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A Quest Called Tribe

Virtually nothing is taboo on TV these days. Full-frontal vomiting, penises, the C-word, and masturbation are almost de rigueur in highbrow quality drama. This has made the advisory labels attached to nighttime programming— warnings of “mature content” unsuitable for minors or those of nervous disposition—seem quaint. But the caution at the start of Going Tribal caught my eye: “This program . . . contains indigenous nudity,” it reads, flashing you back to the days when desperate teenagers sought out their parents’ National Geographic, ogling the saggy boobs of loin-clothed natives from exotic corners of the globe.

Now entering its second season on the Discovery Channel, Going Tribal fuses the spiritual questing of a Terence McKenna with the hardcore thrill-seeking of MTV’s Wild Boys. Call it ecstatic tourism or extreme ethnography: Each hour-long episode sends the show’s star, Bruce Parry, to live with a different indigenous people for an entire month, during which he gradually becomes accepted into the tribe, a process that usually culminates with an initiation ritual of some sort. Parry is neither a hippie nor a macho Jackass type, though. He’s an expedition leader and former lieutenant in the British Marines, with a jovial, self-deprecating manner that vaguely recalls that other likable English globe-trotter, Michael Palin. Parry’s doe- eyed, gentle aura clearly helps him win the trust of his aboriginal hosts. The tribes- folk aren’t threatened—in fact, they often treat him as an endearing half-wit who needs to be schooled in basic skills. In one episode, the village elders marvel at the clumsy way Parry spits cow’s blood in their faces (spattering your peers being a ceremonial gesture of respect). “Wow, he spits like a child,” one old man mutters with genuine bemusement. “It’s his first time,” another allows, in a rare moment of cultural relativism.

Parry has another trait necessary for this kind of travelogue: an openness to unfamiliar experiences that goes well beyond
Fear Factor territory. He’s willing—though not always eager—to try anything, whether it’s chowing down on maggots, slaughtering an animal, or sucking hallucinogenic tree bark to commune with the spirit world. After gulping a serving of clotted cow’s blood with pained politeness, he confesses to the camera that the blood smoothie reminded him of “the hairs and goo you find at the bottom of the bath plug.” I’ve seen him truly flinch only once, when a tribe introduced him to the local custom of shoving one’s penis back inside the body. Parry gamely had a go, immediately fainted, and then stumbled off-camera with an apologetic “no, no, that’s not happening” as his warrior pals looked on in puzzlement.

Going Tribal is partly about demysti-fiying these unutterably alien-seeming cultures, revealing not just the common humanity underneath foreign behavior and beliefs, but also the economic struggles for resources and territory. The show suggests that, yes, we are all brothers under the skin, while wringing drama out of extreme cultural differences. The editing and the low-key docudrama feel of the production help avoid a sense of sensationalistic voyeurism, a remarkable feat given some of the things these tribes do. Take the cannibalistic Kombai tribe of West Papua, Indonesia. Parry listens gravely as his new friends explain that they consume the stomach and brains of dead enemies as a way to banish evil spirits. “I can see no reason why they would lie to me,” he remarks. “And I find that I am not shocked.”

Parry’s diary-style narration envelopes you in the experience of being there, but he does try to widen the frame by sketching in some political and geographical context. On his way to meet the Babongo tribe of Gabon, Parry notes how the logging industry is swiftly transforming the region, turning these traditional forest folk into roadside people. Then there is the Suri clan of Ethiopia, whose region has been rocked by constant civil war in nearby Sudan. After bonding with the Suris last season, he decides to meet their sworn enemies, the legendarily vicious Nyagatom tribe, “to find out what they have done to deserve such a terrible reputation.” Leaving the Suri’s lush green landscape, Parry discovers that the Nyagatom subsist in a parched desert wasteland where they scrabble to survive. All the natural assets border on Suri land; this is a battle for dwindling resources, made more tragic and bloody by the AK-47s that have replaced traditional spears. Belying their fearsome image, the Nyagatom are incredibly merry for people who are half starving. The children sing and dance with Parry, the women mischievously tease him, and the guys teach him to guard the goats and eventually initiate him into the tribe.

These ceremonies are central to most episodes, partly because Parry’s focus is almost always on the menfolk (a female-centric version of the show would be much more daring, if unimaginable). In southwest Ethopia, Parry must perform a cattle-jumping stunt to be considered a tribesman. During his month in Gabon, he goes through an amazingly protracted and strenuous ordeal featuring the psychedelic iboga plant. After puking all day, Parry sees visions of his past misdeeds from the perspective of the people he harmed— a fascinating experiment in empathy that inadvertently parallels the show’s aim to glimpse the world through others’ eyes.

Deftly blending entertainment and edification, Going Tribal is also an exercise in serial enchantment, for Parry and for us. The most disorienting thing about the show is not that he gets so immersed in these cultures but that he is able to leave. Over and over, Parry bonds with the families he meets and has his worldview shaken. Often he leaves with tears in his eyes—yet leave he must, on to the next life-altering epiphany.

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Rack Focus

Afro Promo: Black Cinema Trailers 1946–76
(Other Cinema)

This eye-opening disc from the always adventurous Other Cinema compiles trailers from 30 years’ worth of films made by or starring African Americans. Titles run the gamut from Hollywood prestige pictures like 1958’s The Defiant Ones and 1972’s Sounder (“broadens the definition of what a black movie can be”) to low-budget blaxploitation flicks (the hero of 1972’s Cool Breeze is after “$3 million of whitey’s ice”). The promo for Mandingo (1975) breathlessly promises “all the shocking innocence and depravity” of the old South, while The Last Safari (1967) offers National Geographic–style “tribal” nudity, but viewed in one sitting, the whole package is less a Cliffs Notes history of Hollywood racism than a chilling testament to the capacity of marketing to co-opt social change.


Way Down South
(Roan)

This bizarre 1939 musical is significant as one of the rare golden-age studio films scripted by African Americans—in this case, poet Langston Hughes and actor Clarence Muse (who also co-stars, spending much of his performance disguised as a white woman). The opening scenes suggest some uncredited rewrites—the depiction of slavery in antebellum Louisiana is downright cheerful, but a couple of the musical numbers are pleasantly unhinged, an effect enhanced by the overall lack of narrative coherence. Adding to the strangeness is the presence of child singing sensation Bobby Breen, who stars as an orphaned plantation owner’s son. Directed by future blacklistee Bernard Vorhaus.

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Fifteen Minutes

To spend even a few minutes looking at National Geographic’s WildCam—a round-the-clock streaming-video feed from the edge of a watering hole in the middle of a Botswanan wildlife preserve—is to want to sing its praises. The harder part is saying just why it deserves them. Educational? OK. But after you’ve registered the fact that elephants, zebras, baboons, warthogs, steenboks, and lesser bush babies all enjoy a drink now and then, what exactly is to be learned from watching them enjoy it at epic—nay, Warholian—length? Earth friendly, sure: But while eco-tourism doesn’t get much more low-impact than this (the webcam is safely ensconced in an unobtrusive, paw-proof cage), the savanna-as-screensaver approach surely does not point the way toward a deeper relationship between humankind and its environment. Even the park rangers’ blog, clearly designed to inject some narrative into this uneventful flow (“Did any of you see fattie [the crocodile] catch a cat fish this morning?”), doesn’t so much bring the Web surfer closer to the wilderness as turn the wilderness into a season of The Real World.

But that’s no surprise. The world’s first webcam—the famous “Internet coffee pot,” an automatic coffee-maker in a computer-science lab somewhere, its image updated every 20 seconds to tell the world whether it was full or not—predated the reality-television craze but delivered a similar frisson of framed, surveillant intimacy. A decade later, the WildCam, with its languid impalas and long stretches of bird-sung emptiness, brings us a long-overdue updating of the form, introducing a lyricism and charm that nicely round out what remains the same old coffee-pot Zen: full, not full; animals, no animals; it’s not the information being fed us that we attend to—it’s the feed itself.

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screens

Guns, Germs, and Steel, a provocative three-part miniseries based on Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer-winning book of the same name, sets out to answer a huge question: How did the world ever become so unequal?

Diamond is not interested in the great-man theory of history. His speculations are very fair to the third world, attributing the success of European civilization to sheer geographical luck rather than superior intelligence. Europeans, he claims, were able to develop technology that allowed them to dominate the rest of the world because their forebears and neighbors in the Middle East had the best land and animals for farming, freeing up energy for other things—like creating written languages and sophisticated weapons.

This sharp National Geographic program cleverly positions Diamond as a dashing action figure rather than a drab academic. We see him slicing through jungles, pulling the trigger on a 16th-century gun, and gazing on the destruction wrought by malaria germs in the children’s ward of a Zambian hospital. These visuals lend his speculation an air of concreteness, and the title is even turned into a catchphrase (one that wears out its welcome with constant repetition). Guns, Germs, and Steel may not convince viewers that human agency plays such a negligible part in history, but it will likely make you question your global perspective—a pretty impressive achievement for a three-hour special.

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Scan Artists

Q: I’ve got a shoebox full of old snapshots that I’m looking to digitize, so I’m in the market for a scanner—the cheaper the better, as the flailing economy has been treating my bank account the way a baby treats a diaper. What kind of specs should I look for? And is $100 or under doable?

Ignore the fast-talking salesman who’ll try and steer you toward fancy scanners with “broad dynamic range” and “Digital Grain Equalization Management,” as well as make you feel intellectually inferior by rattling off a slew of acronyms. For the 95 percent of home users who just want to burn CDs of vacation photos, a low-end model will suffice. You might need to splurge a tad for decent software, but there’s no reason on earth you should wind up paying more than $200.

Scanner spec lists are long, jargony, and mostly useless. The only numbers you need to note are optical resolution, expressed in dots per inch (dpi), and color depth, expressed in bits. The former is usually represented by two figures, like 600 x 1200 dpi, or 1200 x 2400 dpi. Pay attention only to the lower figure; anything 600 or over will be plenty sharp enough. In fact, you’ll probably rarely max out the scanner’s resolution, since higher quality pictures require much more disk space. For amateurs, 300 dpi usually does the trick.

Color depth determines how well the scanner can differentiate between hues and tones in the original—the higher the number, the richer the color. As long as a scanner’s got at least 30-bit depth, you’re good to go. Don’t be suckered into spending big bucks on models with a whopping 48 bits, unless you’re going to be digitally submitting your Club Med photos to National Geographic. A lot of systems convert scanned photos into 24-bit files for printing purposes anyway, so color depth is often a moot point.

Finding a sub-$100 scanner with adequate specs isn’t a problem, but Mr. Roboto strongly recommends ponying up a few extra quid for a model that comes bundled with helpful software. At a minimum, you should demand an optical character recognition (OCR) utility, which lets you scan in documents and then edit them in a word-processing program. Also keep an eye peeled for software that lets you post pictures directly to the Web, image editors like Adobe PhotoDeluxe, or printing aids that’ll turn your 8 x 10s into passport-sized photos.

The final detail to note is speed. Lots of budget scanners connect to your computer via the slow-as-molasses USB port. Seek out models that take advantage of speedier USB 2.0 or FireWire connections, through which data streams up to 40 times faster. If your computer features neither type of port, invest in a cheap adapter; you’ll thank Mr. Roboto when you’re frolicking in the sunshine, rather than waiting for yet another baby picture to scan in at a lethargic 1.5 megabits per second.

As for a specific recommendation, Mr. Roboto admits to being impressed with Hewlett-Packard’s ScanJet 2300c. It’s a mammoth contraption that still relies on some older technology, and there’s no Mac compatibility. But it does hit all the performance benchmarks, and you can currently scoop one up direct from hpshopping.com for $70 plus shipping. Mac adherents can shell out a little more elsewhere for the 3500c, a steal for under $90 despite some lackluster color performance.

Don’t be hypnotized by the HP name, though. Acer, UMAX, and Canon all have good reps for churning out bargain scanners. If you’re really strapped for cash, simply wait for the inevitable after-Christmas sales, when they’ll practically be giving away the 2002 leftovers. Six-month-old scanners, like day-old doughnuts or irregular underwear, rarely disappoint a dyed-in-the-wool bargain hunter.


Mr. Roboto’s a sucker for beach balls, which probably explains why Ellula’s Hot Air Speakers (available at Ellula.com) were such a treat. A few quick puffs, jack in an MP3 player, and you’ve got yourself a portable sound system, albeit one that should not be placed near sharp objects or curious dogs. The inflatable speakers churn out respectable sound, on par with a mid-range boom box. For $45 to $50, not a bad deal, though your audiophile, music-snob friends will scoff. Then again, they’ll scoff at anything.


 

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Bigger They Come

No need to bet your bottom Sacagawea dollar on it: Given that Lewis & Clark: Great Journey West (at the Loews IMAX) was produced by National Geographic and sponsored by Eddie Bauer, the flick’s grandiose, guardedly p.c. take on the advent of manifest destiny is a foregone conclusion. Meticulously re-created and impersonal as the elements, the movie’s less a history lesson than a set of commemorative postcards.

In fairness, IMAX films necessarily hinge on spectacle, and Great Journey West manages several beauts while dashing through the Louisiana Purchase. There’s a truly staggering buffalo stampede and a brief moonlit shot of the Rockies—clutching at the night and seemingly infinite—that hammers home the enormousness of the explorers’ task. By and large, though, the filmmakers are content to sweep via helicopter from one unspoiled-wilderness tableau to the next, cramming as much U.S.A. as possible into the large-format frame. It’s the fable of expansion, with Jeff Bridges narrating. Trouble is, Lewis and Clark (as evidenced by the movie’s brief journal excerpts) lived it rock by rock, maintaining their spirits via discoveries small as well as great. Too bad they’re almost always in long shot. Predictably, the expedition’s reliance and effect on Native Americans is underlined or elided where convenient—likewise the instability of man’s grip on nature. A detailed address of such concerns would be at odds with Great Journey West‘s bold-stroke aesthetic; the prevailing impression is of having missed the trees for the forest.

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Far and Away

The movie camera defies gravity in Himalaya, an action picture with yaks set 12,000 feet above sea level. French documentarian Eric Valli, an author and National Geographic photographer, has lived in Nepal for nearly two decades. His visually dazzling debut feature draws upon his intimate knowledge of the remote Dolpo region and its people.

There, Nepalese power struggles stretch beyond palace intrigues to the most distant recesses of Tibetan culture. Himalaya opens as Tinle (Thinlen Lhondup), an old village chieftain, confronts the body of his eldest son, brought back by a yak caravan from the mountains. Tinle blames Karma (Gurgon Kyap), a young cowboy, for the mysterious death. He nominates his small grandson, Passang, as chief and proposes they lead the village’s caravan together on its yearly trek to trade salt for grain. The upstart Karma departs before the traditional date, begging Pema, Passang’s mother, to join him. But Pema (Lhakpa Tsamchoe, from Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Seven Years in Tibet, which made her the region’s first international movie star) refuses to betray her father-in-law. Together with Tinle’s second son (a tender young lama), and a few elderly caravaners, they set out on their harsh journey.

There’s plenty of suspense along the way, as lines of yaks bearing salt snake along cliffsides and through snowstorms. Cinematographers Eric Guichard and Jean-Paul Meurisse present a pristine window onto a spectacular, hidden world, where the bodies of the deceased are hacked to bits in order to provide food for vultures and snow-capped peaks rise above verdant valleys. This pure vision of an untouched culture is a lure, but it’s also a liability, since purity inspires awe, and awe (as in Annaud’s film) may lead to ponderousness. Tinle’s mingled rage and grief strike a powerful note, but his conflict with Karma is as heavy and inevitable as a yak’s footfall. In Khyentse Norbu’s The Cup, Tibetan monks exiled in India are obsessed with the World Cup soccer tournament; the film unfolds in an environment “contaminated” by Western culture where empty soda cans sit on a lama’s altar, and yet it’s animated by a Buddhist spirit. Himalaya lacks such lightness, humor, and grace, offering instead the surface beauty of an ancient and inviolate culture.

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Might of the Hunter

A grassroots refutation of Discovery Channel/National Geographic dispassion, The Great Dance: A Hunter’s Story is hot and sweaty with fetching curves. From the opening shots—a series of kaleidoscopic video views that suggest a camera tunneling through either a nightscape or someone’s digestive tract—the hyperfocal visuals clear out any thought that this might be PBS. Lensing in cooperation with the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in South Africa, Craig and Damon Foster spent three years alongside the !Xo San bushmen in the central Kalahari. At times their technique implies an equal amount of time taking in extreme sports videos. For all the intensive wrangling of digital-video footage and data, it appears as if a good deal of the shoot was spent breaking the portable cameras—as evidenced by certain perilous shots, like the ones that go nose-to-nose with a lion or a lens-pecking vulture. The !Xo have never been documented from the inside out, Coke-promoting tale The Gods Must Be Crazy notwithstanding. The Great Dance mostly covers the “chasing hunt,” a process in which three hunters, !Nqate, Karoha, and Xlhoase, track an animal through shimmering, sweltering heat waves, with minimal water, in an attempt to take over its mind and wear it out. The photography not only inhabits the eyes of the hunters but takes on the point of view of beetles, scorpions, cheetahs, even raindrops. The lens distortions are so intense that when the camera tracks a real-life cheetah close-up, the animal seems to house two battling dwarves. The only generic doc tic here is the jollified narration by South African actor Sella Maake Ka-Ncube, which resembles the least effort by Annie‘s Geoffrey “Punjab” Holder.