Friday, 18 June 2010

The Hoge Recommends; Big River Man

I know the idea of a regular feature on this - the blog that can go six months without a posting - may seem a little odd but I'm going to try and keep up a sporadic selection of 'The Hoge Recommends' items, be they movies, books, products or whatever. This week I'm going to start with the documentary Big River Man.

WHEN you think of individuals who have broken world records as a result of pushing their bodies to physical extremes that nobody else has previously managed, who comes to mind?

As the fastest man on the planet, Usain Bolt would probably be one of the first on many people's lists. Michael Phelps also comes to mind as Bolt's equivalent in the water.

But how about a 53-year-old Slovenian who weighs over 200 pounds, drinks two bottles of wine along with liberal helpings of whiskey and beer every day, and is clearly out of his mind? Well as unlikely a member of that record-breaking group as Martin Strel may be, he has arguably done much more to earn his membership than Messrs Bolt and Phelps.

Strel is the central character of Big River Man, the most engrossing and entertaining film (not just documentary) that I have seen so far this year. The slobbish-looking former professional gambler is a celebrity in his native country for breaking his own records many times over by swimming the length of such gargantuan rivers as the Danube, the Mississippi and the Yangtze.

Big River Man joins Strel as he begins preparations for his biggest undertaking yet; to swim the mighty Amazon. At almost 4,000 miles, the river is over 1,000 miles longer than Strel's previous record-breaking conquest of the Yangtze in China.

Narrated entirely by Martin's son, Borut, the documentary first provides a brief summary of Strel's previous feats as well as offering a glimpse of the privileges his popularity has afforded him in his native country, such as driving drunk and parking his car wherever he chooses without fear of punishment. But while popular and famous he is, Strel is not portrayed as wealthy. On a visit to a function at the home of the American ambassador - one of Strel's greatest admirers - he instructs his son to bring home a basket of bread rolls in order to save money on groceries.

Once the father and son team, along with their crew, actually hit the Amazon is where this film really comes into its own however.

Conflict arises between the Martin and Borut when the former refuses to take doctor's advice and cut out his drinking while making his record-breaking attempt. Despite warnings about his heart growing weaker he continues to drink, not only in the evenings when out of the water, but also during the day. At one point he requests a bottle of Jameson whiskey from his accompanying raft from which he takes a liberal swig and then carries on swimming.

The merciless sun also becomes a major hurdle as within days of beginning the swim Strel's scalp and face are almost irreparably burnt. To combat this he wears a cloth over his face for the remainder of his time in the water, with holes in it for his mouth and eyes, adding to the bizarre nature of this procession down the Amazon.

Throughout the movie Strel remains aloof and one can never be certain if it is haughtiness, eccentricity or possibly simplicity that lends to this distance. What could be mistaken for the antics of an eccentric early on, however, clearly become those of a man fast losing his grip on reality as the trip progresses.

He begins to hallucinate and hear voices and on more than one occasion abandons his support team, prompting panicked and dangerous overnight searches on the Amazon. In an effort to drive out the demons in his head - subsequently discovered to be larvae from the river that had made their way into his brain - Martin connects connects jump leads from a battery to his head.

His decline is infectious also, with the lone American crew member Matthew Mohlke - a supermarket employee and amateur navigator - developing an adoration of the swimmer that verges on the hilarious at times. At one point Mohlke stays awake for three days straight, ranting about how the crew is accompanying "the last superhero in the world" and writing poetry comparing Strel to Christ.

At times, the documentary can suffer from overlong shots of characters looking pensive to the accompaniment of guitar distortion. Some elements, while fitting in with story overall, also seem staged such as the dreamy sequences designed to highlight Martin's insanity.

Those minor criticisms are subjective and dependent on personal taste though and they are certainly not reason enough to opt against seeing this amazing documentary. Fans of Werner Herzog should be particularly attracted to Big River Man which is unavoidably reminiscent of the German director's 'Aguirre, the Wrath of God'.

Beautifully shot, with no shortage of amazing scenery and unique characters, it is impossible not to feel tense while watching Big River Man, wondering throughout if Martin will overcome the conditions and his own physical and mental limits to achieve the unachievable.

And while that tension abates after the documentary reaches its conclusion, the memory of this amazing story will stay a lot longer. The Hoge Recommends; Big River Man.

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