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🎬 #36 The Greatest Journeys Are Inward.
There’s a reason more than a few screenwriting books or books about story allude to the idea of a voyage. Two immediately spring to mind - say John Yorke’s ‘Into The Woods,’ or Joseph Campbell’s, ‘Hero’s Journey.’
Physical journeys in film can be one of the best manifestations of a character’s inner world - their thoughts, fears, desires. The structure gives the filmmakers a clear beginning and literal end goal, a string on which to map out the story. The journey has the potential to show their transformation more cinematically than other story formats. The fact that the character’s physically move through changing environments, encounter new people and obstacles both increasing the stakes along the way is a great formula for drama and conflict. That conflict could be with the physical environment, the society they find themselves in or directly with other people along their path.
It also allows the character to test themselves, to leave behind their old selves and transform through the hardships of the journey. Importantly, it’s one that they have chosen to undertake, knowing how challenging it’ll be but without truly comprehending the consequences.
But no matter the physical scale of the journey, a road trip across a few states, or a voyage deep into the Amazon. The greatest part of that trip will be for the character to discover something about themselves, to change. Because the further they progress along the map that marks out their physical journey, the deeper they delve into themselves.
This week’s two films are examples of journey’s onscreen - they work in a similar way and yet couldn’t be further apart.
Happy choosing, happy viewing,
FILM ONE: EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT
2015 Dir Ciro Guerra
Why should you watch this film? It’s both simple and complex, shallow and with incredible depth, physical and mystical. It’s about the lengths that men will go to to achieve what they want, and the effect that journey has on them as they venture far from home.
Its straightforward journey structure binds a tale of two scientists seeking the same flower deep in the Amazon, both guided by the same man [decades apart], who represents the last of his own tribe. The story cleverly baton passes its dual narratives - making it feel like it’s a story that will go on forever - different people searching into eternity.
The remote setting and the starkness of the black and white photography only heightens this sense of parable. The film could be read as a lesson about what it means to seek something at the cost of your own life, only to find something else, something more valuable deep inside yourself, almost as a byproduct of the journey’s main aim.
It’s a film that holds you to the screen - the central performances feel honest at every turn, the duress of the expedition made apparent in the lush sound design. The film, even though it’s devoid of colour, none the less makes you feel the strain of every paddle row, the sting of every insect and the stench of half rotten food, impatiently relenting itself to the inevitable ruler - the jungle.
Like the decomposing matter that feeds the thick canopy of the rainforest, there is a sense of inevitability that overcomes the central explorer characters, Evan and Theo. They’re divided by decades, but united in their desire to find a mystical plant far out of reach of their white hands.
What’s great about this division is that there is no cinematic cue that marks it. Guerra doesn’t highlight it by telling one story in colour and another in black and white, he simply lets them weave together as if they are all part of the same endless journey.
Their guide Karamakate, portrayed both in his young and old form, is the other unifying factor in their journey. He’s there to teach both men what it means to live here. What it means to leave all the baggage of your old life behind so that you can go further. So that you can finally reach the thing that was there all along, deep inside you, the only place with more mystery than the endlessness snaking of the Amazon eating itself.
TL;DR why should I spend 2 hr 5 mins of my precious life watching this? Enjoy the first ever Colombian film nominated in the Best Foreign Language film at that year’s Oscars, and revel in the journey deep into a foreign land that defies easy comprehension through sheer mystical power. [While also admiring the physique of actor Nilbio Torres who plays the younger Karamakate].
*Available for a small rental fee on Amazon, Apple, Google Play, YouTube and Sky Store.
Fact: The film was heavily influenced by films as diverse as Apocalypse Now, 2001, Aguirre: Wrath of God and another Herzog hit - Fitzcarraldo.
FILM TWO: KINGPIN
1996 Dir Peter and Bobby Farrelly
You might think I’m mad by saying these films are even comparable on any level. But more than just the journey factor became apparent when I started thinking and writing. Both films share the idea of a man going into a culture he’s not part of and taking advantage for his own ends, both feature a journey that mixes present and past, and both highlight the role of a teacher/guide showing someone the way through drugs - just a few of their commonalities. I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d be comparing Embrace Of The Serpent and Kingpin. But a comparison essay is not the point of this so I’ll stop blabbing. The point is, why you should watch or rewatch The Farrelly Brother’s best comedy.
It mostly comes down to chemistry, performance and perfectly dumb jokes wrapped up in a straight forward, heartfelt story. Harrelson as Munson, takes a man who fell from once great heights and lifts him up with lots of heart and empathy. He’s someone who’s a ‘low life’ but you can’t help but love him no matter how low he’s willing to go. Randy Quaid as Ishmael, a promising bowler from the local Amish community forges a perfect foil to Munson. Quaid’s commitment to the naive Ishmael fills their car with joy on the long road to Reno. Where Munson plans to have Ishmael play in a big tournament so that he can win money to save his community.
Along the journey they pick up Claudia, played by Vanessa Angel, who becomes everyone’s love interest. The three share excellent comic timing and there is a charm to the fact you can tell how hard they were trying not to laugh during takes. They’re all playing characters, not just vehicles for saying funny lines in stupid scenarios. Everything they say and do comes from honest motivation, from who their characters are. There’s a depth here that maybe isn’t as easily found in the other Brother’s movies.
The icing on the cake is Bill Murray’s Big Ern - a role he largely improvised. According to the Farrelly’s he’d see the sides that day and say ‘what you got for me?’ before balling the script pages up and adding ‘let me just run with it.’ His lines become even more impressive when you realise the majority of them are him shooting from his gut. And yet Ernie isn’t just a collection of words from a hilarious villainous bastard, he’s a character who’s all too plausible in his deviousness.
The road trip tries each of the characters as they conflict with each other and the people they encounter, and yet it brings them closer together. It makes kind of shitty people a little bit better. And Roy, through a journey into his past, into himself, comes out the player he always knew he could be, a decent guy.
TL;DR why should I spend 1 hr 54 mins of my precious life watching this? Relive, or enjoy for the first time, the Farrelly Brother’s follow-up to Dumb and Dumber, and see just how good Harrelson is while appreciating how much bang for comedy buck crazy hairpieces can get you.
*Available for free on Paramount Plus, Sky Cinema, and Virgin Media. Or for a small rental fee on Amazon, Apple, Google Play, YouTube and Sky Store.
Fact: The film struggled on initial release mainly due to hitting cinemas during the 1996 Olympic Games, but found its footing when released on VHS.
Bonus: One of Christopher Nolan’s favourite comedies.
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