The King is Alive
dir. Kristian Levring
Opens Fri June 15
Cinema 21

"Just sit right backand you'll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip"

With its very first line, the theme from Gilligan's Island speaks directly to humanity's continual fascination with stories about voyages, voyages with unexpected outcomes, and voyages that may not be completed at all. A postmodern recognition of the audience, which is instructed to "sit right back," plays off the use of the verb "hear" to conjure primal memories of the oral storytelling tradition that goes back to Homer and his own Odyssey. That such rich context can be drawn from a mere 15 words is a potent indication of how ripe for study this landmark, Pirandello-esque program remains.

A line from the theme's second verse specifies the type of voyage under consideration; namely, an arrested one, as the stranded population of the Minnow is left with

"No phone, no lights, no motor car,
Not a single luxury,
Like Robinson Crusoe,
As primitive as can be."

Like many other great heroes, from Ulysses himself to the aforementioned Crusoe, Gilligan and his mates are cut off from civilization entirely, forced to fend for themselves against the ravages of both earthly and human natures. Our fascination with this narrative trope has popped up recently in things like the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away and the recent TV phenomenon Survivor: The Australian Outback (or so I'm told; I find those reality shows barbaric and trés middle class). Even weirdoes from Denmark, who create art films that make L'Avventura look like Patch Adams, are getting in on the act.

Which brings us to The King is Alive. This arid ensemble drama is the latest film to reach our fair city from those kooky Scandinavians who came up with the rules behind Dogme 95. If you're not familiar with "Dogme" films, you haven't been paying much attention, but I know a lot of you are freshmen, so here goes: These four Danes, despairing of the current state of cinema, came up with a Vow of Chastity, a code to follow in order to bring filmmaking back to its' roots: always shoot on location, no music or post-dubbed sound, handheld cameras, etc. The King Is Alive is the final feature to reach the US, by a member of the original Dogme quartet, Kristian Levring.

Like Gilligan's Island, which I used to trick you into reading this much of an art film review (hah!), King puts a group of travelers, most of whom don't know each other, into a terrible tropical predicament. Unlike that show's rather lighthearted take on peoples' innate goodness despite their faults, this movie edges a bit more towards the Lord of the Flies worldview. A band of 11 European and American tourists, and their African bus driver, are left in the lurch when their vehicle busts a nut in a deserted mining hamlet in the middle of the Namibian desert. (That's Southwestern Africa, kids!)

There are a pair of bickering spouses and a collection of disparate, generally miserable singletons, and as they wait and wait and wait for help, and the liquor runs out, these folks understandably start to bug the hell out of one another. And then the most intellectual, reasonable, and Euro-cool of the bunch (probably the expedition's token Dane) comes up with the capital idea of putting on a little dinner theatre--Shakespeare in fact. Unfortunately, he chooses to share his memories of King Lear with the group; Much Ado About Nothing might have been a better choice.

In place of Ginger the movie star, this clan has Jennifer Jason Leigh, always dependable in these sorts of dark, dysfunctional tales. Other familiar faces include one-time Oscar nominees Bruce Davison and Janet McTeer and ingenue Romane Bohringer. They, and the rest of the cast, melt down convincingly under the harsh sub-Saharan sun. Leigh, though, took the whole Dogme-style, stripped-down, digital video thing so seriously that she called up her pal Alan Cumming and they made themselves their own group-therapy movie, The Anniversary Party. Coincidentally, it's scheduled to open on June 22, just one week after The King is Alive but their L.A.-version of a Dogme film turns out to be a bit of a dog. The King is Alive is the real deal: intense, well acted, and teeming with gritty indie spirit.