James + Semaj is a column where James Franco talks to his reverse self, Semaj, about new films. Rather than a conventional review, it is place where James and Semaj can muse about ideas that the films provoke. James loves going to the movies and talking about them. But a one-sided take on a movie, in print, might be misconstrued as a review. As someone in the industry it could be detrimental to James's career if he were to review his peers, because unlike the book industry—where writers review other writer's books—the film industry is highly collaborative, and a bad review of a peer could create problems. So, assume that James (and Semaj) love all these films. What they're interested in talking about is all the ways the films inspire them, and make them think. James is me, and Semaj is the other side of me. This week's column focuses on "Embrace of the Serpent," which opened in limited release on Wednesday.
James: So what is "Embrace of the Serpent," aside from an Oscar nominee?
Semaj: An unexpected period piece out in the Amazon.
James: Why do you say unexpected?
Semaj: Well, it feels like a lost film that has been rediscovered.
James: Why? Because it’s in black and white?
Semaj: Yeah, and it all takes place in the rain forest, out on a river, and there are zero traces of modern life.
James: What about the fact that it’s filmed? Doesn’t that give it a sense of the modern world?
Semaj: You’re right, there's always something a little jarring in a period piece that takes place before motion pictures were created, because the events are being filmed before cameras were invented.
James: Right, but we’re used to the convention.
Semaj: Yeah, but filmmakers still need to contend with the discrepancy through stylistic choices: How will they film something that wouldn’t have been filmed? Jesus on the cross, Romans in the Colosseum, Native Americans defending their homes…
James: Okay, but this story takes place in 1909 and then 40 years later, so
movies were being made by then.
James: Like "Nanook of the North"? This movie has a little bit of that flavor.
Semaj: No, Robert Flaherty didn’t make that until 1922. But in 1909 there were plenty of movies. D.W. Griffith alone made four or five in 1909.
James: "The Birth of a Nation"?
Semaj: No, that was 1915.
James: That film was racist.
Semaj: Yeah, no shit. Its other title is "The Clansman," and it’s about the rise of the KKK.
James: The director John Ford claimed that he was an extra in that film, as a clansman in a white sheet.
Semaj: Well, good for him, the racist little prick.
James: I guess that's why they called that new movie about the Nat Turner slave rebellion — which won the Grand Jury and Audience Prizes at Sundance — "The Birth of a Nation." They were fighting against the legacy of racism in American film.
Semaj: "Embrace of the Serpent" is doing a bit of fighting itself. It's documenting lost cultures.
James: Right, the film is inspired by the actual journals of the German explorer and ethnologist, Theodor Koch-Grunberg, who documented the peoples of the Amazon that he found in 1909.
Semaj: It looks like the filmmakers used Koch-Grunberg's photographs as direct inspiration for their production design.
James: Right, the film is dedicated to all the lost cultures of the region. So, in a way, it’s as if the film is an excavation of these lost cultures. They can’t be captured in a documentary because they have disappeared, but they can be revived somewhat through recreation, which is the one of the film’s main reasons for being.
Semaj: So all the different peoples that are met along the way are the filmmakers' interpretation of Koch-Grunberg’s photographs?
James: Yes, but let’s give a little more context. What is the narrative farm that allows us to go on this journey?
Semaj: There are two narratives, 40 years apart, linked through the native guide, Karamakate. As a young man, he first shows the explorer, Theo, the way to a hidden plant with mystical healing properties. Then, 40 years later, Karamakate shows Evan, a purported botanist, the way to the same plant.
James: I liked the actors who played the Young Karamakate and the Old Karamakate.
Semaj: I'm pretty sure they are local non-actors.
James: My hair woman, Nana, worked on the yet-to-be-released film by James Grey, "The Lost City of Z," which was shot in Colombia. She claims (although she gets many things wrong) that the actor who played Old Karamakate, Antonio Bolivar, was in that movie as well.
Semaj: I guess IMDb hasn’t caught up to that fact yet, because he isn’t on the "Lost City of Z" page.
James: Anyway, the actors in "Embrace the Serpent" are very natural. And they navigate down the river in the little canoe as if they’ve been doing it their whole lives.
Semaj: So what do they find along the way?
James: Well, it’s really a story about the decimation of the local cultures from the encroachment of the outside world. The main forces of intrusion are the rubber industry that comes in with great force to drain the forest of its natural resources, while enslaving the locals, and killing anyone who opposes them.
Semaj: And Christianity.
James: Right, there is a mission in the middle of the rain forest where little boys are stripped of their native language, and culture and made to sing Christian hymns in Spanish.
Semaj: So one of the things that the movie tracks is the way these forces impact the area and the peoples over time. We see the mission in 1909 full of young boys, and then 40 years later we see that the boys have perverted the Christian teachings and are now living like a cult, replete with an all powerful Christ-inspired leader — who, of course, is more interested in power than love.
James: More Manson than Christ.
Semaj: More David Koresh.
James: Exactly. He even reminded me a bit of that director character in "Entourage."
Semaj: Billy Walsh? Played by Rhys Coiro? You dork.
James: You saw him. Tell me I’m wrong. It looks like him, and when Billy was directing that Pablo Escobar movie on the show…
James: Ha! Yes. When he was directing that, he was a bit of a cult leader/dictator, going crazy on Vinnie Chase and the gang.
Semaj: Okay, whatever, you made your point: There are some similarities. But I think that's because anyone in that position will appear like a madman to an audience looking in from the outside, and like a god to anyone under his sway.
James: By the way, did you listen to the 12-part history of Charles Manson on Karina Longworth's You Must Remember This podcast? It's awesome.
Semaj: Yes! I listened to it with you. Anyway, can we get back to "Embrace the Serpent"? What do you think the point of it is?
James: It's simple: They’re using this down river journey narrative to unearth glimpses of a lost time and place.
Semaj: Well, to that end, I think they succeeded. I was transported.
James: It makes you sad for all the lost cultures. I was just reading Tom Bissell’s book of essays, "Magic Hours" —
Semaj: Tom Bissell, who co-wrote "The Disaster Artist," the book about the making of the best worst movie of all time, "The Room"?
James: The very one. And he was talking about the internet's smoothing out of the idiosyncrasies of the Michigan small town he grew up in.
Semaj: I guess we’re all part of a world culture now.
Semaj: Well, it’s a two-edged sword. As Young Karamakate says in "Embrace of the Serpent," everyone is entitled to knowledge, even if it leads to the death of their way of life.