Revisited: Tigrero

by Tony Nigro

”pi-RAN-ya!!”

Of all the movies I watch, only a small fraction get written about. An even smaller fraction consists of films I’ve re-watched. I suffer horribly from feeling the need to see everything I possibly can, that I have 100 years of catching up to do, and it doesn’t leave a lot of time for re-watching. Yet there is an undeniable pleasure in re-watching a film (detailed a while back by Girish Shambu, more thoughtfully and eloquently than I ever could), and every so often I watch one for a second, third or fourth time and see, feel or think something completely new. It’s a growth, and not the kind you need to get removed.

These visions, feelings and thoughts are longer lasting than anything I could have experienced the first time around, and sometimes I change my mind completely. Often I find my original opinions were influenced by my age or the place of viewing. The factors are so complex that I’m starting a category on the site to document this kind of revisiting. It won’t be restricted to film crit, either. I’ve got drawers and trunks and closets of crap that I forget about and could stand to revisit — either to re-experience it or to decide to finally junk it.

It’s only appropriate that the inaugural revisit be to a film that is itself about revisiting a film. Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made was directed by Mika (brother of Aki) Kaurismaki, but it is Sam Fuller’s movie through and through. In 1954, 20th Century Fox sent the director to the Brazilian jungle to research, location scout and find inspiration for a story. The result was that Fuller shot 16mm footage of the journey, smoked a ton of cigars, hung out with some natives, came up with a yarn called Tigrero!, garnered interest from the studio and big stars, and never made the movie. Forty years later, the pretense of Tigrero (no exclamation!) is that Fuller returns to Brazil with the 16mm film, a documentary crew and, for some undisclosed reason, Jim Jarmusch. There Fuller revisits the Karajá tribe he grew so fond of, shows them his home movies and recounts to Jarmusch the story behind a movie that was never made.

I first saw Tigrero in the latter half of 1999 on VHS in my dingy basement apartment in Jersey City. I was little more than a year out of college, a Jarmusch devotee tickled by the idea of seeing him cavort with the late Fuller, who I was only beginning to discover. There was such a joy in seeing these two interact in the obviously staged interludes, Jim the yin to Sammy’s yang.

Jarmusch: Come on, that was forty years ago. They don’t even remember who the hell you are.

Fuller: We’ve got to take a crack at it!

Jarmusch: Sam, I think you’re on crack, man.

Over the years I’ve become an unabashed Fuller fan — of the man as much as his movies. His every utterance of “piranha” (“pi-RAN-ya!!”) has built in exclamation points, and I never tire of seeing this raconteur and occasional blowhard in action. If I have half of his energy and moxie and life experience when I’m that age, I’ll be a happy man.

Yet in Tigrero we get to see the man in a more fragile state, aged and a few years before his death. When they first arrives in the Karaj´ village, Jarmusch holds Fuller’s arm as a grandson would. Fuller is then visibly troubled by the years’ progress, which he equates with telephone poles and concrete. The tough-talking newspaperman exterior falters a little, giving way to disappointment and an uncharacteristic senior moment.

Mostly, the Jim & Sam scenes are functional padding, as are like the repetition of facts and use of protracted clips from Shock Corridor that feature Fuller’s Brazilian footage. Also functional is the story behind Fuller’s unmade movie. In Hollywood, aborted projects and almost-mades are the daily bread. That Fuller admits to losing interest after the insurance company wouldn’t insure the picture isn’t only boring, it deflates his typical do-or-die persona.

The real story here isn’t the past as much as it is the present — rather the present’s relationship to the past. The film’s most striking moments are during and after the Karajá’s screening of Fuller’s 1954 footage. The recollections of two of the Karajá in particular, a man who recognizes his dead father and a woman who sees her dead husband, are indicative of the magic of motion pictures. These are a people not bombarded by recorded images as we are. When they revisit, their memories are more their own than the camera’s. Their emotional responses to thoughts about lost loved ones seem so pure — a stoic melancholy rather than crippling sadness — that we can excuse Fuller when he romanticizes the tribal society as more advanced than our own.

In this case, the old man is right.  They’re advanced in their ability to look back.

(originally published at (A Superhero Named) Tony)

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