So I was at American Apparel on Saturday, a neat little shop that traffics in t-shirts and other fashion basics (whose somewhat high prices reflect the fact that they're made without the assistance of underpaid sweatshop workers), when a DVD caught my eye: The Vice Guide to Travel. Its hardcase advertised the fact that Vice (an "edgy" magazine) correspondents had ventured out to the most dangerous, rarely-visited corners of the world in search of grand adventure and ultimate truth. Okay I added the last part. Being an absolute nut for travel, and in particular travel to exotic locales, I scooped it up and then, this afternoon, popped it in for a firsthand glimpse of the globe's riskiest, far-flung wonders. Afterwards, in my living room, the sense of disappointment was palpable.
The film begins with a visit by Shane Smith, cofounder of Vice Magazine, to a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut, Lebanon. It's clear his visit took place sometime after the cessation of that county's disastrous 15 year civil war, and before its brief, but highly destructive, war with Israel this past summer. Shane wanders the crumbling streets there, capping his visit with a trip to a "PLO Boy Scouts Center" where children are encouraged to sing songs comparing Israelis to dogs, and draw pictures of bloody knives puncturing the star of David. Unfortunately the penetrating footage, and commentary, ends there. There is archival video of Palestinian children throwing rocks at tanks, and the droning last-words-tapes of suicide bombers (I won't soil the word martyr by invoking it here). But that's it. The group seems to be satisfied to have made a suitably dangerous trip, and they produce the proverbial passport stamp, or roadside sign picture in the form of superficial documentary filmmaking. The segment ends with Spike Jonze, the experimental, albeit hollywood-celebrated, director and two correspondents sitting in a room vaguely bemoaning the complexity of the PLO plight, all they can muster is the bemused, stoned, fratboy's response in the face of great tragedy: "whoa". I watched, uninspired.
The next trip was at least somewhat more unusual. This time Shane Smith and his merry band of New Journalists set out for Sofia, Bulgaria, famed center of the nuclear black market. Why is it considered as such? This is crucial: because a French journalist was able to procure, and purchase a warhead back in 2003 from a rather enterprising Bulgarian named Ivanhoff. In my view, to follow in that journalist's footsteps is exceedingly touristy, if not outright derivative. Why not make an extended documentary detailing the surely-more-exciting travails of the French journalist? We'll never know. So they meet Ivanhoff, who alleges to have met Osama Bin Laden, and somehow in having heard that third-third-person account, we're supposed to be what? Enriched? Enlightened? Apart from some publicity, it seems to me that nothing in this peculiar journey added anything (and may have quite possibly diluted) to the original work done by the Frenchman. This was not a strong start.
Off to Chernobyl! This is, thankfully, the last segment in which Shane "Cofounder" Smith is along for the ride. During the trip to the Ukraine, where an area the size of Great Britian remains radioactive, we watch Mr. Smith carrying on with a pretty, young staffwriter with leery professor-flirting-with-grad-student creepiness. There is an interesting trip to a deserted, destroyed school, where coursebooks are found opened to the very lesson being taught when the reactor exploded some twenty years ago. The walls of the school are adorned with interesting bits of Cold war paraphenalia: charts used to help identify U.S. fighter jets in the skies, lest an invasion take place. The tourguide (yes, the tourguide) brings along a device used to measure radiation, at certain points it registers radioactivity some 100 times that of normal levels. But still, this has the feel of a zoo ranger telling you that the caged lion is the most dangerous animal to man. After all, how dangerous can it be with a sanctioned tourguide along for the ride? Cofounder and lackey conclude the segment by pretending to hunt wild boar, whom they imagine will have three eyes, in the "red forest", the most radioactive place on earth. They carry on like, well, like spoiled westerners, joking and laughing at the scene of enormous destruction and pain. Gallows humor indeed. That's those wacky, free-spirited new journalists for you!
From here, things improve. A correspondent ventures out to the northwest fronteirland of Pakistan, the tribal province the BBC calls the most dangerous place on earth. In addition to that distinguished superlative, this patch of land can also lay claim to being the largest illegal arms market in the world. Given the footage of wild-eyed peasants assembling pistols with their bare hands, and the militia required to set foot in town, this one feels legit. Finally, I thought, some gnarly shit. The tour is indeed intense. Our correspondent watches as men, in a particularly ghhastly incarnation of the try-before-you-buy principle, fire Russian assault rifles into the air on busy streets. Further, though our reporter is just a stranger, he is able to browse and purchase any number of assorted large weaponry. Each showroom resembles the armory of a major United States military base, complete with impoverished children sifting through mountains of gleaming bullets, like baby elephants sifting through piles of peanuts. We are left with the impression that Pakistan's ungoverned wilderness is a chilling hell to be avoided at all costs. Good enough for me.
There are a few more weak segments, including a perhaps-sarcastic trip to China which doubles as an expose on (gasp) fake watches and the eating of dogs. Yawn. Even more puzzling is a trip to the remote jungle in Paraguay where a Nazi-exile camp is alleged to exist. I suppose the discovery that it has withered up and died (but for two Nietzche-resembling, illiterate alleged cannibals) is a sort of moral victory: Nazism, at least in this corner of the planet, has been extinguished. And yet still, it feels empty. Thankfully, the filmmakers have reserved the two strongest, most illuminating journeys for last. The first of these is the dispatching of a waspy, yacht-jacket-sporting reporter to a Brazilian slum, like those featured in Fernando Meirelles' superb film 'City of God'. These slums live up to their treacherous reputation: our correspondent is on the ground less than 24 hours before having to flee the stray bullets of, you guessed it, corrupt police. This is the sort of first-person reportage of the third world we were hungering for (and the kind we feel we were promised by the packaging). Moreover, the reason for going is compelling: we are told that 2006 marked the first year where the world's urban population exceeded its rural population. Our correspondent explains that if this trend towards urbanization continues, all the world will be a slum, and so dammit he wants to visit one. Seems to us as good a reason as any. Brazil, we learn, is home to 50,000 murders a year. Most of these are carried out in the name of the slum-ruling drug lords, who are rumored to pull down a million dollars a week. Because that absurd income obviously elevates these criminals into the most powerful entities in the neighboorhood, they are also responsible for the community's entertainment. As such, they host giant, citywide dance-barbecues called 'Baile Funk' during which, among several other delights, there is exuberant, suggestive dancing along with violent mosh pits. By the limited footage we're able to see (the drug lords have been known to murder journalists attempting to record Baile Funk) the gatherings resemble something like supercharged raves. All of this is genuinely fascinating and one feels, for unfortunately one of the first times during the film, that we're being given privileged access. Perhaps its the lack of tour guides.
It is the final story, however, that best embodies the spiritual, freewheling kind of travel the film purports to record. We meet David Choe, a young American Asian man, in voiceover as he tells us about a legendary dinosaur reportedly still alive and thriving in a remote jungle of the Congo. This jungle, home to sweltering heat and all sorts of venomous creatures, is the only stretch of green earth to have survived the last ice age, and, in addition, is so dense that only 20% of it has been explored by man thus far. Now this, I remarked to myself is an adventure! David, in a hotel in Brazzaville, laments that some of his party have deserted the mission to pursue other story angles: principally the prolific, thriving pygmy prostitution business that dominates the Congolese capital. As evidence, in David's hotel room, we see a group of naked African women jumping on the bed to the great delight of his comrades. David, however, keeps his focus: he is here to see a lost dinosaur. Before setting out into the jungle, he pays a visit to the U.S. embassy where an official tells him, in a laugh-out-loud moment of understatement, that in this country "infrastructure is very challenging". He bribes a trio of unsmiling, machete-weilding pygmy guides to help him burrow into the canopy. At times the foilage is so thick that the tribesmen take to riding on David's back as they tridge through, giving them a better angle with which to hack away at the leafy mess. They arrive at a village, where David sets about inquiring after the dinosaur. The chief repeatedly, and fervently, asks whether he really wants to see the dinosaur. David is finally successful in convincing him of his sincerity, his intensity of desire to see the mythical beast. Fine, says the chief, but first he must take part in a ritual. The "ritual" consists of ingesting a vile hallucinogen, tasting of gasoline, which reduces David to a wobbly, paranoid mess. "It put me on my ass right away" he explains. In a candid moment, he says that he began to fear the pygmy's while under the influence, thinking they were evil mind-readers. After a time, when his intoxication is peaking, a man dressed in a dinosaur costume made of trees emerges from the jungle. David is not sure if it is the real thing. He sums up the fever dream experience with the following terrifying statement: "I thought I was fucked, when I was fucked, I knew I was fucked". Raw experience at last! Bathing in the lake the next day David relays his disappointment at having only discovered a dinosaur impostor. The poignancy of the bit is its lack of self-consciousness. David never treats this as an ironic quest, he doesn't hedge his bets with a smarmy, condescending sarcasm towards his mission, and as such, his sense of a letdown feels real. Had this movie contained more men like him, it would have been terribly compelling, a sort of 'Jackass 2' for the intelligentsia. Later, back in Brazzaville, David spray paints a crumbling city wall with an impressive graffitti mural, transfixing the locals and earning himself the nickname "white wizard". Its a wonderful moment, and one in which we feel, with a pained regret, what this film might have been.
You can buy The Vice Guide to Travel @ www.vicemagazine.com