Neil Young’s Film Lounge – House of the Tiger King

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

HOUSE OF THE TIGER KING

7/10

Sweden (Swe/UK) 2004 : David FLAMHOLC : 105 mins

"original junglists" with stuffed friendThe carvings on this enormous rock face are quite unique. Most impressive are the deeply incised, double bordered heart-shaped faces. Some glyphs are pan-Amazonian in style, while others are unclassifiable. They cover a rock face, stretching for about 75 feet along the rock, up to a height of nine feet. The Machiguenga with us admitted to having absolutely no knowledge as to the glyphs’ meaning or origin–the carvings had simply always been there.
Gregory Deyermenjian, www.paititi.com

Though one of the less hyped entries at 2004’s Edinburgh Film Festival – its only previous exposure had been at the Gothenburg FF – House of the Tiger King proved one of the event’s more unexpected crowdpleasing highlights. It’s rollicking post-modern ripping-yarn deconstructionist documentary, in which film-maker Flamholc (Swedish, posh, thirtyish) and writer-explorer Tahir Shah (British, wildly enthusiastic, fortyish) penetrate the Peruvian rainforest of Madre de Dios in search of the ‘lost city’ of Paititi, aka El Dorado, aka ‘The House of the Tiger King.’ Not that we’re ever really told who this ‘Tiger King’ is or was.

And nor do our heroes ever actually track down Paititi. That isn’t a spoiler, by the way – the film’s first scene is as frank an admission of failure as that which so audaciously kicks off Stanislaw Lem’s novel His Master’s Voice. Instead Flamholc adopts the well-worn approach pioneered by A J A Symons in his book The Quest for Corvo, whereby the searcher hopes that the tale of the journey is sufficiently engaging, entertaining and interesting to compensate for the lack of a pot at the rainbow’s end. Then again, as Flamholc and Shah admit, even if they had tracked down Paititi – whose existence has tormented western adventurers (such as Deyermenjian, above) for centuries – they would probably have kept shtum about it.

This kind of openness is what makes House of the Tiger King so refreshing. The process of film-making , which documentarists so often attempt to hide, is acknowledged at every stage (“We’ll fix it with a line of voice-over.”) Flamholc reveals on more than one occasion that such and such was done mainly for the cause of making the film better, as when Shah pays a visit to some gruesome mummified corpses which have virtually nothing to do with the Paititi shenanigans. But the tangential stuff is usually so freakishly oddball that it’s not hard to give Flamholc the benefit of the doubt – one of the very first scenes features a jawdropping diagnosis via guinea-pig, the hapless creature being disembowelled and its entrails pored over by a rain-forest haruspex.

Such larkishness – which mercifully stays just the right side of backpacker-trail cuteness – means that material which is apparently a recipe for Werner Herzog-style boundary-probing instead becomes much more of a freewheeling kind of romp: Shah’s preferred plan of attack is to blunder around in the hope that he’ll just “stumble” over whatever it is he’s looking for, even if this means passing through the dreaded “zone of negative energy.” As the film progresses, however (its rickety structure provided by the three main guides) it becomes clear that explorer and documentarist – who both provide separate narration – have mutually unachievable aims, not least because Shah’s Machiguenga lads are literally weighed down by having to carry the film-making equipment while surviving on supplies of Pot Noodle. This leads to all manner of friction, which may or may not be partially staged (or at least heightened) for the benefit of the audience: “I wanted us to endure hardship, because hardship would look great on film,” according to the director.

Even so, and even during their angriest feuding, Shah and Flamholc make for excellent company with which to tag along for a couple of hours. Shah’s relentless optimism convinces us – and his long-suffering fellow-travellers – that Paititi is just beyond the next bend in the river, just behind the next mountain. Though rather less intrepid, Flamholc is quite happy to be barrelled along on his friend’s infectious no-hanging-about energy. And so, despite occasional misgivings, are we.

6th September, 2004
(seen 26th August : UGC Edinburgh : public show – Edinburgh Film Festival)

click HERE for our full coverage of the 58th Edinburgh Film Festival

by Neil Young