Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Gods Must Be Crazy

"The Gods Must Be Crazy" (Jamie Uys, 1980) 
Inelegantly filmed comedy that begins almost as a social documentary, then devolves into a slapstick fest with automatic weapons.  "The Gods Must Be Crazy" has its liberal heart in the right place, but is inept in its execution and a bit desperate in its storyline, bringing in running guerilla battles into a storyline that should have remained with its set-up: the encroachment of civilization (so-called) on indigenous people.

Xin (N!xau) is a Sho, living in the Kalahari desert.  A member of a tribe of hunter-gatherers, they have (somewhat unbelievably) managed to escape any kind of contamination by industrialized society, other than the ocassional plane flying over, which to the Sho are manifestations of the god who provides them life and food.

One day, god tosses a Coke bottle out of his winged chariot, which falls to the Earth and which the Sho see as a wonderful tool—multi-functional and beautifully elegant—that they then use in their day-to-day.  But, as there's only one and many Sho, it leads to squabbling and fights that threaten the tribe's cohesion, so Xin (wisely, I think) determines that he will walk to the ends of the Earth to give it back to his gods.

The ends of the Earth are a long slog, and Xin inevitably confronts dim examples of his gods, in their rattle-trap conveyances and their cities and jails, arbitrary rules and disorganization and squabbles that make a Coke bottle seem like...garbage.

After a series of increasingly action-oriented situations, Xin accomplishes his goal and makes it back to his tribe, a little wiser to the ways of the gods and not having any of it.  The End...until the four sequels happen.

This thing was a world-wide smash when it played around the world, and it's difficult to see why.  Look, I dig the message on many levels, all well and good, but I watched in stupefied pity as the film became increasingly more awful on the way to its graceful conclusion, in much the same funk I watch the films of Ed Wood.  It's one of those cases that match the phrase that graces the header of Jim Emerson's excellent "Scanners" blog ("There's nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view that I hold dear." -- Daniel Dennett ).  And "The Gods Must Be Crazy" is a bad argument...about bad arguments.  There were charges of racism when the film came out and a couple nations even banned it, but I don't know if it's racism when everybody looks a little silly (As the whites are the most lame bunch of saps, I suppose you could make a case for "reverse racism" if you actually believe in that term, which, to me, seems like something you'd say in schoolyard bickerings).  I see the film as a missed opportunity; it could have been a lovely film, comedy or no, about "losing my religion," and the shattering of long-held beliefs—it is, of course, but it's not a "lovely film" by any stretch.  It's like a Benny Hill sketch of that theme.  All it needs a is a "Yakkety Sax" soundtrack.

K came back from her trip to South Africa, with a constant refrain excaping from her lips: "Hey! Teacher! Leave those kids alone!"  That snippet of Pink Floyd elegantly encapsulated her feelings about what "civilization" has done (and is still doing) to "raise up" indigenous peoples to "improve themselves" in the name of God and Knowledge and Commerce.  They'd survived centuries without it—why now?  All the teachers haven't learned the lesson that what they are providing has only led to poverty and loss of a way of life that had been working, and never will again, making them dependent on an imposed system (Wow, I'm starting to sound dangerously conservative here!) they had previously never wanted...or needed.  The teachers are providing solutions that don't work to a problem that they, themselves, created.  When will they ever learn?

Next planet, I guess, huh?

In the meantime, I live two blocks from an "Indian Reservation" and a very large casino that rakes in the bucks with gambling, fatty buffet-food, nostalgic entertainment and cheap liquor.  They've learned the lessons we taught them very well, and have turned them against us.  Cochise should be raising his bow in triumph.  Now, that's comedy for ya.


Mike Lippert said...

This movie is both fun and unbearable. You're right, it has a good message, but to end is the silliness that we have to endure worth getting that message. The second film is even worse. I'm not sure but I thought I read somewhere that there was a third film as well but my knowledge of it does not exist.

I think why this film was so popular internationally is because it gave white people a chance to pat themselves on the back; not only were they cultured for supporting a foreign film (even that label is questionable with regards to this film) and it made them feel as if they were fighting the good fight, sympathizing with the natives, etc. That's the problem with a lot of films I find though, just because people can tell you what it is about, they sometimes mistake that for it actually being good.

The Kid In The Front Row said...

I've never even heard of this movie!

Yojimbo_5 said...

You're right on the money, Mike. And there are FOUR sequels...according to Wikipedia, the last three out of Hong Kong, indicating that they're on the money, too. At least in acquiring it.

Kid, ya might want to by-pass this one. Saturdays are "Take Out the Garbage" day on LNTAM. Sometimes with movies, ignorance is bliss.

Unknown said...

When I saw this film myself, I didn't understand why it had been so successful during its time. It's somewhat charming at first, but it's also pretty slapstick and predictable. I remember footage speeding up like Benny Hill. The novelty of seeing "real bushmen" must have been the main draw.