“MUSCLE SHOALS” IS an entertaining, elevating documentary about the recording studio, Fame, in the town of Muscle Shoals. This was the studio that helped produce the funk that energized some of the legendary masters of 60’s and 70’s soul and pop music. In an unpretentious studio located in the heart of racist America – Colbert County, Alabama – a brilliant producer, Rick Hall, working with a group of extraordinary white musicians (Pete Carr, Jimmy Johnson, Roger Hawkins, David Hood and Barry Beckett) pumped out hit upon hit, rivaling the Detroit centre (Motown) for success, and became the foot-tapping soul behind many a black musician.
The music is thrilling.
We see the early recordings of a young nervous Black gospel singer, almost literally plucked from the cotton plantations where he entertained the slaves (oops, workers). This was Wilson Pickett with “When a Man Loves a Woman”, a song that epitomized the soul music of the 60’s: gutsy, passionate, filled with a kind of stirring dynamism that you certainly wouldn’t have found with the Everly Brothers.
Hall was the one who, when Aretha Franklyn was fired after five failed years at Colombia records (Colombia never knew how to get the most out of that voice and buried it under – white – saspy Patsy Klein type songs), helped turn her into the Queen of Soul. I think one of the secrets of great documentary film-making is finding the right archival footage. And in Muscle Shoals, Director Greg Camalier has unearthed some priceless material. We see the filmed record of the initial relationship between Aretha and the musicians of Muscle Shoals (they were called the Swampers). It was a testy one that only began to sparkle when, after mucking around for days, Barry Beckett on keyboards crafted those few opening bars of “I Never Loved a Man (the way I love you)”. That was all it needed to catapult the song into the shape it took and to become Aretha’s first big hit. It underlined the type of singing and the type of groove we’ve come to expect from her.
The film offers a knit of interviews – Bono, Alicia Keys, Clarence Carter, Wilson Pickett, a vast Aretha Franklyn, Sam Phillips (speaking about the lasting role of gospel in his life and in the way it/he shaped the music of Elvis Presley at Sun Studios) etc. But mainly the interviews focused in on the musical erudition of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. The Stones had reached a point where, apparently, they wanted to ‘blacken’ their rock. And so, down they went to work with a bunch of white musicians. And in an incredible three days, churned out “Brown Sugar”, “Wild Horses” and “You Gotta Move” (all of which were in the famous “Sticky Fingers” album designed by Andy Warhol).
Greg Allman camped out in front of the studio for days until a reluctant Hall agreed to listen to his music and produce (what would become the Allman Brothers). There, at Fame Studios, Allman and Wilson Pickett became fast friends; Alman persuaded a reluctant Pickett to develop his own (powerful, ground shaking) version of “Hey Jude”, and working with a group of white and black backing musicians, Allman developed what would go on to be classified as Southern rock.
Hall was clearly at the epicenter of this revolution in sound (indeed, even when the Swampers left him to form their own studio, Hall recruited, mainly Black, musicians to keep his groove going. And Fame Studios is still very much in action and works with musicians such as Carrie Underwood). The movie darts between the energy and excitement of the recording artists and the man himself. His was a life fit for a Blues record: brother killed in infancy by falling into a vat of boiling water; mother turned prostitute; father killed when a tractor (bough him by a grateful son, Hall) turns over and crushes him to death. All this Hall managed to communicate in a song that he persuaded an uncertain Clarence Carter to record. This song was “Patches”. It became a monster hit for Carter.
Apart from the sheer foot stomping joyfulness of the music, the one core theme that pulls the movie together is the transformative power that the music and musicians of the time played in the civil rights ‘march’. As “Muscle Shoals” makes clear, this was a time when the nation was rigidly divided between the segregationist forces of George Wallace and the integrationist dreams of Martin Luther King. Fame Studios was a color-free oasis in a racist culture. One of the most pressing problems of the Black artists recording there was their inability to buy a sandwich at the local diner, where ‘coloureds’ were not allowed. And as these bigots (they’re still there, but now they call themselves ‘birthers’) stewed in their rage, a bunch of white guys created the black sound of Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklyn and the troop at Stax Records; even the cool reggae vibe of a young Jimmy Cliff. And a bunch of black guys energized the white music of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, The Beatles etc.
What a time it all was. The music, exploring a brave new world and dealing with the angst of racism and Vietnam had an urgency, an edge, a funkiness to it. Now all of this has turned into the banality of Milly Cyrus and Rihanna, whose closest brush with angst is how best to craft their brands.
Ah well, as Derek Walcott, the noble laureate of West Indian poetry has written, “All of we has we angst, but I has none”
IT’S A STRUGGLE viewing art at the Tate Modern. Last Sunday, early enough, I’d hoped, to have outwitted the Sunday strollers, but I was defeated at every turn by phalanxes of children running around, screaming, scampering, crying for attention to anyone who would give it to them, but especially from their mothers – smartly dressed with smartly dressed spouses or partners in tow, creating space for themselves with bus-sized prams and strollers. All this at 10am, just as the place opened. I tried to run ahead of them, nipping past roomfuls of Klee’s to find brief moments of solace. That failed; so I tried to let them run ahead of me. But there was such a tonnage of them that, like an invading army, they kept coming and coming. Shouldn’t there be a time and place for this battering of bourgeois babies? Shouldn’t they be corralled and contained in a romper room somewhere?
No matter, at least I had Klee to pacify me. The new Paul Klee exhibition on at the Tate Modern is vast: rooms upon rooms of his works, carefully curated, allowing viewers to follow the chronology of his oeuvre (Klee numbered each of his works, so it’s a no-brainer to figure out the order of their production). At times (battling against the invading toddlers) it was overwhelming. So I opted to do what I’d read somewhere: compromise on seeing everything, focus instead on those that simply caught your eye. Better to spend quality time with a few (always surprisingly small) works than quantity time with everything.
Klee (and Kandinski and that whole Bauhaus crowd) is probably one of the most academic and eloquent of that cluster of masters who redefined the idiom of art between the wars. This is a man who wrote thirty pages on the meaning of the dot; and then apologized (without irony, for he seemed to have little of that) for his brevity. So I find it important to resist looking at all his works through his own instruction manual (mainly The Pedagogical Notebooks) and just let the art skin in.
That said, it’s informative to begin with a quote from Robert Delaunay, a French artist who was greatly admired by Klee. Delaunay wrote, “so long as art is subservient to objects, it remains description.” Klee from an early age had liberated himself from the tyranny of observed reality to create a grammar entirely free from the baggage of cultural references we all drag along with us, and to construct a world that became idiosyncratically his own. To me Klee’s works exist in two major – often blended – dimensions: Klee the colorist (he once said, “colour has taken possession of me…colour and I are one. I am a painter”, and Klee the draughtsman: “when a dot becomes movement and line, time is involved”).
Let’s look at these two paintings, executed nine years apart in 1920 and 1929. They are “Redgreen and Violet & Yellow Rhythms” (the lower painting) and “Steps”
With both of these paintings, what we have are brick like shapes of colour – almost colour without form (as Rothko would perfect a few decades later). There really is no center point, no central image to act as a guide to the viewer. In “Redgreen…” there are a few tree-like forms that are there more as highlights rather than as having any narrative point. Rather the painting seems to have been built almost organically with the slabs of colour nestled against each other not upon any outside image or object, but entirely upon the painting’s own inner logic. The sizes of the rudimentary forms and the colours chosen have been selected exclusively as complements or contrasts with the other forms and colours around them. The work has created its own dynamic and delivers its effect, its power as a result of its self contained inner coherence.
Klee approached his art almost like an archaeologist unearthing long buried objects. His approach was to experiment with materials so that they would be as integral to the finished object as the colours and forms embedded into them (and for that he blended scraps of fabric with wood laminated onto board etc) and then to build up the work, allowing whatever emerged do so intuitively. (Both Goethe and Kant spoke of the power of “intuitive judgment”). The paintings evoke worlds and moods that have therefore arisen from the artist’s extraordinary ability to internalise memories of places, incidents and random ideas and recombine them in his art. We don’t so much as look at a Klee painting as enter into a relationship with it. For he offers scant reference points for us to hold on to. (Klee has said that, “the artist abandons the world immediately around him and instead builds a bridge into another world”). Rather he drags us outside of the boundaries of our known and familiar experiences – our consciousness – and invites us to enter into his consciousness. With his art, we don’t so much see as re-experience the world through another perspective, through the intuition of another. The colours and forms of his art becomes the viewer’s new terra firma.
In this work, “A Young Lady’s Adventure”, we see out of Klee’s wandering line emerging this spectral figure. Unlike the two shown initially, this painting quite clearly has a central focus. Did it start with this in mind, or did this emerge from his act of painting organically as it certainly emerges from the painting itself? What is her adventure? It seems to be nighttime and she seems to be bathed in some sort of glow or light. There seem to be animal-like shapes around: is this her dreamscape? The painting offers us just enough information to deduce (imagine even, as we add our own experience to almost complete the picture and bring it into our own imagination) that she’s quite young. Maybe a child, unafraid, going out into a dark world?
Who knows. Franz Marc, a German painter and printmaker notes that, “art is probably a sleep-walker’s vision of the typical.”
The key point is that with Klee, you leave your world behind and submit to his imagination and these two dimensional signals it has produced– signals that are not records of things seen (the exhibition is called “Making Visible”) but signs that have passed through many psychic layers.
“PHILOMENA” IS AN intelligent, engaging and (though I hate this word), heartwarming drama about the (true) story of a disgraced British spin-doctor Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, “What Maisie Knew”) who, somewhat reluctantly agrees to pursue a story of one Philomena Lee (Judi Dench, as compelling as usual). The four-year old son of this elderly Irish woman had been stolen from her and sold to some Americans fifty years before by the nuns in whose convent she, as an unwed mother, had been living. It’s the story ostensibly about the search for the son; but really it’s a story about the triumph of decency, honesty and the truth over secrecy and lies.
For fifty years, Philomena, inhibited by a deep sense of shame, both for having sex (sex before marriage is in Catholic eschatology well nigh a mortal sin, not unlike murder) and (horrors!) for enjoying it. Her rediscovery of an old photo of her son triggers an epiphany to find him and forces her closed memories to re-open. We’re cast back to the time when, at about sixteen, pregnant and outcast, she turns to her local convent. There, she buys their protection in exchange for her freedom and her rights over her child. Hers becomes a life of servitude, sweating six days a week in their laundry. The convent is a place framed by a cemetery of buried teenage mothers, some named, others simply the results of births gone bad.
To the nuns there, the sadistic suffering Philomena had to undergo giving birth to her son, and her subsequent rigid life in the convent are the price she must pay for her sins. Her one joy is the hour a week she’s allowed to play with her son, a sweet, smiling child deeply attached to another waif – a girl – in the institution. The moment of crisis, the horror she buries deep into her subconscious, and which finally surfaces, is when both her little boy and the little girl are handed over one day to strangers in a large, expensive limousine.
The search for the boy leads Sixsmith and Philomena initially to the convent. In this world of pleasant smiles, crumpets and tea and deceptions, the governing abbess claims to have no knowledge of the past, all records having been destroyed in a mysterious fire. The search leads them to the US and the back to the convent where mysteriously the only document saved from the fire is Philomena’s signed permission to agree to the adoption of her son.
The relationship between this unlikely pair – the urbane, ironic, intellectual and cynical Sixsmith and his opposite number, Philomena, who is straightforward, gauche, honest and uncynically faithful – is the heart of the movie. It is his journalistic nous that drives the search forward and it is her open honesty that cracks open the door that completes the search. It is a search that not only leads to the truth about her son, but also to her higher truth – that the Catholic view of herself (as epitomized by one tight-lipped bitter crone of a nun extolling the need for mortification of the flesh as the route to God) is distorted, unchristian and untrue.
Her growing understanding of the truth about what happened with her son is tied in with her slow acceptance of the truth of the convent – as a place where lies, dissimulations and deceptions are its dark protection from the glare of outside scrutiny.
“Philomena” offers us three worlds: the big city cynicism of Sixsmith (and his driven editor, Sally – Michelle Fairley who most people will know as Catelyn Stark from “Game of Thrones”), the self-centered hypocrisy of the church and the forgiving, country-girl, open-ness of Philomena. We get the sense that he has grown and is a better person due to her generosity of spirit (the county has conquered the town), whereas, the church remains closed and shut in by its sense of stern, unforgiving judgment.
Director Stephen Frears (the disappointing “Tamara Drewe” and the outstanding “The Queen” and “Dirty Pretty Things”) finds a nice balance between the dark, horrifying reality of her story – her abuse by the church’s condemnatory moral rectitude – and a delicate lightness of tone that exudes from her judgment-free demeanor. But this woman is no one-dimensional, elderly sweetie. At one moment, fed up with Sixsmith’s smugness, the innocence turns and she calls him, “a fecking idiot”. There’s nothing like some well-placed curses to crack up an audience and jolt you away from patronising.
In the end it’s her willingness to offer forgiveness to the church that is the story’s moral high point and director Frear’s moment of restrained anger. Well…it’s a high-point in a bar set by the church, which is very low indeed.
FROM THE MOMENT Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) sees two unusual blips on his radar, signaling boats approaching fast, you can say goodbye to breathing, in director Paul Greengrass’ (“The Bourne Ultimatum”, “The Bourne Supremacy“, “Green Zone” etc) eponymously named movie. As you’d expect from any Greengrass movie, there’s his trademark use of hand-held cameras to deliver a level of immersiveness in the action that’s unusually intense.
He wastes no time beating around the bush. The movie begins with the captain packing his bags, readying his journey down to Mombassa via the pirate- infested waters of Somalia. We see his wife, Catherine Keener for a heartbeat – just enough to register a happy marital relationship – and before you know it, we’re on the ship and into the danger zone.
The plot is a simple one – despite the protection of ferocious bursts of water cannon arming the lumbering container ship, Maersk Alabama, they’re easily boarded by the five- man pirate crew of an agile and swift moving skiff just a few hundred kilometers off the coast of Somalia. Captain Phillips follows procedure (“it’s probably just fishermen,” he’s told by his mainland contacts) and hides his crew in the engine room just as he’s confronted by the skeletally thin, Muse, and his desperate band of armed ex-fishermen turned bandits. Phillips offers his captors the contents of the ship’s safe: $30,000. But they refuse this small potatoes, for they are mere worker-bees and their ‘management’ insists on a ransom of $10M. It’s only business, they inform Phillips. They don’t want lives, just money.
The confrontation between Phillips and his captor, Muse (“I am the captain now,” he tells Phillips) forms the emotional center of the movie, even as the scene shifts from the ship to a claustrophobic life-boat where, surrounded by an army of Navy seals, Phillips fights to stay alive and negotiate an end to the stand-off.
Greengrass is the thinking-man’s action-movie director. What he gave us in his Bourne movies and “Green Zone” was not only a sense of felt reality, but heroes we could identify with, battling against the same insidious covert government activities as Tony Scott’s “Enemy of the State”. What with the revelations from Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, it’s interesting how this filmic paranoia now feels more like prescient insights.
“Captain Phillips” only hints at the causes of Somali piracy – he never lets his politics bog down the story – but he offers a strong enough background perspective to ground the action in something deeper than a triumphant, jingoistic exercise in US Naval might. Greengrass offers a flash-by of the layers of control that run the world of Somali piracy and enough of a sense of the pirate captain, Muse, to ensure that the confrontation between him and Phillips isn’t an unbalanced one.
We always expect much of Tom Hanks. He’s still one of the most watchable actors around; and in “Captain Phillips”, he gives us an Oscar-worth performance. Hanks manages to balance blind fear, the leadership and stoicism expected of a good captain and a final emotional breakdown, with absolute credibility. Unlike the strong-jawed Seals who take charge of his rescue, Hanks’s Phillips is as resolute as he is uncertain, as empathetic of his captors as he is fearful of them. He’s the hero who bleeds.
Importantly, novice actor Barkhad Abdi who plays the increasingly desperate Muse is able to stand up to Hanks’ extraordinary screen presence. He’s a man living a life of violence, but who simply wants to see America and earn enough money to feed himself. He manages to keep in check some of the more violent members of his crew even as his carefully managed plan of piracy falls apart.
This is a movie of stark contrasts: the happy, well-fed Phillips v the desperate, skeletal Muse; the well dressed crew of the Alabama v the torn rags of the pirates; the slow moving unarmed supertanker v the fast moving, heavily armed pirate skiffs; the small desperate crew of pirates v the might of the US Naval forces; the rich West v the impoverished Somalia. The extraordinary thing is that these stark contrasts are held in a drama of perfect balance. Here on the open seas, rich doesn’t have it over poor; big offers no real advantage over small. Here, Greengrass seems to be slyly suggesting, the disadvantaged Somalis, for a moment are on a par with the advantaged ‘West’.
“Captain Phillips” only hints at the theme of ‘fishermen gone bad’. Sadly, the image of gun-toting Somali pirates wantonly attacking innocent shipping is only half the picture. The collapse of the last Somali government in 1991 lead to the collapse of any international respect for its 3000+ miles of coastland and fishing rights. The UN has reported that some $300M of seafood is plundered from its waters every year by illegally operating international fishing fleets. Somali fishermen have been shot at and their livelihoods robbed by these far more sophisticated, unlicensed fleets, mainly from South Korea, Japan and Spain. Beyond this theft of the fishing zones, Somalia has also been afflicted by large-scale toxic waste dumping, which has lead to a rash of health related diseases all along their coast-line.
Alas, as is so often the case, the rapacious West – in this case, illegal trawling – has absolutely caused the problem – piracy off this coast. So, while we’re sorry for the likes of Captain Phillips – a noble man simply doing his job, honestly and intelligently – this is just another problem the West has brought upon itself.
But that’s not the remit of this thrilling movie, that’s for the documentary version
“NIGHT MOVES” IS a B movie masquerading as an “A”. Seems that the producers well recognize this, as this BFI submission isn’t expected to be aired in the UK until February of 2014 (that pre-Oscar dead zone). It should have been better: the story focuses on a group of environmentalists, who, impelled to do something, decide to blow up a hydro-electric dam. At issue is the question – what should ordinary citizens (i.e we in the audience) do to help save the planet in the face of the implacable indifference of political and corporate power? This kind of eco-terrorism is at best a quixotic, even dangerous, gesture that, as various commentaries make clear, will make no difference whatsoever. And yet, the structure and style of the film seems to suggest that at least it’s a gesture… better than the gestures that we all make, which amount to pretty much nothing.
Director/writer/editor Kelly Reichardt has crafted a story that –wilfully- offers us no trace of the human motivations that underlie this act of terrorism. What brought them here? What drove them to such a point of extremism? What really is their relationship with each other? Why does Josh (a blank expressionless Jesse Eisberg, whose last half-way decent movie was “The Social Network”) accept the fact that Dena (Dakota Flemming, stalwart veteran of other film classics such as the Twilight series) is making love with his brother, Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard who actually seems to be trying to infuse the skeleton of his character with a few noticeably human twitches)? Is he jealous? Do we care?
Reichardt has sought to create a dynamic tension between the story’s inherent narrative drama (the bad, though accurate tag line could have been, “This is a story of sex, terrorism and murder”) and the way it is portrayed: by stripping away any trace of B movie exaggeration.
The result is that you feel as though you’re sitting through a class for movie-makers, rather than a fully fleshed out drama for movie goers.
We follow the trio as they put in place their plot – first purchasing a boat, then the fertilizer needed for the bomb, then locating the place to anchor the boat on the dam etc – from the quasi-documentary perspective of a camera that offers no moral commentary. There is –deliberately? – no build up of tension. So, whether they’re buying the boat or escaping the law, the emotional timbre of the movie, thanks in no small part to Jeff Grace’s low-impact electronic score, and Eisenberg’s emotional neutrality, remains unchanged. The whole thing is so low keyed that the fact that the trio sleepwalk through the story, seems all for effect.
Reichardt’s style of directing seeks to turn us into disinterested observers. We know only as much as we’re allowed to see; there is no attempt at an internal, unseen dimension. And as with any purely external observation, we remain clueless as to motives beyond the obvious political one.
Our – the audience’s – deliberate cluelessness is, Reichardt seems to suggest, is a kind of cluelessness and disinterestedness which is in itself a kind of culpability.
Frankly it’s a disinterestedness that should keep movie goes away from what I suspect will be a movie that falls without a trace
THE FLIGHT FROM London to the Okavango Delta in Botswana is no short hop. It’s eleven hours down to Johannesburg (made easier, despite being in the ignominious rear of the ‘plane, by the genuine – as opposed to professional – charm of some of the flight attendants on SAA). From there, it’s onward for another ninety minutes on a smaller flight to Maun, a way-station somewhere in the middle of Botswana; and from there, on a toy aircraft, barely hovering above the tops of the trees, to our first stop at the Kanana airstrip, a flat piece of dirt, occasionally colonised by baboons.
The first thing you notice as you descend through the clouds and the night into the African dawn, is the colour of the land. For two hours as we flew across the seeming limitlessness of South Africa, the land was as brown as an impala’s hide, patched with tufts of green and embroidered here and there with the glitter of zinc-roofed shanties. The land folds away from you in a blue emptiness; a distant thread of horizon, forever unspooling.
The colour shifts as you veer north toward the wetter regions of the delta – a place where the khaki Kalahari sands are overlaid with a watercolour wash of flat green reeds and shrub, punctuated by ancient grey termite mounds, some as tall as fifteen feet, like the conical hats of giant wizards. These – highest points on the flatness of the land – are surrounded by haphazard clusters of trees, many (because of the season) leafless black fingers praying to an implacably cloudless sky and home to sharp-eyed African Fisher eagles.
This is the Okavango Delta, the final stop of the Okavango river, journeying full, dark and powerful for over nine hundred miles from distant Angola. Here in Botswana’s northern tip, the river fans out into a labyrinth of streams and channels, yielding its fertility into a game-rich oasis, where, exhausted after a journey of five months, it sinks, sighing into the sand.
Okavango. Kalahari: such rotund syllables, so robust with legend.
We came looking for game, and were richly bonused to discover a vastness of ever changing landscapes – of high, dry, golden grasses flecked with the quick stripes of
grazing zebra, that dissolve into the meandering curves of wide blue, hippo-hiding rivers, feeding canyons of bending papyri and bordered by an undulating filigree of olive green grasslands.
We stayed at three different camps (Kanana, Shindi and Savouti), each about twenty minutes’ flight from the other. But the word, “camps” belie their elegance. These are well furnished, high roofed, breezy mahogany and eucalyptus-timbered lodges where we dined (on a wide variety of well prepared, joyously presented international and local cuisines) and where we (dypsomaniacs all!) repaired to for our lunch-time and evening cocktails. Each camp has about seven or eight chalets, private and well ensconced in curtains of leaves. They are large, stylish, airy places with grand, sleep-welcoming, net embraced double beds crowned by ceiling fans; and African-print curtains that seem to float in the eddies of breeze that drift through them. The chalets all have private porches that overlook panoramas of animal-teeming grasslands.
In our first camp, on our first night, we could hear, late in the pitch blackness of the always starry African night, amidst choirs of frogs, the roars of (we assumed) copulating hippos having tons of fun barely feet away from the electrified protection of our chalet. In our third camp, at Savouti, a warthog – those almost comical-looking creatures, were it not for their nasty upturned tusks – was our closest neighbor, having decided to occupy its own mud spa retreat just outside our front door.
The routines were pretty much the same at all the camps: up early (5-ish) to be ready to head out in small clusters of four or five with a guide in an open Land Rover while the day was still cool and crisp. By midday, after four hours or so driving slowly through the untamed countryside, the sun’s heat becomes too ferocious and enervating to do much more than sink into the cool dark of the lodges and exchange the delta’s hot browns and greens for the chilly welcome of the bars’ Sauvignon Blanc. By about 4, we’d be ready – without too much beating around the bush – to head out again into the still brittle day. At six-ish, we’d stop for Sundowners. Such a good custom.
At this time, as the sun begins to fade and the earth cools, we’d stop at a location primed for prime sunset viewing, to relax with Gin and tonics and canapes. There’s nothing quite like a sun-set Gin and tonic or vodka martini, while awaiting the setting sun somewhere in the magical Kalahari. By this time, the sun, now shorn of its heat becomes a spectacular red disc, leeching its colour into its skirt of clouds.
But of course, though magnificent the landscapes and sumptuous the lodges, we were here for the animals.
And they did not disappoint. The visceral, existential thrill of seeing your first ever lion, casually sauntering past you or your first ever sighting of a leopard, scratching its head on a tree, or the serried ranks of impala and kudu and roan antelopes peacefully grazing next to the startling whiteness of egrets, like exclamation marks in the commas of green grass, or the memories of thundering elephants, ears flapping, protecting their mini-me offspring or a lumbering hippo, emerging like a phantasm from the brush for his spot in the water, are jolting and breath-taking.
We were there (October) at the procreative season, at the end of the rains, before the wall of summer heat slammed into town, as ‘half’ the animals seemed to be pregnant or protectively baby-sitting.
We saw, in a heronry – guano encrusted forests of reeds thick with screeching herons, storks and ibises – a ghetto of birds spreading their wings, puffing out their throats, cooling themselves, feeding their chicks, ever jostling one another for room in their overcrowded, but water protected world.
Our driver sneaked up on a family of hyena; three cubs, at first gamboling around near to their burrow. And then, as if summoned to the dinner table, suckling from the plentiful supplies of a bored mother.
As we were driving across a dusty plain, we came across one large, don’t-mess-with-me female baboon, who strutted snobbishly past her noisy, quarrelsome troop, small baby clinging dearly to her underside.
Though we only rarely encountered other trucks, the drivers/guides were in regular contact with each other, should there be an important sighting. And so it happened, as we were cruising one morning past a dazzle of tail-swishing zebra, our driver was alerted to a ‘kill’. A pack of wild dogs had apparently just taken down a pregnant impala. And as if shot out of gun, we made for the site with reckless Nascar-speeding abandon, swerving past cross-roads of trees, over undulating highways of flattened bush, through detours of shrubs, their branches like knives slicing at our ducked heads until we arrived just in time.
Just in time to see a huge pack of snarling, slavering, ravenous wild dogs, faces red with dripping blood, savaging the remains of what had been, not twenty minutes ago an impala. In this season of procreation, we saw the alfa mother rip some part of the carcass from her snarling kith and kin to bring it to her excited, snapping, yelping cubs who leapt upon it with a frenzy of carnivorous zeal. We later were told that the special treat she had so maternally brought over to her brood was the fetus of the dead, pregnant impala.
We sat, awed, hushed by the violence of the activity.
We sat, awed, as we were throughout the trip at our incredible proximity. We were amazed at the extent to which we were simply ignored by the game around us. At our first, heart-stopping, jaw-dropping sighting of a lion, we were stunned as it simply, casually, haughtily strolled past us, a mighty golden presence, a fearless Aslan, not ten feet away. It was as though we were invisible, as though we were all wearing Frodor’s magic ring.
The lion wasn’t the only animal to treat us with such total indifference, such cool insouciance. We parked and sat silently just outside the leap of a wandering leopard seeking shade to rest up before his night of culinary sport. It regarded us as beneath its contempt and not even worthy of flicking an ear in our direction. At one point, as it lay, softly breathing in the shade, we did see its ears twitch and its head raise languidly to look in the direction, way off in the distance of some grazing steenboks. “He’s probably become aware of an injured animal,” our guide – Tsepho – advised us. That’s one injured steenbok that won’t stay injured for long.
It would appear that far from being seen or even smelt as a threat to the game around us, we fellow-predators (which we learned all have forward facing eyes, as opposed to eyes on either side of the head) were invisible to the animals. The large, eleven seated, open sided Land Rover provided us with extraordinary cover: the animals only saw a large, unthreatening lump; and far from smelling us (all that adrenaline flooding the truck), they only smelled the diesel. It gave new meaning to putting a tiger in your tank.
But of course, for every wandering lion we spotted, every curling, sleeping leopard or prowling cheetah, there must have been dozens no doubt a heart-beat away, simply invisible to our lines of sight. For these animals seem to inhabit multiple universes, able to slip in and out of them at will. Now you see them, now you don’t. When they wished to do so, they seemed to be able to simply disappear in plain sight, folding back into the grasses, silently, stealthily, these magical, prestidigitory beasts.
Oh the fascination of it all! We’ve all probably seen elephants somewhere – in a zoo maybe? – and we all have a mental image of these large majestic beasts. The joy was in observing them as they went about their own routines: herding up their mates in some unspoken code, to jointly cross the dark forbidding, crocodile dense channels together; or shaking the slender trunk of a palm tree (long robbed of its fruit by chattering monkeys) in search of a quick slug of sweetness; or feeding off the tall miscanthus grasses by curling their mighty trunks to heave out clumps of grassy protein; or digging their own waterholes, which would later be occupied by hippos and which, when the river floods would eventually become new channels branching away from the mainstream.
And everywhere birds. On the back of a monstrously large, black hippo that crossed in front of our startled driver, slipping out of his universe of bush into his other universe of water, there were several Yellowbilled Oxpeckers happily taking a ride of their tick bearing host. Not far away, just past the ever-present Kingfishers, we heard the drums of some no-doubt obscure Tswana tribe. It turned out to be the mating sound of the tall, stately Kori Bustard. This is quite a boring looking bird, like a small ostrich. However he is able to transform himself into what seems in the distance to be an oddly dressed seventeenth century gentleman. Standing erect and looking around him with proud self- confidence, this bird puffs out its neck feathers (creating the drumming sound), turning them into a Cavalier’s collar, in an elaborate show of courtship. We never saw whether his undoubted sex appeal was able to woo a reluctant and blushing bride.
But enough. This drift of memory has traveled across too many paragraphs. It’s time the page folds on another cinema review…soon.