As I started working my way through the impressively put-together Mondo Cane Collection from Blue Underground, the exotic visions onscreen started inspiring others in my head: I saw hordes of tweedy academics, those devoted to the honest study of other cultures, ripping every hair from their heads in horror.
Mondo Cane, you see, is concerned with everything but the context that helps us understand others. Instead, it plucks the strangest things to be found in the National Geographic world and splices them together with a cheeky narration that plays both centuries-old traditions and fleeting fads for cheap laughs. The first film isn't nearly as shocking today as its reputation suggests, but its sequel contains images that surely still are, including footage of an immolation in protest of the Vietnam War. Happily, the silly Women of the World has none of that stuff. All told, the movies are more than mere curiosities - they're generally entertaining and do contain some fascinating glimpses of strange rituals - even if it's impossible to take them seriously on their own terms.
There's something similar about The Gods Must Be Crazy: As the fable's narrator (this one is fiction, not a doc) rambles on about the perfect innocence of the African tribe the film depicts, you can hear the screams of anthropologists driven mad by the condescension and oversimplification of it all. Then the scene shifts to the goofy white protagonist who will soon cross paths with the main Bushman, and we realize how very tongue-in-cheek everything is. The scenes not set among the Bushmen are like National Geographic as shot by Benny Hill. If you can avoid thinking too hard about the political ramifications of it all, the story's pretty charming.
When Hollywood goes abroad, its filmmaking sophistication usually makes its naive attitudes toward faraway societies a little more palatable. Take the classic swashbuckler Mutiny on the Bounty, where Clark Gable eventually finds tropical paradise after getting embroiled in an ugly episode of maritime politics. Here, the simple depiction of island folk is even easier to take, considering that it's counterbalanced by such a caricature of British cruelty as Charles Laughton's harrumphing Captain Bligh.
Cultures generally fare better onscreen when it's one of their own behind the camera. (And the resulting films get better exposure here, of course, when they speak English.) A small company called Water Bearer Films is doing right by fans of English working-class chronicler Mike Leigh by releasing his early, little-seen made-for-TV work Stateside. Their Mike Leigh Collection, Volume One is bare-bones, without any fancy features, but is a great look at the history of the man who gave us Secrets & Lies and Life Is Sweet - and whose world is about as far from that of most mainstream movies as Botswana or Tibet.
| Mondo Cane Collection (Blue Underground)
The Gods Must Be Crazy (Columbia/TriStar)
Mutiny on the Bounty, Matchstick Men (Warner Bros.)
Mike Leigh Collection, Volume One (Water Bearer)
Rain Man (MGM)
Between Your Legs (Entre Las Piernas) (TLA Releasing)
| Armchair Cinephile
That old grey mare of mental disorder films, Rain Man, was reissued recently with three commentary tracks and a short deleted scene. It's easy to be cynical about heavyweight actors like Dustin Hoffman playing roles like this - as if the scripts for this and Awakenings are mailed out attached to coupons reading "redeem for one free Oscar nomination" - but it's hard for me to fault his performance, and the movie itself still sucks me in with no trouble.
A good deal less successful is Between Your Legs (Entre Las Piernas), which tackles the pressing issue of sexual addiction. I tried, but could never take the story even a little bit seriously, despite the presence of one of the most watchable actors working today, Javier Bardem. Legs gives every sign of a thriller that takes itself at face value, but in addition to the anguished cries of legitimate therapists, I kept imagining the screams of the filmmaking team behind Mondo Cane: "Hey!" they were shouting. "Give us a crack at this goofy thing! We can do better!" •