Chang: a drama of the wilderness (1927

November 9, 2008 § Leave a comment

Dir.: Schoedsack and Cooper titles by achmed abdullah over a still image of jungle vegetation

The Natives “who have never seen a moving picture” (even though they are very good actors, as will be shortly seen) Wild beasts “who have never had to fear a modern rifle” (even though Kru and the other villagers will use nothing but rifles to do their hunting) “before man trod the earth – then, as now, there stretched across vast spaces of farther Asia a great green threatening mass of vegetation…the Jungle…”

hokum all…(even though the rifles really are not modern, and even if this is really the first — and last — film these actors ever played in)

The beginning is about…the beginning of civilisation itself: the battle between civilisation and the jungle. Rather than a “historical” introduction, it serves to build plot rather than background. Immediately after the film shows the life of the Kru family: daily life, details of farming, husking the grain. But the difference with a Flaherty is clear: Flaherty lets each gesture go to its natural limit, taking the time it needs (the tatoo ceremony in Moana), while here all gestures are as much as possible made to fit into some suspenseful narrative (the attack of the leopard, or the planting of the rice which is right away tuned into the suspense of rain and survival). Similarly, the “night” scene (obviously shot in the day) plants the family retiring to its fort-like house (retiring the ladder, closing a gate on top), and then lets loose all kinds of dramatic encounters (tiger and buffalo, leopard and goat). In the editing, it’s enough to let you agree with Bazin that reality in cinema is better translated in the long take…(whereas the editing carries meaning, plot meaning or philosophical or political or…).

The transformation into narrative and drama is astonishing: even the flight from the elephants and the subsequent leopards is staged, the family faking the panic, the flight of the monkey edited to make it look like it catches up with the family who waits for it at some point, the father faking his near-fall in the trap, and so on. It’s more than subtitles telling a story: the editing is strongly fictional.

And even when, as opposed to Flaherty, the lifestyle may not be reconstructed. Those villagers have guns and those do seem to be their houses–though this should be checked of course.Flaherty re-creates a reality long gone, but lets actions flow morre or less naturally (though drama is there too), so that he gives us a bit of nostalgic reality. Schoedsack and Cooper take a bit of current reality and turn it into a drama, to the point where even the elephants seem to obey them (or when the villagers transform what was their village into a huge elephant trap, one has the feeling to be watching the rehearsal for a Griffith battle — feeling also of desolation: what price for those spectacular images ? the entire village ? Why did villagers submit to this extensive safari ? Why did they agree to be turned into extras ? Apparently they got help from local missionaries into selecting the actors for the film — Kru for instance played the lead role, his wife in the film was some one else’s wife).

On the one hand, reconstituted fiction turned documentary; on the other, actual reality channeled into fiction. Even if that “reality” is strongly focused on the hunting. The plot is at times nonsensical: the village destroyed, do they repair it ? No, they build an elephant trap and go capturing part of a herd.

Everyday reality, undramatic, is abandonned rather quickly indeed. But then, also unlike Flaherty, Schoedsack and Cooper are upfront about it: they wanted to make a fiction, planned it as such. Flaherty disguises his staging as documentary truth. Is it a realistic fiction, then ?

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