him, I asked, “Why on earth did you send me that film to watch? Was your disappearance because of it?”
Stepping into my house, Foggybottom responded simply, “What disappearance? I was in the Amazon. I thought somebody owed those folks an apology.”