Back to Africa and the Art of Life

in 73rd Venice International Film Festival

by Gerald Peary

The Venice International Film Festival is overwhelmingly a narrative affair. At the 2016 Fest, I snuck away from the 20-movie Competition to take in several savory documentaries.

Ulrich Seidl’s Safari is his newest take on the grotesquery of cultural tourism, after his acclaimed fictional Paradise: Love (2012), Kenya-set. Here he’s back to Africa, following a flock of eager Austrians who have landed in Namibia to strut their stuff as big game hunters. They are vacationing at a hunting lodge to shoot zebras, giraffes, and other exotic animals for the fun of it, for the excitement and adrenalin rush. What joy to place a bullet in the correct spot in an animal’s shoulder or breast, to watch the shocked beast stumble, topple over, and lie there dead. What ecstasy to stand with a rifle proudly behind the still-warm body, to hold its head up by the horns, and pose for a photograph to show to the folks back home.

There is no voice-over from Seidl, no overt condemnation of these blood-crazed amateur hunters.  It’s up to the audience to decide if those on screen are creepy and inhumane or, in a world of stockyards, butchers, and avid meat eaters, not much different from the rest of us. The filmmaker makes our ability to separate from his protagonists all the harder by featuring a tall, handsome bourgeois family of four—articulate, educated—who seem much like the typical art house crowd, except for the guns and fetishist killings. In a documentary subplot, Seidl does provide some obvious satiric fun, tagging along with two aging, sagging Austrian hunters who sit on their rumps waiting in hiding for big game but never once shoot anything. Instead, they drink beer after beer, fall asleep, and snore loudly. Just what they’d do at a pub back home. They’re much like the dimwitted riflemen in Errol Morris’s classic, Vernon, Florida.

Seidl does become heavily didactic when switching from his cast of white hunters to the native black populace, who are employed in subsidiary positions on the hunts, akin to caddies on a golf course. As the native Africans have little power, Seidl opts to give them no voice at all. The white people talk at length into the camera, offering up their elaborate theories about hunting, bragging about their prowess with a rifle. In contrast, the Africans are posed by Seidl to stand silently. Who knows what they are thinking? Armed revolution? Who is this crazy European filming us?

The white hunters walk away satisfied after they’ve taken their photographs.

The value of the murdered animal has ceased. Seidl stays around to observe what happens when the black people take over. They drag the heavy dead animals from the wild, carting them away in vehicles, and take them to a makeshift slaughterhouse. They peel off the skins, discard the innards, and presumably save the meat to bring to their families and eat. Ultimately, ecology wins the day. Meanwhile, the great white hunters are presumably back at the lodge, having an exotic African-style supper.

Far from darkest Africa but not from darkness is filmmaker David Lynch at his easel, painting oils as weird and nightmarish as his classic films, Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Mulholland Drive. David Lynch: The Art Life, co-directed by Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes, and Olivia Neergard-Holm, is built from 20 audio interviews with Lynch done between 2012-2015, all at his Hollywood home. Lynch’s commentary becomes the voice-over for the documentary, the images are of Lynch walking about his studio, sitting pensively, lighting many cigarettes, playing with his young daughter, doing lots of paintings (in lieu of filmmaking?), once driving to the store.

The most surprising revelation of the film is that Lynch is a stay-at-home, perhaps suffering a case of agoraphobia. He tells of landing in Boston to attend college at the Museum School of Fine Arts. Before his classes began, he sat for several weeks alone in his rented apartment, never going out to the see the new city. As a local, I was sad to learn that he loathed Boston, and he was glad to flee New England forever after quickly dropping out of art school.

The Art Life comes alive with Lynch’s reminiscences of his childhood in the American West. He grew up in Boise, Idaho, and loved it, probably the model for the small town in Blue Velvet. “Everything was in the two blocks where I ventured,” he explains. But as in Blue Velvet, every seeming utopia is also a cover-up. Recall the severed ear in the grass. Lynch starts to tell a story about what happened one night to a Boise next-door neighbor. He stops the telling in the middle, too horrified to go on!

For Lynch, his faltering adolescent life finally took shape when, living miserably in Philadelphia, he got an unexpected phone call offering him a scholarship to the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. He made the cross-country drive and moved into an unoccupied horse stable sitting on the AFI grounds. It was there that, for the first time since his Idaho childhood, he found deep happiness. In the dark hallways of the stable, Lynch filmed Eraserhead.

And that’s where The Art Life ends. What a tease! Surely, a sequel must be in the planning, The Art Life 2, where Lynch reveals how in the devil anyone could have concocted the unfathomable, sublimely mysterious Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive. He’s the Hieronymus Bosch of Boise, Idaho.

Gerald Peary