Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness
All the Oscar enthusiasts out there probably know that during the first year of the Academy Awards, honoring films exhibited in 1927 and 1928, the "Best Picture" category was complemented by a second race called "Artistic Quality of Production," designed to honor films that made extraordinary achievements in their overall formal techniques and poetic modes of expression. F.W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans was the winner, and anyone who has beheld that pearly, rapturous masterpiece would hardly dispute the outcome. Still, rumor has it that the path to victory was cleared for Sunrise by some ideological misgivings about an equally esteemed and durable masterpiece, King Vidor's The Crowd; indeed, the Academy Board had originally anointed The Crowd as the winner until Louis B. Mayer spent all night filibustering against it.
The implication behind this widely accepted Academy lore is that the third entrant in this race, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness, was a bridesmaid from the beginning. Given the legendary status of its fellow nominees, Chang may well have deserved its bronze-medal finish, but the movie, an enormous commercial hit at the time of its release, deserves a much bigger audience and more vocal critical support than it has tended to elicit. When Andrew Sarris published The American Cinema in 1968 and basically rewrote popular American film studies as a hierarchical constellation of auteurs, he didn't even afford Cooper and Schoedsack their own paragraph or chapter (this despite the critical and commercial colossus of King Kong), and Chang doesn't appear anywhere in his catalogue of 1927's major releases. Image Entertainment, through its Milestone Collection imprimatur, released a splendid and feature-packed DVD of the film back in 2000, but it's hard to find stores that stock it or places to rent it, apart from online behemoths like Amazon and Netflix.
What I love about Chang, a film as exciting and entertaining to teach as it is to watch, is that even a casual viewer can see how Cooper and Schoedsack are simultaneously feeding into the nascent genre of the feature documentary even as they are telegraphing the various short-cuts, contrivances, and white lies (in more sense than one) on which their sentimentally exciting and affectionate ethnographic adventure-yarn depends. Like its obvious model, Robert J. Flaherty's Nanook of the North, Chang introduces us to a genial but hardworking nuclear family who come to stand in for the entire region they inhabit (northern Thailand, in this case) and a vast imaginary field of "custom" and "tradition" that ostensibly permeates the area. Kru, our protagonist, his wife Chantui, and their children live in an elevated cottage with their pet monkey Bimbo (about whom more later). The family mostly live on the food they grow and the animals they hunt, though we also enjoy brief glimpses of a wider village life in which they participate, on the occasions when they leave their isolated home. Chang already makes for beautiful, engaging viewing just on the bases of the radiant location photography, the textures of the foliage, the ground, and the manmade structures, the spontaneous movements of the children and their pets.
As with Nanook, most of the humble "life" and domestic rituals we observe in Chang are recreations of already-outmoded or fanciful practices, enacted by a locally selected cast who were very conscious of performing for the camera. Kru really was married to Chantui, and their onscreen children really were their children, which is more than you can say for Nanook, and as the senior location scout and interpreter for the film crew, Kru himself enjoyed more of the creative process and was perhaps more creatively involved in the staging of his own (mis)representation than was Allakariallak, the Itinivuit man who played Flaherty's "Nanook."* In these ways, Chang captures a family group and a setting that are slightly more "real" than Nanook's, and yet the film flaunts its artificiality much more obviously. Some well-shot and extremely exciting sequences of "spontaneous" leopard attacks are nonetheless blocked suspiciously well toward the sightlines and placements of the cameras; the interior shots of the treehouse, in at least some instances, don't match the exterior perspectives of what is supposed to be the same structure.
Then there is Bimbo, the monkey, who pulls a peculiar triple-duty within Chang's terms as comic relief, as a primary site of audience identification (doting on the cute children, fleeing various predators), and as an uncomfortably anthropomorphized character, blurring the human/animal divide in ways that refract poorly on the film's representations of Kru and his family. If you count the title cards, I believe that Bimbo has the most "dialogue" in the movie, interacting with the family in a fully integrated way. He has some close shaves escaping a leopard and an elephant that make obvious use of rear-projection and other photographic tricks. Cooper and Schoedsack dote on Bimbo in a way that they don't on the human characters, and every viewer has to decide whether this choice relieves the humans of the obligation to be "adorable" or if Chang implies a mental, emotional, and linguistic continuity among the people of Siam and the gibbons in their midst.
Whatever its political implications, Chang (the Thai word for "elephant") is a remarkably efficient entertainment, packing more visual punch and pulse-quickening spectacle into 69 minutes than Trader Horn did, and with less jarring cuts between the personal scenes and the animal footage. Indeed, Chang's cameras get daringly close to several beasts, and though you notice and even relish the clear fictional contrivance of the climactic elephant stampedeit would be horrible if this razing of an entire village, portrayed to us as entertainment, were realthe pure, thundering spectacle of this sequence is quite something to behold. Watching one pissed-off elephant maul Kru's hut when she thinks he's kidnapped her baby is impressive enough, but a sprinting fleet of elephants is something altogether different, without so much as a pixel of special effects.
Chang scored with the public and with the industry. As you'll notice from the copious clippings and press notes included on the DVD, the exotic stories about the filming of Changfrequently turning on the directors' reckless pursuit of the best, closest footage of their dangerous, unpredictable animalswere almost as crowd-pleasing as the film itself. If Chang's box office earned the duo the opportunity to direct King Kong, Cooper and Schoedsack's reputations as bold explorers and thrill-seeking image-makers certainly played into the Kong screenplay's decision to center the action around Carl Denham, a reckless filmmaker who'll do anything and venture anywhere for the right shot, and who promotes himself just as hungrily as Cooper and Schoedsack did. One tidbit on the Chang DVD includes this injunction from the directors and their studio to the theater-owners across the country exhibiting Chang: "If you are not in the habit of personally endorsing your programs, digress from the straight and narrow path just this once. Chang will live up to anything you say!" The filmmakers also declaim the virtues of projecting Chang inside pet-stores or zoo compounds, so that audiences could ostensibly watch the excited reactions of animals to their own on-screen images.
I haven't tried watching Chang in a zoo, but I have screened it for an auditorium full of restless, pent-up college undergraduates, and their reactionsexcited, skeptical, nostalgic, ironic, but universally intriguedwere thrilling to gauge, and Chang's aspirations to "reality," even as it serially undercut its own pretenses in that direction, make it a fascinating time capsule of popular cinema at a moment where talkies were just arriving and the drift toward theatrical, narrative- and human-centered comedies and dramas was not yet graven in stone. Sunrise, in its more delicate and elegiac way, is just as commemorative of cinema's moment of reckoning, after thirty years of evolving traditions and on the cusp of seismic revolutions, ascendant studios, and much more standardized production. Cinema, up to that point, subsisted on a recipe of short "actualities" (acrobats flexing, boats docking, fires, kisses, rescues), nature photography, slapstick humor, formal experiments with light and continuity, and literary narratives. Chang gives you a little of all of this at once, and it's built, shot, and scripted to entertain literally anyone, from a 4-year-old to a nonagenarian member of its own original audience. Give it a whirl, tell your friends, and if you're drafting a film-studies syllabus pretty soon, consider giving the admittedly wondrous Nanook a rest.
* Turns out this family's a fraud, too! (Note the comment below.) Let's at least hope that Cooper and Schoedsack didn't keep filming while Kru and his compatriots cried for help and relief on their seal-hunting mission, as Flaherty allegedly did, and that Kru didn't die of starvation on an ice floe right after Chang came out, as Allakariallak/"Nanook" apparently did. Most of all, let's hope that reviewers like me will stop dropping tidbits of knowledge that turn out to be false, and stick to the center-ring task of reviewing and extolling what's on screen! Mea culpa. the Management
Images © 1927 Paramount Pictures, 2000 Image Entertainment