DVD Review “The Search: Tahiti”
Hunting for the Search
I actually told people back home that all the hype about bones is nothing but bullshit… it’s just all hype. But I’ve had to take it all back. I’m sorry.
Ok, so here’s another in the growing list of “extreme angling” expedition adventure films. Why, you ask yourself, should you care? Well, you probably shouldn’t unless you like living a vicarious dream that ends in giant bonefish. Never mind the incomplete fishing sequences, jumbled storyline and mediocre camera-work, we’ll deal with that in a moment. Frankly, at this point I’m getting a little upset with myself for being constantly seduced by these types of documentaries. And I’m not just referring to this particular film, not by any means. On the face of it the premise should make for a great film and I think that’s what keeps me scouring YouTube, Vimeo, and the blogosphere to find new titles, despite the growing banality of the genre.
I mean, it’s so easy to imagine me and my buddies planning similar treks and in my mind the setup always goes something like this:
Hero: “I’ve got a dream. Somewhere out there is a place, a special place where no one/almost no one/very few humans have set foot, much less cast a fly line. Let’s drop everything, invest our savings in gear, and head out for adventure. Brothers, think about it: we might be the first to EVER cast a fly at these fish. Just imagine huge virgin bonefish/stealhead/roosterfish/tarpon/trout/etc. all to ourselves, man. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but isn’t the journey itself part of the adventure?”
Buddies: “Dude, you had me at adventure, I’m in.”
However, what inevitably unfolds on-screen is a comic parade of wise cracks, inept searching, the (seemingly prerequisite) angst-filled moment when the fish aren’t biting/aren’t there/aren’t accessible, and then the final fish-porn montage where you lose all sense of fulfillment in the blur of (nearly identical) huge, dripping fish.
Wait, what happened to the story? What about triumph over adversity, the moment when the heroes snatch victory from the jaws of defeat? What about a little suspense, some drama? What about a flippin’ plot?
The Search: Tahiti is definitely a cut above in this department; at least it begins well. The premise is good—a group of buddies freighter hopping from one atoll to another, looking for the cosmic untouched bonefish nirvana—and the location is absolutely amazing. There’s a comfortable amount of setup, just enough suspense and drama to make the audience appreciate the effort that goes into these expeditions, not to mention a glimpse into some of the less glamorous aspects of life on the edge of civilization—camping on bare rock and meager rations. The cinematography here is pretty good, with just enough of an artistic edge to keep let us appreciate the beauty of the place. Unfortunately, most of this goes out the window as soon as they actually find bonefish. In fact, when the moment comes it’s with some wonder that you quickly realize these guys don’t really know how to actually shoot a fishing sequence. No drama, no coordination, no story.
Ok, but wait, maybe they were just taken by surprise with those first fish. You know, none of the crew expected any of the others to actually land a fish on that coral-studded flat, so they weren’t actually filming in time. And, I will admit that the (incomplete) scene that follows—watching one of our heroes slog across the flat, falling into holes and dodging around coral “bombies”—was entertaining enough to be redeeming. Fine. But every other fishing sequence follows the same modus operandi. No build-up, no hunt, no cast, no take. Just a dude in the distance holding a bent rod.
Let me say for the record that there is a major difference between filming a fishing movie and simply turning the camera on someone fishing.
Let me reiterate, this film has a much more cohesive plot than any of the (by now) countless others out there. There are some very amusing moments with one of our heroes trying to land monster Napoleon Wrass that methodically wreck his tackle. His comments about bonefish are among the most hilarious I’ve ever heard:
“I actually told people back home that all the hype about bones is nothing but bullshit… it’s just all hype. But I’ve had to take it all back. I’m sorry.”
Too bloody right you’re sorry.
In fact, the first two-thirds of the film are really enjoyable as we follow the crew—seemingly led by Nick Reygaert, an intrepid, bonefish-obsessed Kiwi—as they simply try to find any bonefish in a completely foreign world amongst locals who speak a different language (and, on the rare moments they do understand our heroes, think their quest more amusing than serious). This is good stuff—the angst of wasting their time and money, what in the world are they doing there, and so on—but I think the moment the plot started to drift was when they unceremoniously began catching fish off the back of the boat. There is an attempt to tie this into the story—trying to keep up moral and so on—but there’s simply no build-up to this moment. Is it me or if you’ve traveled thousands of miles, spent queasy days on a freighter, not to mention dreamed and planned this trip for months, shouldn’t your first fish should be a little more celebrated. Shouldn’t there be at least one shot of the seasick Nick saying, “I know I’d feel better if I was fishing.”
I can imagine the narrator (I hear David Attenborough) saying, “Nick couldn’t wait any longer. He knew the silver shapes flashing below weren’t bonefish, but he didn’t care. After so many months he just wanted a fish, any fish on the end of his line. Luckily the captain was a kind-hearted soul (and a fisherman himself) so he parked the back of the freighter over a large patch of coral and told the guys to go at it. What followed was sheer mayhem.”
And that’s what a fishing and (not to put too fine a point on it) travel film should be: an escape. It should be a means to transport us to those magical places we cannot (yet) make it to ourselves. They should be an inspiration, a call to arms, a kick in the pants. We should be sitting there thinking to ourselves, “I could do this; shit, I should do this. I’m going to do this,” and it’s the filmmaker’s ability to put themselves in our place that puts us in theirs. We should celebrate when they do and they should celebrate when we would, if only we were there.
This seemed to be a missed opportunity for character development or a deepening of the story-line. Instead there are a few blurry sequences of our heroes leaning against bent rods, silver shapes flashing in the depths, and then they’re shoving strange Pacific fish at the lens. Amazing fish, to be sure, but they mean next to nothing to the viewer because our heroes don’t share that with us. How do they feel about it? Are they relieved to be catching fish, disappointed they’re not bonefish? Ambivalent? They could have been over the moon to land those fish be we don’t know because we are deprived of the build-up to that experience and any meaning our heroes might have found in its aftermath.
It’s funny that these teams of would-be cinematographers never put two and two together; never realize that a good fishing film should echo the experience of fishing itself. And it’s not the good times that make for the best stories; it’s the search, the hunt, the struggle against the odds, against the weather, against your own ineptitude, your own shortcomings, and finally, the moment of magic when it all comes together. The feature film tries to stick to this plotline, but gets mired by (what I can only assume) is a lack of footage. Well, that’s not entirely accurate; it’s a lack of the right footage. I mean, you can have all the build-up you want, but you’ve got to get the shot. Right? This is SOP for these fly fishing adventure teams (witness the AEG boys) where they seem to be so caught up in the actual fishing that they forget that you can’t tell a story in film without footage. In other words, someone has to hold the camera.
I think what these guys need to do is sit down with a stack of BBC nature DVDs, Life or Planet Earth or something, and watch all the “On Location” bits. These are the mini-documentaries behind the making of the films. What fascinates me is the way they’re always able to turn the raw footage into a cohesive narrative with meaning and depth. In essence the premise of all these films is the same as a fishing movie: there’s the search to get the shot, traveling thousands of miles lugging gear, the waiting, the unpredictable factor of the animals and the weather, gear failure, and a personal search for meaning behind “getting the shot”. In the end they do get it. Of course. And that’s the payoff, the feel-good moment that brings it all together. This is what a good fishing story should be, what, in fact, they’ve always been. Read The Longest Silence. Read Hemingway.
So here’s my list of things you should try and actually shoot if you’re in the mood to make one of these things. It’s not a comprehensive list by any means and (I know you’ll recognize) it is a kind of Monday-morning-quarterback syndrome. These are in a sort of order, I suppose, although most of the first few could be shuffled a bit.
- The Set-Up.
- The Preparation.
- Getting There.
- The Search.
- The Struggle.
- The Shot.
- The Wrap-Up.
And, let me suggest that sometimes just getting the shot—the epic stalk, cast, bite, (with or without the landing)—is better than a whole parade of hero shots. (That’s where Felt Soul‘s Running Down the Man got it right.) That’s how all these films eventually end: with the team finally catching the hell out of fish, and good for them. However, that actually makes for a pretty poor climax to the story, unless it’s a series of short clips run as a backdrop to the narrator saying something like:
“And then, one day, it all came together for the team. They started to catch fish, big fish, lots of fish, but it in the end it had become about something more than that. It was about discovering new places, new cultures, new friends, and ultimately, discovering themselves.”
At least, that’s how I would do it.
Interestingly, the teaser below is much better constructed. This is par for the course, I suppose. Think of all the amazing Hollywood trailers you’ve seen where the actual film has been a disappointment. Not that this was that bad, but the tightness and clarity of the short film below is not in evidence in the larger film. For example, below we get a sense of the frustration of the search, the time en-route, the hardships of life in camp, the introspection that comes of confronting a culture whose sense of pace is vastly different from ours, and, of course, a sense of the huge rewards available to these intrepid anglers if they get it right. In other words, there is a tight, stick to the plot-line (but leave room for interesting developments) organization to it. All you would-be directors out there, take note.