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Watching the wonderful Australian film Ten Canoes is like being attacked by an army of storytellers. They charge, ululate, grimace and try to push their points at you – or into
you – while you debate whether to stay or run.
The language is Aboriginal, the setting is Northern Territory’s Arnhem Land – a scenic swampland to outdo the Everglades – and the filmmaker is Rolf de Heer, who for years has been a kind of Werner Herzog manqué. His past movies (Bad Boy Bubby, The Tracker) explored primitivism both collective-historical and individual, an Aussie heritage (he suggests) that must be understood before the race moves on. He is surely right. Much of Australia is still inhabited by semi-clad humans arrested at the age of throwing shrimps on barbies.
Never mind that. For Ten Canoes, de Heer worked with the Yolngu people to explore storytelling itself. The film begins in a dawn of time; alternates colour and black-and-white; settles down briefly with the tale of a tribal elder (Peter Minygululu) working to outwit a youth lusting after his wife; but gives ground to a cautionary tale-within-tale told by Minygululu about love, jealousy and mortality. This inner tale is the longest, set “after the beginning, but long, long ago” and sprouting characters with tongue-tangling names such as Ridjimiraril and Yeeralparil.
The swamplands enshrine the action while the language, Ganalbingu, adds its further layer of exoticism. (There are English subtitles.) We could be watching a version of Apocalypto slowed down, set to voice-overs and designed to put us into a trance state.
For although the film gallops along, it seems to stand still. Each generation of story proves that all stories are the same: love, jealousy, ambition, war, the search for meaning and transcendence. Simultaneously the sameness of essence enhances the divagations of the details: the individual cultural idioms, the mythogogic mini-truths. Did you know that if a stranger takes one of your bowel movements and puts it in the crook of a tree, you will get a sore throat? You do now.
A comic-book scripture with a lightly worn wisdom, the film is also visually dazzling. The warriors who dance like ghosts between flying spears; the hunting-trip tents sculpted overnight from tree bark; the goose- hunting safaris in which we meet the Storyteller himself. He is played by – who else? – venerable David Gulpilil (Walkabout, The Last Wave), an Aboriginal actor who for more than 30 years has been taking the hands of us lost sophisticates to escort us into the greater eternity of the primal.
Wedding Daze and Flyboys return us to banality with a thud. The first is a full-length rom-com with enough funny ideas for a 10-minute skit. Jason American Pie Biggs and Isla Fisher decide to get married, but must run the gauntlet of each other’s families first. Think of Meet the Parents, then take away Robert De Niro, Ben Stiller and the smack of freshness.
Flyboys is more Meet the Fokkers. A dozen American lads join the Lafayette Escadrille in France to dogfight the Germans in the months before the US joined the Great War. In the sky there are Fokkers to the left, Fokkers to the right and a guardian Zeppelin joining them for the climax, a kind of mother-Fokker. Down on the ground it is ordeal by cliché, as stars James Franco, Martin Henderson and Jean Reno prime their platitudes and oil their gung-ho.