Double Trouble: TABU ’31/’12

murnau & gomes

F.W. Murnau was a German director with some 20 titles to to his credit who moved to the U.S. in 1926 and is known to most cinephiles for Nosferatu (1922), The Last Laugh (1924), Faust (1926), Sunrise (1927), and – maybe, just maybe – the last film he directed before his life was tragically cut short at the age of 42 by an automobile accident, Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931). Miguel Gomes is the young Portuguese filmmaker (born 1972) that – maybe, just maybe – is known for The Face You Deserve (2004), Our Beloved Month of August (2008), The Portuguese Nun (2009), but now is definitely known to discerning cinephiles for Tabu (2012). Or he should be, at least,  as his latest film made the “Best of 2012″ list in Film Comment and also won top awards at the Berlin International Film Festival. As a fan of the aforementioned films by Murnau I was curious: how would Gomes’ film play off of Murnau’s Tabu? Would it be shtick, or would it be true to the legacy left to us by one of cinemas greatest pioneers? The short answer is that Gomes is doing his own thing, but the new Tabu is real to the reels of older film and acts, in part, as a swan song to that wonderful treasure-trove of images that unspooled frame-by-frame in front of innumerable audiences throughout the last century.

On left, intertitles for the 1931 TABU. On right, the ones for TABU 2012.

Structure & Format:

The first and most important way that Gomes honors the past is by shooting his film on film stock which, as he himself knows full well, is “on the verge of disappearing.” His narrative, like Murnau’s narrative for Tabu, is told in two parts. But whereas Murnau starts with “Paradise” and ends with “Paradise Lost,” Gomes flips that around. Going one step further, Gomes shoots “Paradise Lost” on crisp 35mm, and ends with “Paradise,” which is shot on a more dreamy and grainy 16mm. The aspect ratio throughout is the same boxy 1.37:1 common to the era of silent film.

Derek Cianfrance, another disciple to the powers of organic emulsion and who appreciates celluloid’s legacy did something very similar with Blue Valentine. He used Super 16mm to film the pre-marriage sequences (ie: paradise), before switching to the crisper RED digital technology for the scenes that showed the dissolution of the marriage (ie: “paradise lost”). In the case of Blue Valentine the past and present are mingled throughout, rather than presented in two blocks, but the different formats help delineate the proceedings.

Murnau also plays with the idea of the past versus the present in Tabu. Having broken away from Fox Studios in 1928 he got together with Robert Flaherty, the filmmaker who established world-wide fame with his debut documentary, Nanook of the North (1922), and they both bought a yacht and decided to sail around the world. The boat was named after Flaherty’s second feature documentary, Moana, and in July of 1929 when they arrived in Tahiti, Flaherty proposed a theme for their film: the impact of civilization on a primitive society.

Gomes also taps into the clash between modern and primitive, but adds several other layers to the mix when ruminating on “the present” versus “the past”:

“The film deals with time and memory… In the first part of this film there is this old woman who will die, and when she dies the second part of the film will start. Her death (in the film) gives birth to an extinguished society… a former Portuguese colony in Africa which does not exist anymore. This second part also wants to have a dialogue with an extinguished form of cinema; silent films.” (Miguel Gomes, in an interview at the Berlinale.)

Screen shots of our respective and passionate lovers, having fun, then getting busted.

Then comes Forbidden Love:

Murnau and Flaherty began shooting nonprofessionals from Bora-Bora in Tahiti and soon found themselves in disagreement over how to proceed. Murnau wanted to add a plot involving the Polynesian customs of taboo, and Flaherty didn’t like this despite (or maybe because of) his own experience of being criticized by some for adding some theatrical embellishments to Nanook. The two gentlemen agreed to disagree, and Flaherty sold his interest in the film to Murnau while continuing to work on it by supervising some of the photography.

“When our yacht arrived in the harbor of Bora-Bora, the natives had never seen even a kodak snapshot camera. I had the idea that the taboos of these islands could form the theme of my story. Around this idea, Flaherty and I wove a romantic plot that was as simple as possible. It would be possible to make a striking film if we could find actors capable of living this plot. Where to find them? Among the natives, not from among Hollywood actors. Ever since I arrived in Bora-Bora, I felt it was my island, a precious stone in the middle of tan immense sea. It’s natives knew almost nothing of the outside world, and lived in perpetual play without false modesty.” (Murnau, excerpted in Georges Sadoul’s Dictionary of Films)

In Murnau’s Tabu, a young pearl fisherman by the name of Matahi is in love with Reri, a beautiful young maiden consecrated to the gods and thus placed “off limits” to all men. “Tabu” also happens to be the name of the lagoon where some of the best pearls are to be found – if only someone could get past the deadly shark that lives there. Matahi dares to break past both tabus, with tragic results.

In Gomes’ Tabu the passionate young lovers are Aurora and Ventura. The first part of Gomes’ film revolves around Aurora in her senior years in present-day Lisbon, leaving the second-part of the film to explore her passionate love affair with Ventura at the foot of Mount Tabu in Africa. Although Aurora might not be “consecrated by the gods” thanks to some tribal chief, as was the case in Murnau’s film, she is pregnant with her husband’s child while having an affair with Ventura. The lovers know there will be ramifications for their actions, but in both cases they can’t help themselves.

Murnau's shark and Gomes' crocodile

In the prologue to Gomes’ Tabu there is a scene where a foreign explorer cutting his way through Africa, trying to escape the memory of his dead wife, is visited by her ghost and she says “you can not escape your heart.” With sad acceptance, the explorer agrees to die, waves farewell to some locals gathered near the water where a deadly crocodile is known to lie in wait, and splashes in to meet his death. This short, seven-minute-long prologue, (shot in 16mm) gives way to a scene showing us Aurora sitting in a movie theater that brings us to the present (shot in 35mm). The lovers in both versions of Tabu represent an aspect of the primitive past that is dying to be present, with no mind to the future. It’s a romantic gesture, one I can especially relate to as I contemplate my own love affair with the doomed format that is film. But while the digital civilization that has colonized most of the globe has pushed many small exhibitors into troubled waters, there remain several outposts committed to keeping the past alive, ghosts, melancholic crocodiles, and all.

A few of the aforementioned outposts where you might still catch Tabu include:

International Film Series – Boulder, CO / Belcourt Theater – Nashville, TN / Charles – Baltimore, MD / Film Streams – Omaha, NE / Amherst Cinema – Amherst, MA / Cinefest – Atlanta, GA / Union Theatre -Milwaukee, WI / Patio Theatre – Chicago, IL / Portland Museum of Art – Portland, ME / Palace  – Frostburg, MD

2 Responses Double Trouble: TABU ’31/’12
Posted By swac44 : March 4, 2013 11:42 pm

Darn it, just missed a local screening of Tabu here in Halifax, courtesy of our scrappy independent image merchants, Carbon Arc Cinema. Next time I’ll know better than to skip one of their titles.

Posted By swac44 : March 4, 2013 11:42 pm

Darn it, just missed a local screening of Tabu here in Halifax, courtesy of our scrappy independent image merchants, Carbon Arc Cinema. Next time I’ll know better than to skip one of their titles.

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