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Critic's Notes : Mystical Center Of 'Emerald Forest'

July 14, 1985|SHEILA BENSON

The number of great journals on the making of films is minuscule, but it will be added to this fall with the publishing of John Boorman's "Money Into Light."

The wry title hides an unsparing, insightful journal that writer-director-producer Boorman kept as he and a truly dedicated company set to work to make "The Emerald Forest" in the jungles of Brazil. It is a brilliant companion-piece to the film, but it is a good deal more: a rich, thoughtful, deliciously written tour through one of the most idiosyncratic and visionary minds working in film today. It also reveals Boorman as an uncommonly sane and perceptive commentator on the two halves of film making--art and commerce.

He would need sanity for the ordeal that "Emerald Forest" became: bureaucratic red tape in Brazil more impenetrable than the jungle; the desertion of one of his closest associates who then tried to sabotage the project with its new backers; the ongoing illness of most of his crew; the loss of his original investors, Britain's Goldcrest and the initial tepid reaction of the top echelon of Embassy, who replaced them, to the film. (After seeing the final cut, the executives at Embassy reversed themselves and began to see it as a potential money-maker.)

Writer Boorman emerges as not only resilient (probably a bottom-line requisite for any director) but downright cheerful--a man able to wring good from even the most disheartening of experiences. He described himself as "shattered" in 1970 when the screenplay he and writer Rospo Pallenberg struggled on for six months, a version of all three volumes of Tolkein's "Lord of the Rings," fell afoul of a change of leadership at the studio that commissioned it and the project died.

Boorman is under no illusions about how frequently that happens. "At any one time in Hollywood," he writes, "90% of the writers and directors are busy working on scripts that will not get made." Yet he was finally able to call it "a rich and valuable experience," not only for its precursing of the work he and Pallenberg would do on "Excaliber" but for a discovery he made after time spent deep in Tolkein's Middle Earth.

"I became conscious at that time that movies are the repository of myth. Therein lies their power. An alternative history, that of the human psyche, is contained and unfolded in the old stories and tales. Film carries on this tradition."

It is the mythic quality that Boorman has invested in "The Emerald Forest" that makes it so stirring. In his parallel stories of the testing of a young hero and an heroic search by a father for his child, Boorman (again with writer Pallenberg) works with themes from the Grail legend. (It makes "The Emerald Forest" the most natural progression from "Excaliber," and it's now easier to see a mythic preoccupation is traceable throughout all Boorman's nine features, including his early "Point Blank.")

"The Emerald Forest" is also a fresh way of looking at the values of our own civilization. In a story that closely parallels the real incident on which the film is based, 7-year-old Tommy Markham is snatched away from his parents at the edge of a Brazilian jungle. After a decade of searching, his father (Powers Boothe) finds him as a young tribesman of 17. The adolescent son, now called Tomme, is played with simplicity and a harrowing disregard for physical danger by Boorman's son, 17-year-old Charley.

Facing the leader of the Invisible People (Rui Polonah) who abducted his son, Boothe asks him the crucial question--why did he take the boy?

The chief says simply that the boy appeared and smiled. And though he was a Termite child, the chief did not have the heart to send him back to the Dead People.

Boorman has made us understand the reference to Termite people clearly enough at the opening. He has cut from Tommy fascinatedly watching a line of leaf cutter ants, each carrying its green leaf umbrella, to the voracious tractors of dam builders in the Brazilian jungle, "taking the skin off the Earth." Not only is the skin coming off the Earth, but the Edge of the World, where the Invisible People have lived, is brought closer to view as the Termite People chew up even the Grandfather trees.

Boorman's urgent message, under his universal story of the inevitable separation of parent and child, is the ruination of primitive life and ecological balance. And so letting us see another view of our actions in the natural world is a canny stroke.

The Invisible People are fictitious, but they are based on qualities Boorman observed among several tribal groups of the Xingu. Rather than disrupt the lives of the Xingu themselves, they are played by Indians who had already left the jungle and who had to be retaught tribal rituals. Pallenberg and Boorman have created words and rites for them that feel absolutely truthful: They are people of dignity, humor, magic and most moving rituals.

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