Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Tigrero is less a documentary than a document. In 1993 film director Sam Fuller
(Pickup on South Street) returned
to a tiny Karajá Indian community in the interior of the Amazon, accompanied by a director
of a younger generation, Jim Jarmusch.
The trip was an honest pilgrimage as well as a stunt organized to create this film.
Although he was still a remarkably active man, Fuller was soon to be slowed down
by illness, according to his posthumously- published autobiography A Third Face (a good read). His wife
Christa Lang helped him jet around the globe attending film festivals; his last directed theatrical
feature was The Street of No Return in 1989.
Tigrero! was to be the name of an adventure film proposed for Darryl Zanuck at 20th Fox in
1954-55, to star John Wayne, Ava Gardner and Tyrone Power. In what sounds like a cross between
Bwana Devil and Garden of Evil with a heavy dose of Ernest Hemingway thrown in, Fuller's
original story was to have temptress Ava spring her worthless husband Power from prison, only to hire
big cat hunter Wayne to cross the jungle with her to rescue him. Insurance companies refused to
underwrite big stars going to such a remote location, and the movie was dropped.
But Fuller made a fact-finding safari into central Brazil before the cancellation. At a place
Grosso he was charmed by a tribe of Indians with peaceful ways and uncomplicated lives. They
made him feel welcome while he shot 16mm CinemaScope movies (the better to convince Zanuck) of the
countryside's rivers, giant waterfalls and the tribal rituals. The footage has been legendary
ever since; in Fuller's book is a photo of him straddling a horse with a broad brimmed hat and a big
cigar in his mouth (what else), looking like The Big Red One gone cavalry.
That brings us to Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made. It has a lot in common with
The Epic that Never Was, an old English docu that used raw preserved takes to tell the
tale of an unfinished 1930s Josef Von Sternberg/Alexander Korda production, I Claudius.
Tigrero! never actually got near a camera, but Sam Fuller was so impressed by his 1955 visit
that he was excited to go back again. So Finnish director Mika Kaurismäki accompanied Fuller
back to the Mato Grosso and filmed the experience. It's obvious that Fuller, who by this time was
having some trouble climbing stairs, was overjoyed with the idea. Accompanying him is young director
Jim Jarmusch, who seems the one wet blanket in the whole affair. Affecting his expected dark glasses,
Jarmusch goes through the movie with a deadpan look on his face. He's no different-looking than a
million expressionless art students, but his Mutt & Jeff pairing with Fuller comes off as a stunt -
there's little chemistry between them.
The film has some great content. Besides talking about how the village has changed, Fuller enthusiastically
re-meets people he saw almost 40 years earlier. He shows the villagers his 1955 16mm film footage on
a TV monitor, and they recognize relatives long gone and in some cases themselves as young people. The
Karajá keep no photos; one man says that seeing his father is like having him back again.
Any excuse to have the garrulous Fuller speak can be fun and we get the whole tale of Darryl Zanuck's
plans for Tigrero! from him. Making movies in far-flung corners of the world was a big trend
in the 50s but I suppose the headwaters of the Amazon was just too remote for the insurance companies.
Unfortunately Jim Jarmusch is there, and his presence seems highly artificial, especially as most of
their exchanges are staged, including "candid" conversations in Rio de Janeiro
and phony moments where Fuller and Jarmusch are acting themselves visiting the village. Jarmusch
prompts Fuller's long speeches with monotone questions like, "What was behind this idea, anyway?"
We see Fuller face-to-face with several villagers grinning like a happy kid, in contrast to Jarmusch, who
around with his digital camera like Andy Warhol loose among the headhunters. The ending is particularly
lame. Jamusch pretends to be staying behind in this idyllic paradise, getting his face painted while
Fuller says good bye and toddles off down the dirt pathway. It's a corny and false faux skit.
There's also an absence of translators or any real examination of just how Fuller is communicating
with the natives that also adds something artificial to the mix. We can see that Sam's personal
encounters are real,
but the filming style isn't showing us the whole picture: the filmmakers are inventing a little
story to give the movie form. Thus it certainly is not a documentary.
The Karajá aren't false and neither is Fuller, which keeps the show on track. It looks as if
some of Jarmusch's video footage is included as well as director Kaurismäki's film. Clips from
Fuller's scratchy 1955 footage are used frequently, and we even jump to a clip from 1963's
Shock Corridor to show how Mato Grosso waterfall shots were incorporated as color dream footage in that
B&W feature. We see interesting native rituals from 1955 repeated today as well.
The real appeal is of course Fuller, who rolls his cigar in his mouth as he rasps out his ideas -
why he thought the derivative-sounding Tigrero! was wholly original; what touches him about
the Karaj&a;'s simple worship of nature. Several times he describes his complicated plan for an
opening for Tigrero! involving birds, alligators and Piranha fish - an unlikely series of
events to be filmed in one take! The shot sounds impossible but the absolute confidence in
Fuller's voice is the key to his success.
Fantoma's DVD of Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made is a good rendering of the 1994 film
festival show. The quality of the enhanced image is grainy but colorful and there are removable
subtitles for some of the Portuguese spoken.
Extras include some of Jarmusch's photos and a lot of outtakes of Fuller talking that look like
they were shot on video. The best item is the original uncut research reel from 1955. It's blown
up to fill the frame when it appears in the feature, but is left in its CinemaScope ratio here and
looks much better.
An audio commentary by Jarmusch and Kaurismäki is a tough go. The Finnish director's English
is difficult to understand and Jarmusch is too cool, finding a speaking attitude that's the vocal
equivalent of his dark glasses and poker face. He's probably a great guy but he comes off like a
post-Punk poseur: "Here I am rowing the boat. I was good at it, I'm from Ohio. We go bowling there
A booklet insert contains some excerpts from Fuller's unfilmed script. Fantoma has done a fine job
putting a polish on this filmic document, which will delight Sam Fuller fans.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made rates:
Supplements: commentary, outtakes, excerpts from film script, Fuller's original 16mm
CinemaScope research footage
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 9, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
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