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The Stories Things Tell And Why They Tell Them


I never thought that a thing like a burned match, or a scrap of paper in the mud, or a fallen leaf, or a rusty worthless nail might have a soul. The Yorikke taught me otherwise.

—B. Traven, The Death Ship

For seven months, Juan Downey lived in the Amazon forest with some Yanomami Indians. In 1979 he made a video called The Laughing Alligator about this experience. There are many stories in this movie, but to my mind the stories are secondary to the filmic quality of film, to rhythms of light and shade, flicker and sheen. The stories are secondary to the way the collage of images tells many stories simultaneously. And of course, there is always the face—the human face—and the nearly naked body, all filmed in loving close-up. In these sequences, sound is enormously important, all the more so when it is absent, as with the episode towards the end of the video where a young man binds a blue feather to the tail-end of an arrow braced tight against the smooth skin of his shirtless chest. The screen fills with the feather set into the shaft, twirled slowly in irregular stops and starts.

It is as if the arrow is thinking, inseparable as it is from the body as both tool and beauty. First the right hand moves back and forth along the naked thigh, back and forth, rolling fibers into a thread, which will be used to bind the feather to the arrow. The thigh is an anvil, a hard surface for rolling the fibers. Then the body becomes a vice, holding the shaft of the arrow tight in the axilla. Body and arrow are unified. Epitome of ease, the man sits on a low stool, his body the workshop of the world.

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