Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Gods Must Be Crazy

Thirty years ago, most American moviegoers had never heard of "The Gods Must Be Crazy."

In those days, only South African audiences (with the exception, perhaps, of movie reviewers who were devotees of foreign films, including those that had not made it to American theaters) were aware of its delightfully original tale about something of a culture clash between modern society and the more primitive Bushmen who existed in a kind of blissful ignorance of the outside world until an empty glass Coke bottle fell from the sky.

But those South African viewers made the film the biggest box–office success in the country's history.

Two years later, after English voiceover work had been dubbed in, the film went overseas and made it to the United States, where it was shown theatrically in a limited release. In 1984, it enjoyed a full release in the United States and was a modest hit.

To be sure, the story was strange, a real fish–out–of–water plot — actually, three plots.

You had a primitive Bushman (played by an actual Bush farmer who was, in many ways, as primitive as the Bushman he portrayed) who, believing the Coke bottle had been sent by the gods but being unable to comprehend the reason for it and dismayed by the unfamiliar and unpleasant behavior it evoked, embarks on a journey to find the end of the earth and throw the bottle off the edge; a painfully shy scientist who is infatuated with a new school teacher (and former newspaper reporter); and a group of guerrilla fighters who are running from government troops.

If you're wondering how these three stories could possibly intersect, you'll have to see the film for yourself. And it shouldn't be hard to find. It was out on video tape many years before DVDs came along, then was released on DVD, as was its 1989 sequel, "The Gods Must Be Crazy II."

From time to time, it also can be seen on cable.

As disarmingly entertaining as the film was, though, it was far from controversy–free.

For example, the original film (and its sequel) presented the Bushmen as enjoying an almost utopian existence in comparison to the complicated Western lifestyle that could be found in abundance a few hundred miles away. But, in fact, by the time the first film was made, the Bushmen had already been through many years of social changes that had been documented in several anthropological texts.

And those changes had involved interaction with what the film called "civilized man."

While the portrayal of the Bushmen in the two movies may have been accurate of some of the Bushmen in the 1980s, there were many who had been exposed to white people and Western culture by that time. Thus, for many, the sudden appearance of an heretofore unknown object, like a glass Coke bottle (do they even make glass soda bottles anymore?), wouldn't have been such a jarring experience.

There was also some conflict over the prospect of racism in the film. Some people thought the protagonist's character was insulting and demeaning, given his inability to understand the gods and the logic of their apparent "gifts."

Others, though, felt the story was a condemnation of both modern society and racism that elevated the Bushman to heroic status, given his quest to purge his small Bush community of a seemingly benign element of Western civilization.

As I mentioned earlier, the farmer who played the Bushman in the movie, a fellow named Nǃxau from Namibia, seems to have had a lot in common with the character he portrayed.

Before he was cast in the movie, he had only seen three white people in his life (which was estimated to have been more than 35 years at that time), he didn't understand paper money at the time he made the first film (although he seems to have learned about it by the time the sequel was made), and he never kept more than 20 head of cattle on his farm because, reportedly, he couldn't count any higher.

He didn't know how old he was, which would be no different, I presume, from the Bushmen in the movie. Their nomadic lifestyle didn't seem to include a system for keeping and storing records so it wasn't possible to consult his birth certificate or any other document. But someone (probably an anthropologist) estimated that he was born in 1943 or 1944.

He died of tuberculosis about seven years ago. So, if there are any additional "The Gods Must Be Crazy" stories to be told, they will have to feature his character's descendants.

But, judging from the reception that was given to the sequel, I think it's fair to say the story's shelf life has expired. The fact that no further projects have been undertaken in the last two decades clearly suggests that this is not a "Rocky–" or "Jaws–"like franchise.

Even so, the endearing quality of the original makes it a must–see for any movie lover.