Keep the River on Your Right
dir. David and Laurie Shapiro
Opens Fri Apr 20 at the Varsity.

In the documentary Keep the River on Your Right, the knockabout adventurer Tobias Schneebaum returns to his old stamping grounds.

Schneebaum's gift is for the encounter. People like him are often shy or reserved with their compatriots, or in Schneebaum's case, genially impersonal. But plop them down in Nepal or Nebraska, and instantly they're trading recipes and learning local dances. Travel is more than a pastime to such people; they must have strangers or they will die.

Back home, the only things that interested Americans about Schneebaum's travels were--surprise!--sex and violence. Stories about sex came easily to him; he was an uncloseted homosexual at a time when homosexuality was still taboo. And as for violence, well, there's always cannibalism.

This documentary was made by the Shapiros, a sister-and-brother team who stumbled upon Schneebaum in his late '70s. Weakly, they traipse after him. For instance, he shows them the Asmat culture of New Guinea. Schneebaum lived among the Asmat for a decade. He knows Asmat cuisine (which includes human meat), Asmat agriculture, Asmat sociology, Asmat medicine, Asmat politics, Asmat music, Asmat history, and above all, Asmat art. So what do the Shapiros show us? A mass circumcision; some (excellent) jiggle-dancing; an interview about headhunting; and Schneebaum sweetly embracing an old lover.

For the film I envision, one based loosely on the facts, Schneebaum plays himself. He has told his stories so often, the same stories over and over, because no one wants any stories but those few. Is there an actor of such obvious intelligence who so obviously withholds his intelligence as a play? The novelist Bruce Chatwin would return from the dead to write the script; who knew better the drive to encounter--and move on? The John Boorman of The Emerald Forest and Excalibur would direct. And to play the two filmmakers? David Arquette, perhaps, and Renée Zellweger. Actors who are good at portraying airheads.

Barley Blair is the pseudonym of a little old lady who still regards Seattle as an exotic culture.