In the Jungle

I'm a little afraid (which means terrified, when people say that) to write about In the Jungle (2017), a movie at whose heart is the subject of fear—but if I'm remembering correctly (mere hours ago)—the last line spoken is, “Don't be afraid.” I didn't take notes, though I thought about how I once had a ballpoint pen with a little light in it, handed out at a film festival for that purpose—though if you attempted to look away and take notes during this one you'd risk being lost in the jungle of words, which pretty much come non-stop (or so it seems; the words in the movie propagate the words in your mind). Not long in minutes, the movie feels fairly epic. Some refer to this as a “video”—but to me, if you sit and watch it in a theater, it's a “movie.” (A “video” is also often referred to as a “piece”—which is a word I reserve for speaking of pizza.) I mention film festivals because that is likely where you would see a movie like this—deemed “experimental”—a label that scares away mass audiences (and mass audience venues)—though for me (and for many more people than those venues realize, I think) it means banana split. Also, I think the required minute designation (I believe it's 70-something) to be considered a feature, that many film festivals enforce, is idiotic (as is having a word-count designation to make a novel). Most important is how it feels, and this feels like a feature movie, and that comes from the structure, which is in this case three distinct parts, or “acts.” I am here to declare that a movie of any length can be a feature (though if it's over two hours, it should contain an intermission).

My fear here extends from the fact that I personally know the filmmaker, Stephanie Barber—and whether it's unethical not to mention that in a review (just solved that)—and also suspecting that she may read this. Even for filmmakers who seek out their reviews, they won't find mine in the jungle of the internet, even with a powerful search party like Google. And, I probably wrongly think I know her well enough to be able to put myself in her place, reading this, and thinking, “You got that totally wrong,” and “Why didn't you mention that?”—because that's what I would do! Also, in this, as in a lot of her work I've seen, she doesn't shy away from including all of the influences percolating in her brain at the time of creating the work, stuff that my ignorance of which doesn't make me proud (unlike my ignorance of pop culture, which merely makes me smug). Also, I know she's a person who can do a NY Times crossword puzzle in the time it takes me to remember my frustration with the last one I attempted. She loves words, and though I do, too, I come from the town of willful ignorance, in the county of undiagnosed learning disorder. An example: I believe the word “corporeal” marched by, but I grabbled on, wishing I could hit pause and look it up, because I only kind of know it, and my mind wanted to, right then, develop a pun with it and corporal punishment (and Corporal Klinger). In the meantime, the movie continued on without me, alas, lost.

It starts with a woman (played by Cricket Arrison) speaking a monologue while typing on a giant Pee-Wee's Playhouse typewriter—or maybe she's voicing what she's “typing”—her notes on her long stay and study in the jungle. It's all very theatrical, and I found out later the movie is based on a performance Stephanie Barber put on, in which she played this part, as well as writing and performing much or all of the music. There is a lot of music, much of it also equally intense with lyrics, as important as the words the actors are speaking. I guess it could have been a choice to film the performance, and make a feature that way (or to go out and film in an actual jungle). Often movies based on plays feel exactly like movies based on plays, and trying to hide that makes it worse, but here, in heightening the theatricality, it makes it into an integral part. Eventually the camera turns and views the audience—it's kind of shocking when you first see it—and we stay there between “acts” as stage hands move set pieces around, accompanied by jarring repetitive sounds that could be a factory, or a noise band. Rather than this feeling like we're watching a play, it makes us wonder how much of the narrator's reality is in her own mind, which makes it all more real for the viewer (unlike enormous budget Hollywood movies whose advance technology takes us further away from the imagination, which is still more powerful than CGI). It also makes you wonder how much of what we are seeing is a child, “playing” adult, or an adult channeling childhood.

All of this served to break me free from my own biases, as a viewer—the first and hardest of which is the concept of “jungle”—and that struggle started, for me, in just being aware of the title; what does the jungle mean to me? In my case, it was a dead concept, because the first thing that comes to mind is Guns N' Roses “Welcome to the Jungle,” a terrible song by a band I like, so I wish I'd never heard it. And then there is Apocalypse Now (1979), a movie I saw too many times, so that its jungle became a comic book jungle in a comic book war adventure. At some point a tiger appears—a person in a very excellent tiger suit—and then there is a video representation of a tiger, running, running through changing backgrounds. It could be running through time—the world changing—the tiger staying the same? I'm not sure—but as a metaphor, what is a tiger? It's both too mundane and too prevalent to be useful, unless you take several steps back. For me, as a person who has spent far too much time closely examining the domestic house cat, I think of scale, and how often the only difference between something being terrifying or not is how big it is.

The second part, then, is the woman at a podium giving a presentation to an association of botanists, and again my mind got on its own runaway train, for which I apologize. While I missed what she was talking about, I was thinking, “How funny is a botanists' association?” (I'm sure botanists don't appreciate me thinking that.) I once lived in a house with several apartments, and some new neighbors moved in and took over the garden, claiming to be botanists, after which I never referred to them by name, but as “The Botanists” (which sounds like a movie from 1970). Which got me thinking about how I heard there is a remake, coming soon, of the Lost in Space TV show—which I watched from an age young enough to be terrified by it, despite the campy humor. Very bad idea (the remake), I thought, until I saw that Dr. Smith was being played by Parker Posey (an actress I love, and now that I think of it, her humor reminds me of Stephanie Barber's). That TV show (a sci-fi Swiss Family Robinson, which kept stranding the explorers on new but the same desert/jungle planets) was consistently about, like many post-war TV dramas, PTSD, and also a very bizarre obsession with and fear of plants. I don't know if anyone has written a book or article about it, but its writers constantly explored ways in which plants are not benign and passive, but aggressively threatening.

By the time the third part came around I was swimming in words and memories, and actually thought about swimming, wondering if the ocean could be considered a jungle (it's a desert, after all). Holding my breath, I thought about how the cinema is an art form that died in its infancy, and how the greatest filmmaker in its brief history, Jean-Luc Godard, is still working, and also couldn't get arrested at an American film festival. I thought about him because he's always been my example for someone whose work I can watch repeatedly and keep getting something from, because I'm maybe only understanding ten percent of it at any given time. And maybe that's where I'm at with In the Jungle.

This last part, though, contained song and dance (snake puppets!), and a late-night radio DJ (played by M.C. Schmidt) being listened to by the woman, now hiding out as a snake, in her snake sleeping bag, or hiding out in childhood. She is comforted by the DJ, feeling a connection to him, and she even calls him on the phone—a “landline.” But he's just broadcasting, both caring and indifferent. We're all broadcasting now, for little red hearts, but no two people are hearing the same thing. I thought about this time, 30 years ago, after visiting a woman I had just met—we had kind of an emotional goodbye, and I drove the couple hundred miles back home in the middle of the night. Would people, now, continue the conversation on their phones? She went to work, an overnight radio DJ, while I drifted through radio stations to keep awake, well out of range. But by some weird atmospheric connection, about halfway home, her signal drifted into my orbit, and for a few minutes I could hear her voice, talking about the songs she was playing, and how much they meant to her. I would have to get home safely, I thought, so I could write her a letter and tell her about this. Love will come and go, over the generations, the same promises and disappointments. But it is those unique moments—often fleeting and understood by no one else—that separate you from the merely hungry.

Randy Russell 4.16.18