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Keep The River On Your Right (R)

Paramount Pictures
Official Site

Director: David and Laurie Shapiro
Producer: David and Laurie Shapiro
Cast: Tobias Schneebaum, Norman Mailer

Rating: out of 5

This is easily one of the most frustrating movies I've seen in some time.

KEEP THE RIVER ON YOUR RIGHT: A MODERN CANNIBAL TALE is taken from Tobias Schneebaum's book of the same name. In 1955 Schneebaum, a New York City art historian, received a Fulbright award to study in Peru. He walked into the rainforest, disappeared for seven months, and was about to be given up for dead when he returned. In the fullness of time, he wrote about how he'd "gone native," living with the Amarakaire, and joining in their lifestyle, including their cannibalism. Forty years later, the filmmakers Shapiro looked up Schneebaum and persuaded him to return to Peru and to New Guinea.

Even without the sensational aspects, this is the stuff of high adventure. Some mild-mannered academic, a consummate New Yorker, never noted for being much of a Boy Scout, wanders off into a jungle without so much as a compass, and with no clue who or what he'll meet? This should be some ripping yarn. Instead it's a peculiarly lifeless enterprise, much like the 16 mm filmstrips that have lulled many a student to sleep.

In actuality, Schneebaum's brief experience of cannibalism in Peru seems to have overshadowed his well-regarded body of anthropological work. Though he is a noted illustrator and cataloger of Asmat decorative arts, when he gives a museum lecture to Barnard students, the students' questions center on his Peru experiences instead of his experiences with the Asmat in New Guinea. Would that they had asked him. In New Guinea, Schneebaum, who is gay, once again was able to "put myself into positions where I became part of the landscape," making a love match with Aipit, whom he met again on the return trip in the 1990s.

It seems fitting that Schneebaum allows the kind of intimate glance at his life in Asmat as the anthropologists bend on the Asmat people. Also there is excellent ethnographic footage of similarities of celebrations in Schneebaum's Asmat and Jewish families. And Schneebaum has some trenchant comments on the kind of culture-mining body adornment (tattooing, branding, scarification, piercing, object insertion) popular among Western youth, which he terms "consumer tribalism." Mostly though, the movie seems like kind of long and costly therapy for Schneebaum's Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (from his experiences with the Amarakaire, who went on a raid and killed the inhabitants of another tribal village, to his surprise and lasting horror, then ate them).

I actually left the theater rather interested in finding library books about or by Schneebaum. A guy who's done all this stuff, it can't be as flat as this movie makes it, I thought. Too bad the Shapiros managed to suck the life out of Schneebaum's story-no sizzle and no steak either. Remember the Monty Python sketch where the public schoolmaster gives a sex-ed class by actually having sex with a woman while providing dry-as-dust clinical explication (thus proving that anything can be made boring and classroom-ready)?

-Roxanne Bogucka, an Action Grrl

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

Itís worth a full-price ticket.

Itís worth a matinee ticket.

Wait for video rental.

Check out the video from the library, if you must.

While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...

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