Saturday, December 19, 2009

Jungle Jims

It used to be the other way around. In primitive hunting rituals, men would don the hides of predators like lions, tigers, and bears during ceremonies designed to help them become better hunters. Cave paintings of men and animals often seemed to pay tribute to the spirit of the animal being hunted.

In other instances, men would don the hides of their prey in the hope that, by doing so, they might acquire some of the animal's spiritual qualities and easily pass among large herds of sheep, wildebeest, etc. But during the 20th century -- as motion pictures, advertising, comics, branding, and anthropomorphism became strong influences in mass media -- we saw the pattern reverse.
While the anthropomorphization of animals provides great entertainment, one should never forget that, in their natural element, many animals are fierce predators. That's how they survive.

In recent years, as technology has made digital cameras smaller and more affordable, the filming of wildlife has exploded worldwide. All one has to do is log onto YouTube to find video clips of animals mating, giving birth, and killing other animals as prey. The growth of safari tourism in places like Botswana has allowed humans to be able to film wildlife with remarkable ease. In the following clip, a family captures a team of lions on film as they attack and kill a giraffe by the side of the road.

In Harbin, China, a popular tourist attraction is the Harbin Siberian Tiger Park where guests can pay for the privilege of feeding live chickens, ducks, cows, and ox to the Siberian tigers that roam wild within the park. This first clip gives new meaning to the concept of fast-food chicken.

In this second clip, the park's staff delivers an ox to a group of hungry tigers. Notice how quickly a bus full of tourists zooms in to take pictures of the fresh kill.

Underwater photography (which recently captured the eruption of a subterranean volcano in the Pacific Ocean) has come a long way since Jacques-Yves Cousteau's 1956 documentary, The Silent World. As amazed as we might be to see close-up footage of great white sharks gobbling up pinnipeds, the fierceness of these attacks should never be underestimated. Programs on the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and the BBC's award-winning documentary series, Planet Earth, try their best to show nature on its own terms, which are often a lot more savage than this:

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival's recent winter program at the Castro Theatre featured two classics that dealt with the law of the jungle. In one, the animals were dangerous predators. In the other, man's baser instincts had sunk to the level of the swamp.

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More than most endangered species, the public seems to have a strange fascination with tigers. William Blake first published The Tyger in 1794 as part of a poetry collection entitled Songs of Experience. Its famous text reads as follows:
"Tyger, tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water'd heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?

Tyger, tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?"
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival's screening of Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness left little question about why we now see the statement that "No animals were harmed during the making of this film" as the credits roll on many films. Shot in the Nan province of northern Siam (modern day Thailand) , the 1927 documentary shows tigers, leopards, and bears being shot and killed in their native environment.

Filmed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack (who, in 1933, would make cinematic history with King Kong), the film had a semi-fictional setup for its narrative. The dramatic concept was based on what would happen to a farmer who moved away from the safety of his village (something no Lao in his right mind would consider). In Chang, farmer Kru supposedly has built a house of his own in order to have more land (think of the plot device as a primitive yearning to own a McMansion in suburbia).

With a tiger stalking his animals and his family under threat, Kru must set traps to capture and kill the predators that have been decimating his livestock. A stampeding herd of elephants is lured into a man-made pen, where they can eventually be domesticated. Near the end of the film, the audience watches as an enraged mother elephant demolishes a primitive jungle house (that has been built on stilts) in order to free her baby.

This was a rare and fascinating opportunity to see jungle wildlife long before many species started to become extinct (the filmmakers spent more than a year in the jungle, learning how to film animals.) The film shows how close some tigers came (while leaping toward the camera) to having the cameraman for dinner.

Comparing the stampeding herd of elephants in Chang with the stamped sequence in Ong Bak II: The Beginning offered a fascinating perspective on how our ability to film wildlife has changed over the course of 80 years. Donald Sosin did a splendid job of accompanying Chang on the piano.

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The winter event's final screening was devoted to a highly controversial 1928 film. On March 30, 1926, a drama written by Charles de Vonde and Kilbourn Gordon named Kongo opened at New York's Biltmore Theatre and ran for 135 performances with Walter Huston starring as Flint.

This "syphilitic play" pushed so many buttons that news of a film version directed by Tod Browning generated waves of protest. Will H. Hays (whose censorship of controversial issues was later memorialized in the notorious Hays Code) was but one voice in the crowd determined to prevent this film from ever being made.

Lon Chaney as Phroso the Magician

Despite a huge media campaign against it, West of Zanzibar became a big hit in both domestic and international markets. It was also one of Lon Chaney, Sr.'s last films before he succumbed to lung cancer on August 26, 1930.

As the film opens, we see Chaney as Phroso, a music hall magician deeply and happily in love with his wife. Unfortunately, Anna (Jacqueline Gadsden), can't bring herself to tell her husband that she is leaving him to run off with Crane (Lionel Barrymore).

After Phroso is severely injured in a backstage fall, he ends up a poor and miserable paraplegic. Years later, when a gossipy neighbor tells him that she has seen Anna in a local church, he finds his ex-wife lying dead in the aisle and kidnaps the baby girl she has left behind. Assuming that the girl is Crane's child, he disappears from London and follows Crane's path to a lonely outpost in the Congo.

Upon arriving in the jungle, the crippled and increasingly sadistic Phroso leaves Anna's daughter Maizie (Mary Nolan) in the care of a woman of questionable virtue (Louise Emmons) who runs a dive bar in Zanzibar. After 18 years, when the girl has fully matured, Phroso -- who has established himself as a wheelchair-bound force for the superstitious natives to reckon with and is known to his friends as "Dead-Legs" -- sets into motion the plan for his revenge on Crane.

Among Phroso's cronies are the handsome Doc (Warner Baxter) -- whose alcoholism doesn't stop him from falling in love with Maizie even as the jungle's natives are preparing to burn her alive -- and two thugs: Tiny (Roscoe Ward) and Babe (Kalia Pasha). Phroso's liaison with the jungle natives is the very dark and muscular Bumbu (Curtis Nero)

As you can imagine, 18 years of bitterness in the jungle has so warped Phroso's perception that his revenge is not as well planned as he might have wished. After having Crane brought to him so that he can humiliate Crane in the presence of what he assumes to be Crane's daughter, the tables are turned on Phroso when Crane reveals that Anna never went to Africa with him. The child is actually Phroso's daughter. With the natives getting restless for a sacrificial victim, Phroso must resort to his old magic act to save the young woman's life, even if it means sacrificing his own.

Lon Chaney as "Dead Legs"

West of Zanzibar features a powerhouse performance by an angry, brooding Lon Chaney that is nicely countered by Warner Baxter's poignant portrait of an alcoholic loser. I was particularly impressed by the work of Dennis James on the Castro's Mighty Wurlitzer organ. The score he played was quite different in tone from his usual accompaniments (and may even have been modeled after the film's original score by William Axt). All in all, this was a most satisfying evening of silent film.

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