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Food for Thoughtless

Tobias Schneebaum is a weird guy, but that doesn't mean his story is compelling.

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An old flame of Schneebaum's.
  • An old flame of Schneebaum's.

With his hangdog face, rumpled overcoat, and black beret, Tobias Schneebaum looks like one of those wild-eyed old men you find at, say, Public Square, absentmindedly feeding the pigeons and ranting on to exactly no one about Leon Trotsky, nuclear physics, or the '54 World Series. Time has taken its toll, but there are still thousands of these guys shambling around New York -- other big cities, too. In fact, Schneebaum is one of them -- a former painter, traveler, and amateur anthropologist, who's obviously eccentric and who obviously likes to talk about himself. The distinction is that somebody decided to make a documentary about him.

The first thing -- maybe the only thing -- you need to know about Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale comes straight out of its provocative (and flagrantly misleading) title. The filmmakers, one David Shapiro and his sister, Laurie Gwen Shapiro, want you to know that almost a half-century ago, their subject -- who is now 80 and ailing -- wandered off into the jungles of Peru, settled in with Amarakaire Indians, and several months later wound up taking part in a hunting raid against a neighboring tribe. When the slaughter was done, the Amarakaires and their houseguest from New York sat down and ate their victims. The question of why Schneebaum is not in jail or living in a tree with a bone through his nose doesn't seem to have occurred to the Shapiros. Clearly, these New York kids are so taken with him -- with what they see as his fearless exoticism and his boundless taste for adventure -- that they don't bother to examine his motives or his intellect very carefully. For them, he is romanticism personified, and they revel in the fact that he once did a Hannibal Lecter number. They constantly allow the lurid Ripley's Believe It or Not elements of the story to overwhelm the intended Seeker of Wisdom and Truth elements, and before long we get the sneaking suspicion that the Shapiros are little more than exploiters in the Jerry Springer mold.

The Shapiros may be snowed by the guy, but there's little evidence to suggest that Schneebaum was one of the great explorers of the 20th century, or even that he was particularly curious. There is some evidence that he was simply horny, and that's why he periodically traipsed off to Peru, Indonesia, and India, where the local mating rituals were more to his liking than those in New York.

Born into a middle-class family in Brooklyn, he studied to be a rabbi, then took up painting. By the mid-1950s, he'd had seven one-man shows and found himself to be a man's man, sexually speaking. There's definitely a connection between his homosexuality and his wanderlust, but just what it is remains elusive. In any event, Schneebaum traveled to Peru on a Fulbright grant, quickly went native, and later wrote a book about his experiences. Keep the River on Your Right attracted a minor cult of readers and for a time got its author on the short list of crackpot guests for the TV talk shows.

In the 1970s, Schneebaum set out for New Guinea, where he lived among Asmat tribesmen. As it happens, the Asmat also have a taste for their fellow man: Headhunters and ancestor-worshipers, they're the guys who are likely to have turned missing archaeologist Michael Rockefeller into snack food back in 1961. What's more, Asmat men have not only wives but male lovers, a cultural quirk that clearly appealed to Schneebaum. The filmmakers took him back to Indonesia, and we get a glimpse of him reunited on the seat of a dugout canoe with the old tribesman who was once his bedmate. Long trip. Brief moment.

Comedy is not the Shapiros' strong suit, but River contains some unconsciously funny moments. Until recently, Schneebaum spent part of his time delivering lectures on tribal customs to the passengers on cruise ships (hey, a guy's gotta eat), and the spectacle of hundreds of Bermuda-shorts-clad tourists clicking snapshots of a circumcision ceremony for 40 Indonesian boys is hilariously appalling. So is the breathless enthusiasm of a Barnard College archaeology professor, as she introduces Schneebaum to her class. Comes the inevitable student question: "How do people taste?"

With just a few tweaks, Tobias Schneebaum would make a perfect Woody Allen character. Eyes twinkling, the old guy delights in telling a lecture audience how Asmat men greet friends by cradling each other's testicles in their hands.

"I wanted the wild man inside me," Schneebaum once wrote, "masticated, absorbed."

So then. How do people taste? Answers the former rabbinical student, without apparent irony: "A little like pork." And with that, we rest our case for seeking an alternative form of movie entertainment.

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