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Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made

Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made(1994)


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Over the years, there have been some great pictures made about the exasperating process of shooting too-ambitious films; Les Blank's Burden of Dreams and Fax Bahr's and George Hickenlooper's Hearts of Darkness quickly spring to mind. But, as its title indicates, Mika Kaurismaki's Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made (now available on DVD from Fantoma Films), is a documentary about a picture that never made it past the planning stage. And it's still pretty interesting.

In 1954, maverick director Sam Fuller journeyed to the jungles of central Brazil to do research for a proposed adventure film starring John Wayne, Ava Gardner, and Tyrone Power. When it turned out that no one would insure big stars in such a secluded area, the project was shelved by 20th Century Fox producer Darryl Zanuck. However, Fuller, who never shied away from adventure, was very taken with a tribe of Karaja Indians he met while he was scouting locations. For nearly 40 years, he dreamed of coming back to their village, Mato Grosso.

Enter Kaurismaki. In 1993, Kaurismaki recruited current-day cult director Jim Jarmusch to accompany the aged Fuller as he returned to Brazil to reminisce, and maybe even re-meet some of the Indians who so touched him all those years ago. The documentary they came up with is often fascinating, and pretty exasperating in its unnecessary contrivances, but still worth experiencing if only because of Fuller.

Fuller is a raconteur of the highest order, a Hemingway-like construct who puffs on a stogie while recounting amazing stories that may well have been revved up by the passage of time and his own gift for self-promotion. Fuller, you come to realize, is just as much the product of a now-bygone era as the Karaja Indians are, but it's such a colorful era, he ends up eating Jarmusch alive.

The pair's onscreen moments together, many of which seem rather unaccountably staged by Kaurismaki, point up the difference between a filmmaker who embraces other people's humanity and feeds it through his own imagination, and one who ceaselessly maintains an ironic distance in order to maintain indie cred.

There are points during Tigrero where I felt like sending Jarmusch a return ticket, or just plain smacking him one. He might have helped himself (and the movie as a whole)) had he been able to speak in anything but clipped, dull-voiced sentences. His surface-deep questioning of Fuller is often unintentionally funny, just as it was in Jarmusch's own documentary about Neil Young & Crazy Horse, the otherwise electrifying Year of the Horse. Someone needs a few hundred more espressos.

Still, there's much to enjoy in Tigrero. Far and way the most memorable moments come courtesy of 16mm CinemaScope footage ­ Who knew you could shoot Scope in 16mm?! - something Fuller shot during his first visit. Seeing the Karajas, who have no access to photographs or film, watch long-dead relatives (and themselves as much younger people) on a TV monitor is worth the price of a rental all by itself.

The print is as clean as can be expected, given the circumstances of the shoot; digital footage and Fuller's 40 year-old work is incorporated into something of a mishmash. Fantoma includes interesting photographs taken by Jarmusch, a portion of Fuller's script, and all of Fuller's research footage, which is presented here in CinemaScope. There's also, unfortunately, a commentary track by Jarmusch and Kaurismaki in which it's hard to understand Kaurismaki's heavily-accented English (he's Finnish), and Jarmusch carries on just as dully as he does in the film. Some directors need to stay behind the camera and away from the microphone. Happily, Sam Fuller wasn't one of them.

For more information about Tigrero: A Film That Never Was, visit Fantoma Films. To order Tigrero, go to TCM Shopping.

by Paul Tatara