Jungle Fevers

Werner Herzog's sui generis Amazon fever dream and an oral history of Jonestown

Incredible as this story is, it's been surprisingly under-leveraged. Back in 1979, the super-8 filmmakers Beth and Scott B made a chilling little item called Letters to Dad, in which a dozen or so East Village bohos read excerpts from the fan mail sent Jones by his followers. Soon after, Powers Boothe played Jones in a suitably lurid made-for-TV movie; some 15 years after the journalistic accounts, Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris's phantasmagorical Jonestown subsumed the specificity of the massacre in a "dream book" of Mesoamerican history.

Nelson's Jonestown is an arrangement of facts and recollections; with no voiceover, it's almost all oral history. (Sociologist John R. Hall is one of the few who provides an overview.) The narrative is assembled from home movies, interviews, and the cult's own documentation—including the final tapes of Jones exhorting his followers to suicide. There is no way to represent Jonestown's denouement except with itself. The spectacle of a thousand dead bodies, many children, huddled together in a jungle clearing, trumps the horror of Conrad's Heart of Darkness. (Nearly as awful are the snapshots Nelson shows of Jonestown's happy—even ecstatic—campers.)

Full-fledged lunatic: Kinski, Helena Rojo
photo: Courtesy Film Forum/Photofest
Full-fledged lunatic: Kinski, Helena Rojo

Details

Aguirre, Wrath of God
Directed by Werner Herzog
New Yorker, October 20 though 25 and 30 through 31, Film Forum

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple
Directed by Stanley Nelson
Seventh Art, opens October 20, Quad

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We can only imagine the cult leader's Aguirre moment—the late afternoon he lorded over a kingdom of corpses. Nelson has fashioned a compelling movie around an unfathomable mystery. To see Jones's face, eyes hidden behind trademark aviator shades, is to experience the last shock in Psycho. His is the blank stare of living death.

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