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Tuesday, November 27, 2001

The Wild, Wild World Of Tobias Schneebaum

By Kevin John

The subtitle of "Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale," the documentary by David Shapiro and Lauren Gwen Shapiro, is rather unfortunate. It reduces someone's life, or "tale," to a single one of its brief moments. Tobias Schneebaum, 78 years old at the time of filming, is a gay, Jewish New Yorker who once had a career as a promising Abstract Expressionist. It's true that he engaged in cannibalism with the Amarakaire Indians of Peru in 1955, but that Fulbright-funded adventure is nowhere near the most fascinating chapter in Schneebaum's life — which means, fortunately, that the film itself doesn't commit the same sensationalistic error as its subtitle.

In fact, "Keep the River on Your Right," also the title of Schneebaum's memoir of his time in Peru, passes through so many disparate time periods and locales that, on the surface, it has all the makings of a Spielbergian adventure epic. Spliced between stills of The Wild Man of Borneo attraction on Coney Island, lighting up a young Schneebaum, or archival footage from his scandalous appearance on "The Mike Douglas Show," the present-day footage returns Schneebaum to Peru and New Guinea, the setting for yet another of his adventures. While his trip back to Peru is understandably fraught with internal conflict, the New Guinea outing reunites him with Aipit, his former lover from the Asmat tribe.

Throughout the film, Schneebaum continually reminds us, sometimes explicitly, how his value in Western cultures has diminished. Old, unattractive and with little money here, he supplements his Social Security with lectures to children and hokey slide shows for tourists on cruise ships. In New Guinea, however, he remains an object of lust and fascination. Thus, it's impossible not to view this film as a demystification of the values dear to, say, Western gay culture, especially in its imperative of ceaseless weekends of bar-hopping.

Remarkably, Schneebaum never allows himself to wallow in self-pity or regrets. Those cruise-ship lectures are framed not as defeat, but rather as a testament to Schneebaum's amazing resilience, his undying thirst for even more adventures. "Keep the river on your right" may have been the instruction with which he braved Peru's Madre de Dios rainforest, but the film makes clear that he's applied this synergistic code to all aspects of his life. Several shots zoom into an overexposed abyss of light, suggesting that for Schneebaum the journeys are coming to a necessary end. And yet counteracting this seemingly fatalistic schema is a series of sustained anticlimaxes (the film seems to come to an end several different times), giving the illusion that Schneebaum's tale can never decisively end.

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