Monday, May 13, 2013

Kon-Tiki (2012)


KON-TIKI (Expedição Kon Tiki)        B   
Norway  Denmark  Great Britain  Germany  (118 mi)  2012  ‘Scope  d:  Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg    Official site [no]

Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl filmed his own epic 4300 mile crossing of the Pacific Ocean on a balsa wood raft in 1947, turning it into a 77-minute documentary film KON-TIKI (1950), winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary Film in 1951, where interestingly a young Louis Malle beautifully documented the ocean expeditions by Jacques Cousteau in A SILENT WORLD (1956) to win another Best Documentary Award in 1957, so gloriously photographed ocean exploration was a peculiar fascination of the world in the 1950’s.  More than a half a century later, this new Norwegian film by the same name received the first ever Norwegian Golden Globe nomination and was among the 5 nominated films for Best Foreign Film, eventually won by the heavily favored Cannes winner Amour (Love) (2012), where it was the highest-grossing film of 2012 in Norway and at $16 million dollars the country's most expensive production to date.  As might be expected, the film is a sprawling epic actually spoken in English, simultaneously shooting on alternate days another version in Norwegian, where the sumptuous cinematography by Geir Hartly Andreassen is an essential component to the movie experience.  Shooting two film versions was a common practice during the transition from Silent to talking motion pictures in the early 1930’s, but few movies have maintained a lasting value, the exception being Josef von Sternberg’s DER BLAUE ENGEL in 1930, the first major German sound film that turned a young Marlene Dietrich into an international star, released in a 124-minute German version, while THE BLUE ANGEL, the alternate language English version, initially thought lost, but recently discovered in a German film archive and restored in 2009, used quicker cuts and was only 100-minutes, where we’ll perhaps never know if this was the director’s intent, or purely accidental.  Jean Renoir’s THE GOLDEN COACH (1953), starring Italian actress Anna Magnani, shot at the Cinecittà Italian studio with a largely Italian cast, was shot separately in English, Italian, and French versions, while Werner Herzog’s NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE (1979) was shot in both German and English versions.  Dubbing is a common practice that avoids the expense of double shooting, but it’s impossible to get the language synchronized with the mouth movements. The point here is that double shooting into multiple languages is a rare occurrence, but parallels the practice of translating books into different languages, where Heyerdahl wrote a book in 1948 about the expedition, The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas, which sold out in fifteen days before it was translated into 70 languages and sold more than 50 millions copies around the world. 

If you want to know who’s responsible for the proliferation of all those Polynesian South Sea island adorned Tiki bars featuring exotic rum-flavored tropical drinks garnished with fruit and toothpicked umbrellas on top, featuring names like Zombies, Singapore Sling, Scorpion, and Mai Tai’s that sneak up on you before they knock you on your ass, not to mention indoor waterfalls and pools, plastic palm trees, fire torches, and a collection of mask carvings of various Tiki gods—well it’s this guy, Thor Heyerdahl and his mad adventure across the globe, like a veritable Richard Halliburton experience.  A folk hero in his homeland, Heyerdahl was nothing if not a public relations genius, way ahead of his time in understanding the power of the media and how he could leverage his adventure into money and fame.  While it’s a shame he could not be played by Klaus Kinski, with that look of demented messianic madness in his eye that he displays in Herzog’s AGUIRRE:  THE WRATH OF GOD (1972), where he would rather die than be proven wrong, stubbornly risking his life and those of his crew on an unsubstantiated theory, the film stars Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen as Thor Heyerdahl, seen in the idyllic opening scenes with his wife Agnes Kittelsen from Happy Happy (Sykt Lykkelig) (2010), as they bathe naked under natural waterfalls and frolic among the natives on a Polynesian island, spending ten years there as a natural scientist.  It was there that he developed his thesis that the Polynesian islands were populated largely from the East and from South America, where despite the distance, boats would be flowing with the current, rather than the prevailing theory that the islands were populated from Asia, where boats would have to struggle against the current.  Heyerdahl encountered a brick wall when attempting to sell his story with the publishing houses in New York, as the prevailing scientific community found the idea preposterous, suggesting he would have to conduct the voyage himself to prove it could be done before anyone would believe him.  So that’s exactly what he decided to do, calling his wife in Norway from New York to inform her he was going to have to miss Christmas with the two kids this year, as he was flying instead to South America to embark upon a voyage on a primitive raft across the Pacific Ocean to prove a point, and that he’d call her three or four months later once he’d landed.  That’s the way they did it in the old days, where everything was about proving a point.  So of course this dashingly handsome, blond-haired, blue-eyed reincarnate of Peter O’Toole in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962) shows his headstrong invincibility by accepting the challenge, running off to Peru to build his raft with all home-grown materials, while assembling a crew of 6 men, all Norwegian except one Swede, and a pet parrot.       

While the raft was built using only the materials and technologies available to people in pre-Columbian times, they also brought along with them some modern equipment, such as a radio, watches, charts, sextant, and metal knives, where Heyerdahl argued they were incidental to the purpose of proving that the raft itself could make the journey.  There’s a surprising amount of tension early on when the raft appears to be drifting towards the Galapagos Islands, too far north to catch the South Equatorial Current needed to carry them to their destination, also increasing doubt about whether they could actually pull this off, as any number of questions about the raft’s durability just couldn’t be answered.  Heyerdahl insisted all was well in his telegraphed reports and that morale was high even as the threat of mutiny crept into his crew, led by an engineer forced to work in the refrigerator business, off on his first adventure, whose scientific queries led to Heyerdahl’s unscientific response that they would have to rely upon faith, not exactly a comforting answer.  All the disasters seem to occur early on, where giant whales swim directly under their raft which could easily tip over, or erupting storms create horrific wind gales that nearly throw them all into the drink.  The aforementioned engineer, bloodsoaked from carving up a captured shark, then takes a spill into the ocean with circling sharks, where the blood has driven them into a frenzy, yet he is miraculously saved by one of the other crew members who risks his own life.  So there is plenty of heroism on display, but nothing expresses their collective joy of relief as the realization that they have caught the boundary current and are oncourse, as a certain idleness sets in where time ceases to matter, as Heyerdahl continuously sends a volley of telegraph messages imploring the success of the mission, turning  him into an international celebrity while he was still at sea.  To the ethereal music by Johan Söderqvist, there is a centerpiece spectacular shot that takes the viewer on a close-up view of the raft in the vast ocean, pulling back farther until it can still be seen below the clouds, pulling farther back until you are literally out of the stratosphere and into outer space, shifting the focus of the camera to the celestial bodies and other galaxies of the universe before returning the shot back down to the isolated raft surrounded by this immense ocean—easily the shot of the film, changing the perspective of the entire experience into something of an accomplishment that will live in time immemorial.  The film was shot in eight different countries over the course of three and a half months, trying to shoot as much as possible on the open seas, most of it near Malta, minimalizing the use of a large water tank, as despite plentiful use of computer graphic effects, this strengthens the overall look of authenticity.  While scientists continue to doubt Heyerdahl’s theory, and even his role as a scientist, he is one of the first modern era adventurists to capture the world’s imagination by recounting his experiences as they were happening, something even astronauts continue to do from outer space.  Interestingly, on April 28, 2006, another Norwegian team, which included Heyerdahl’s grandson Olav, successfully duplicated the Kon-Tiki voyage using a similarly built raft, known as the Tangaroa Expedition, including modern navigation and communication equipment, even solar panels and computer equipment, maintaining constant postings on their website, some of which is recorded here Tangaroa Expedition English! by Fredrik Dahl on Prezi.

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