PIRAHA: The Film

Alexander Gross2 language at sprynet.com
Sat May 12 05:09:13 UTC 2007

Things sometimes get so serious around here that I hope at least some of you can find room for a more humorous approach.  A friend just sent me a copy of a film treatment he will be pitching to Hollywood producers next week.  I'm sure he would value any comments you may choose to make, as would I.  Here it is:

  Crossing the Language Barrier

              Adapted from the New Yorker article

Glorious sunlight and swelling tropical rhythms announce that we are in the jungles of Brazil, where the famous anthropologist Daniel Everett (played by Nick Nolte) has come to investigate a mysterious language among an even more mysterious people: the Piraha.  We are on the shores of the Amazon (not the real river, but Amazon is better known), and we watch as he and his young assistant (Leo DiCaprio) explore their exotic surroundings and greet the members of this tribe, who reply in their musical language as they hunt and build their homes and perform other tribal activities.  Everett-Nolte's assistant attempts to initiate a romance with a Piraha maiden (Salma Hayek).  The next day a second assistant (Johnie Depp) arrives by plane: self-sufficient and cocksure, he tells the other two that their expedition is sure to be a success, as he has already figured out what must be the key to the tribe's language.  He attempts to communicate with the natives without much success and grows ever more frustrated by his failure.

The next day he dives into the Amazon for a swim and is half-eaten alive by ravenous piranhas.  He is close to death when he reaches shore and unlikely to survive, but the tribe members save his life with their herbal remedies.  At one point he becomes delirious, calling out: Don't you see, it's useless, Piraha is nothing but a giant Piranha, it will devour us all.  The next day he is flown out on a stretcher to a Western hospital.  Nolte-Everett and his assistant are devastated by this event and debate whether there can still be any hope of understanding the language.

Cut to the Pentagon in Washington, where a high-ranking general is on the phone to an MIT savant.  Split screen between them: Damn it, says the general, you've got to get that Babelfish going, that switchbox of yours, whatever you call it.  We've funded you for fifty years now, and I'm not sure I can guarantee you any further support.  We urgently need to translate all languages into all other languages, it's a matter of life and death.  Don't worry, replies the savant, we're very close to succeeding, I'm sure we'll figure it out.

Transition back to Brazil, where despite the language barrier the first assistant (DiCaprio) is making progress in courting the Piraha girl.  Their romance blossoms into a long, passionate, and inventive session of love making.  She speaks Piraha to him, and he replies, at first hestitantly but more fluently and melodiously as their intimacy mounts. After their final climax, the maiden imparts to her lover the true secret of their language.  But that's impossible, her partner replies, it couldn't possibly be that simple.

Cut to MIT, where the savant enters a room of towering mainframes staffed by his grad students.  Alright, he tells them, handing them a disk, this is the final formulation, make the computers translate these texts.  Lights flash from the mainframes, and an enormous cacophony is heard.  Switch between the anguished faces of the savant and his pupils, as the noise and flashing reach a crescendo.  Finally the network begins to announce the results of its work in a HAL-like voice.  We hear it proclaiming one by one many of the most famous and most hilarious MT bloopers.  Well, says the savant, at least we're getting close.

Back to Brazil, where the lovers are still gazing excitedly into each other's eyes.  No, he repeats, that couldn't possibly be true.  But then he is seized by doubt and leads her to Everett-Nolte, where both of them, still somewhat dishevelled after their exertions, try to explain to him what she believes the secret of the Piraha language must be.  They agree that it still doesn't quite make sense, but the anthropologist is intrigued.

Let me think about this a bit, he replies, I need to go for a walk.  The music swells as Everett-Nolte strides outside and walks by himself down along the shores of the Amazon, where crocodiles  threaten to attack him at every step.  The music grows ever more intense, as do the scenic effects.  In addition to the crocodiles we now see toucans, two-toed sloths, marmosets, giant anteaters, all the fantasmagoria of tropical flora and fauna against the luminous background of the Amazon sky, seeming to surround the anthropologist on every side.  Yes, he says, I think I've found the secret.  He turns around and retraces his steps.

Now we are back at MIT, where the grad students are busy dismantling the mainframes and lugging them to a truck outside.  The general appears, followed by the savant.  I'm sorry it had to end like this, says the general, it was a really good idea.  Yes, I'm sorry too, replies the savant.

Finale on the banks of the Amazon: once again the sounds and sights have begun to soar, while in the background we see the Piraha people busily at work and hear once more the wondrous murmuring of their language.  Nolte, DiCaprio, and Hayek stand together on the shore, gazing across the river. My God, we did it, says DiCaprio.  Yes, we did it, replies the protagonist.

The musical and visual sensorium reaches an absolute climax, mingling both sunrise and sunset together, as the anthropologist sums up: There is no Babelfish, no switchbox, no way you can ever translate all the world's languages into each other.  The only hope we have as human beings is to learn each other's languages.  Only then can we truly hope to understand one another.


I hope I have offended no one by any of this, which I have clearly labeled as humor, however unsuccessful it may be.  After all, it couldn't possibly be a description of reality.  Or could it...?

all the best!


PS--I want to make it clear that I have not written this "film treatment" to demean Prof. Everett's achievements in any way, on the contrary I see it as one way of expressing my admiration for them.  I have written to him to apologize in case he takes any of it the wrong way, and by hyphenating his name with Nolte's I have tried to make it clear that just as the Amazon is not the same as the Maici, so this is in no way an image of him or his work. Or as the classic disclaimer has it: this is entirely a work of fiction, and any similarity between the two Everetts is purely coincidental.

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