Thursday, December 3, 2009

John Maringouin's BIG RIVER MAN tracks a trek down the Amazon -- in the water!

"I am Martin Strel and I am going to do what no man has ever done: swim the Amazon." So the leading character in BIG RIVER MAN tells us right off the bat in this new documentary by John Maringouin (shown at right). If his statement sounds likes a challenge, it is -- to himself as much as to us, who may have our doubts, as the Amaon is said to be unswimmable (those Piranhas, you know, and Alligators and Anacondas). But, as Mr. Strel has already swum the Danube, the Mississippi and the Yangtze, perhaps we should have some faith.

Goodness knows, Strel's son has plenty of it. He's his dad's biggest booster, as well as his second mate, and he pops in and out of the film -- which is all over the place consistently (even the credits don't show up for a good fifteen minutes). Strel himself is all over the place, too: swimming, toning up in the gym, playing his Flamenco guitar, gambling (he's a pro), dining with the Slovenian elite and being, well, fat. He readily admits he's fat -- way too fat to be a champion endurance swimmer. But he is. And he does look
great in a dark suit.

Big River Man is full of duality, from the helpful son who perhaps hates his father (but not on any conscious level), to the father, a egocentric braggart who claims to be making his swim for "the environment" (even the director seems to have doubts about that) and who grows crazier as the movie goes on, to Mr. Maringouin himself who, though he keeps out of the water, is clearly in over his head. How could he not be? Martin Strel is bigger than life and maybe bigger than truth, as well.

Once the swim begins, the movie grows more fantastic -- in all meanings of the word. Strel goes bananas in increments, as does his navigator/friend, though his son keeps his sanity pretty well (these two appear to be his only crew, except a doctor who shows up occasionally to take blood pressure and check for parasites and such). The swimmer gets so sunburned that he must wear a facial mask, giving him a kind of Friday the 13th, Jason-in-the-Amazon look. Villagers and Indians come out on the docks to meet and greet him, and he presses on and on, even as his health appears to fail, his blood pressure skyrockets and colon problems ensue. Or do they? The guy ought to be dead by now.

The problem is that, because the trip begins to take on a phantasmagorical feel, with narration coming in fits and starts (much of it sounding suspect in any case), we don't know that we can trust what we see and hear. This seems to be the case for Strel and his crew, too, who often seem equally confused. We can't ask questions, of course, so we must take what we're given on faith. Does the swimmer make it? You'll find out. By the finale, I found that I didn't really care one way or another. Since Strel had come all this way, I didn't want him to fail, but I felt more strongly for Strel's sad son than for the man himself -- who evidently had his own rotten father to deal with, and as usual, has passed this issue on to his own son -- if in a less violent fashion.

Along the way we get some shots of staggeringly beautiful cloud formations over the Amazon (these almost look as if they were taken by another camera); otherwise the cinematography, though often bordering on ugly, does a good job of shoving us, face first, into the swim of things.

Big River Man, from the distribution company salt., opens Friday, December 4, at the IFC Center. The performance schedule, including an Q&A appearance by director Maringouin, is here.

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