Ballard's nature epic naturally captivates

Movies Today

Commentary

May 26, 2006|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN REPORTER

Carroll Ballard's movies don't cast spells. They are spells. They transport audiences, body and soul, to fierce, beautiful realms: the desert island of The Black Stallion (1979), the sub-Arctic expanse of Never Cry Wolf (1983), the geese-filled Canadian skies of Fly Away Home (1996).

It's critics, not studio heads, who should bear some animus toward Ballard. His films frustrate anyone trying to analyze the alchemy behind them. But it's studio heads who've made finding Ballard's marvels a problem. Because they can't be summarized in a marketing tagline, they rarely get the publicity they need to stand out in the crowded contemporary marketplace.

Scandalously, Ballard's Duma, a masterpiece akin to The Black Stallion and the best film of 2005, never received a national opening. Duma didn't make it to Baltimore - until now, on a Warner Home Video DVD.

Filmed in contemporary South Africa, Duma is one of the great nature epics, the great animal pictures, the great poetic adventures about wildness and domesticity. Ballard creates a context so charged with feeling and wonderment he pulls you inside his vision as if by hypnosis.

It's like Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn crossed with a Peter Matthiessen book like The Snow Leopard. In the opening scene, a mother cheetah dies defending her brood. One of her babies - a squeaking, toothy furball who eventually becomes known as Duma - wanders off and lands in the path of Peter (Campbell Scott) and his son Xan (Alexander Michaletos). Ballard stages this without any Discovery Channel carnage or Animal Planet cuteness. Every action echoes through the movie, from the mother's sacrifice to Peter's demonstration of how to create a baby bottle from materials in a diner.

The film follows Peter and Xan to the farm and later to a city apartment and school. These sequences offer some of the funniest and most visually compelling collisions of civilization and nature in movie history.

Ballard doesn't anthropomorphize Duma. So his apparent panic or delight intersects with mysterious expressions - distant, even goofy - that suggest seductive, atavistic longing.

These sections prepare us for the triple odyssey that occurs when Xan decides, on his own, to return Duma to the wilderness. Xan, like Huck Finn, achieves moral awareness from his determination to protect an old friend, Duma, and from his recognition of the motives warring within a new friend, Ripkuna. This African wanderer - Eamonn Walker, in a quicksilver performance - either wants to help Xan or win reward money for Duma. Each of the three arrives at his respective home with the hard-won wisdom that life is both wonderful and finite and that its essence is change.

By phone from his home in St. Helena, Calif., Ballard says that the picture started and ended in trouble. Only the making of it was ecstatic. "Warner Brothers wanted Young Tarzan," he says. So Ballard "ripped off Huck Finn right and left" to create something sinewy and engulfing. "But Warners didn't like the finished film at all."

Not even film producer and TV giant John Wells (The West Wing, ER), "head gun" on Duma, could persuade the studio to give the film a fighting chance.

"The problem," says Ballard, "is they didn't know how to sell Duma. [As a test] they released the picture in three cities: Sacramento, Phoenix and San Antonio. They spent a million bucks on advertising there. But ... they tried to sell Duma as a movie about this namby-pamby boy and his cute little cheetah. Who wants to see a movie like that?"

Warner didn't invest enough money in the film to make it a top priority; an Oklahoma company put up half the $12 million budget. Critics celebrated the film, causing the studio to open it in Chicago and New York. Even then, Ballard says, the studio wouldn't pony up for promotion.

Making the movie, however, was a joy. Scott and co-star Hope Davis (as his wife) conjured a lived-in portrait of marriage and parenting with all its spiny emotion and fragility. Ballard says, "I was lucky to get them. For actors like that, on a budget like this, it was a freebie."

Walker's portrait of a drifting man finding his anchor allowed Ballard to take Xan and Rip's relationship to the limit. They wrestle with a testing of loyalties and differences that friends rarely go through enough in movies.

"Walker walked into our casting session in London and asked to read with the kids and just blew me away," Ballard says.

The "greatest serendipity," Ballard says, was finding a lead who could not only relate to a cheetah but had three of his own. They all made it into the movie.

That joy and serendipity translate into our experience of the movie. Duma is the rare work of art that encompasses tragedy and overflows with good fortune. I tell Ballard that it's sure to have a healthy afterlife. He quips, "I just hope I live long enough to see it."

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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