Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Express Male

by Drew Martin

Last weekend I watched Jean-Jacques Annaud's Quest for Fire. It was the first time I saw the film even though it hit the big screen 1981. Despite some ill-fitting monkey suits and a dialogue of primal grunting, the production is quite remarkable and filmed on location in Scotland, Iceland, Canada and Kenya. It is set 80,000 years ago and focuses on two tribes of early humans in the mix of other prehistoric bipeds.

There are the heavy browed Ulams who have a lot of catching up to do with the more civilized and sleeker Ivakas. For the Ulams, fire is a rare gift from nature, which they must continuously keep burning. If their communal blaze is extinguished, fire is regained by raiding other tribes' encampments. The manner in which this is done is less about Promethean stealth than it is bloody, skull crushing attacks that leave a lot of furry creatures dead.

The distant Ivaka are a much cleverer clan and can start a fire on their own in a matter of minutes with friction sticks. They can also make shelters, have developed the social skill of laughter, have fashioned advanced pre-bow weapons and have taken intercourse beyond doggie-style rape to consensual and mutual love-making, missionary-style. We discover this through the wandering of Noah and his two Ulam sidekicks on their quest for fire after their cave is invaded and their flames are stolen. The eye opener for Noah is Ika, a feisty young Ivaka, who shows the fumbling primate how to treat a prehistoric woman.

The film is an adaptation of the 1911 Belgian novel by J.H. Rosny better translated as The War for Fire or The Fight for Fire. I have not read this book but I am sure the medium draws you into and immerses you in the fiction. What the film version does is put it all right in front of you. It takes the pre out of prehistoric and suggests that what you are witnessing is the merging of a new kind of human, perhaps the common ancestor of modern man, consummated by Noah and Ika, whose ripe belly closes the movie.

The climatic scene is when, after much traveling and many hardships, Noah witnesses one of the Ivaka effortlessly make a fire from scratch. It blows his mind and moves him to tears. Although the film is set in a time before time, it references quite modern characters. Ika certainly plays a Pocahontas role in many ways, especially how she comes to the rescue of Noah from a certain death by her tribe. She is also Eve. Noah is an obvious biblical reference but even without the name, the Flood is represented by a ship-size lump of land in the middle of a marsh, which the Ulam retreat to while they wait for fire to be brought to them again and where they keep away from their more primitive attackers. Don Quixote is also referenced when the Ulam throw a spear at a mound of a hut, which they mistake as a creature.

While Quest for Fire is a creative glimpse into a past, which was certainly wonderfully different and complex, it serves best as a survey of where we are now. What are our achievements and what are we ignorant of? What are those things that seem so far out of reach, which are right under our noses? A good place to start is with the concept of stealing. What is it people steal because they lack and cannot produce themselves but is right in front of them?

It is interesting that music is something which is often stolen. Music is a kind of fire that has an unnatural centralization to it now with iTunes and other sites. Stealing it is a regressive behavior, especially because music is often a kind of distraction so the content is secondary to its function. People once carried harmonicas, tin whistles and other small instruments to make their own music wherever they went.

I always like to hear my father talk about a man who used to live near him when he was a boy, growing up in Virginia. My father and his brothers would catch eels and snakes and give them to the man for sustenance because he was poor. He still recalls, with a smile on his face, what a great whistler the man was and how they could hear him loudly whistling from far away. Whistling, singing, humming, clapping, etc...these were the first means of creating music and all with one's body. As with any creative act, the artist free to make his or her own fire by rubbing two sticks together.