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'River': A Lot of Life to Digest

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 4, 2001


    'Keep the River on Your Right' Tobias Schneebaum revisits his days in the Amazon in "Keep the River on Your Right."
(Jonathan Koval/IFC Films)
The American novelist and belles-lettrist Henry James once observed, "It is a complex fate to be an American." Had he contemplated the career of Tobias Schneebaum, the august old gentleman could have added, "Holy freakin' cow!"

Schneebaum covers the waterfront. He has been a noted abstract expressionist, a rabbinical student, an explorer, an author, a gay man in search of love, Norman Mailer's pal in the New York literary scene of the '50s, an anthropologist, a talk show guest (for Mike Douglas) and, oh yes, a cannibal.

Now a wizened ancient, he putters around New York like a retired deli clerk, somewhat infirm of step and grumpy of disposition and thus possibly unspottable among the many thousands of that town's elderly. He might be ahead of you in line at Zabar's for coffee beans, and be somewhat slow in deciding between Peruvian Roasted or Colombian Almond. But do not say, "Sir, please, I have important business to conduct." He might eat you.

Well, no, he probably wouldn't. He's nonviolent, though he did go on a murder raid with Peruvian tribesman. He claims he thought they were hunting animals; it turns out they were hunting enemy tribesman. At any rate, that's his story and he's sticking to it. And around the campfire that night, he was served a little sliver of meat. He had to be polite, didn't he? He can't remember what it tasted like; only that it made him, when his book was published in 1969, the talk of the town.

Yet these momentous discoveries -- that he is gay, that he enjoyed dinner with a friend, a nice Peruvian chianti and some fava beans -- only slowly emerge as the film "Keep the River on Your Right" plays out, beautifully evoked by directors David and Laurie Shapiro. It was their idea that gives the film its narrative armature: to chronicle a trip back to both Peru and New Guinea.

But what's brilliant about the film is that it doesn't quite buy its hero's somewhat self-serving account. He portrays himself as a fearless explorer of the unseen, yet the movie suggests that he just may have been a sailor looking for a date. He represents himself as a seeker of truth, yet another anthropologist comments acidly that wherever he looked the truth was the same, and it was homosexual. He certainly wasn't a detached researcher; he slept with the people he lived among. Moreover, his proclaimed cannibalism made him briefly famous, but he clearly doesn't want it examined too closely or to answer any tough questions about it.

He also isn't too sure about the movie and the movie isn't too sure about him; a tension between filmmakers and subject runs through the film. He keeps complaining that they're pushing him too hard, that his hip could break. They listen blankly, without argument: But without the trip, there's no movie, so, dadgum it, there will be a trip.

The Shapiros have uncovered exquisite archival tapes, the most exquisite being that "Mike Douglas Show" appearance, where Tobias was rather rudely treated by -- I love the touch, it's so television! -- a Zsa-Zsa Gabor clone.

In the end one is not sure what to make of Tobias. He's something less than a hero but something more than a fake. He had a life, however, that was way off the charts in its unpredictability, and sharing it with him is fascinating.

Keep the River on Your Right (90 minutes, at Visions Cinema Bistro) is rated R for sexual material.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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