Thursday, October 18, 2012

#415: The Naked Prey

(Cornel Wilde, 1966)

The Naked Prey is a wholly improbable, totally outdated bit of pulpy fun. This is assuming you can get over the absurdity of the basic premise, which assumes that our precious hero is not only such an outdoorsman that he is able to withstand the harsh African wilderness with nothing but a handful of items, he's also better at hand-to-hand combat than African warriors that have trained for their whole lives. This also assumes you aren't looking for much character development (or even names), and your need for story is limited to "man runs for life."

Then of course there are the racial politics, which are... interesting. The Naked Prey isn't an inherently racist film, though I do think some of the leaps of logic needed to fully engage with the film depend on an assumption of mental if not moral superiority (it doesn't help, either, that the film was financed by the South African government). It reminds me of the term "colored" - it's not necessary an offensive term, but it's anachronistic status forces a reminder of the less enlightened times from which it is native. The Naked Prey might not be overtly racist - in fact, Wilde goes out of his way to have his character save and befriend an African child, who then saves him in return. But the film would never be made today in its current form - a muddy indication that something isn't quite right here.

All of this sort of adds to the historical appeal of The Naked Prey. Because the film itself is so primal - both technically and textually - the idea that the cultural subtext might highlight something darker about the 1960s or about cinema's depiction of black people underscores its blunt immediacy. It makes for a fascinating viewing that helps fill the void between the many leaps of logic.

The Naked Prey was recently the recipient of a bit of heat thanks to an episode of Mad Men where Peggy went to see the film. It's no surprise that a show about male identity would reference this masculine manifesto, but I doubt too much should be read into it beyond the basic connection Weiner and crew (most of whom were kids when The Naked Prey ran on TV) have towards material of that era. That's the thing about the film - every time you think there's something more to it, it stays almost frustratingly - but admirably - simple. Bringing this film to the Collection was not just a case for more exposure (it had yet to be released on home video), it was almost certainly a play for the more idiosyncratic side of filmmaking, a world of cult followings and quirky one-offs that can never be duplicated.

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