The Right Coast

March 06, 2004
The Missing; weird drugs
By Tom Smith

Jeanne and I watched The Missing last night, which was a treat from me as I usually have to watch Westerns alone. (But a man is alone in the world, except for his horse, of course.) As many reviewers have noted, the movie is a bit of a disappointment, given the originality and richness of the themes it explored. As you probably know, Kate Blanchette (spelling is a guess) is a rugged yet very full lipped healer woman making her own rugged way in the world, healing the occasional Injun and having non-too-hygienic looking sex with her hired man. Tommy Lee Jones, her estranged, gone-Native American, daddy appears. Jones looks the part very well. Too bad he's not a more versatile actor.

I liked the story. Maggy's (that's Kate's) daughter is kidnapped by a convincingly evil gang of white slavers (no doubt an a term we're not supposed to use any more) led by a superbly nasty and evil Brouhah (sp?), an Apache medicine man, whose wicked spells nearly kill Maggy. The chase and counter-chase are all pretty standard Western stuff, and reasonably well done. I thought the medicine man's frequent use of home-brewed or ground poisons and drugs was an interesting twist-- I can't think of another Western in which American Indian botanicals are so featured -- but more could have been made of it. A western has to pretty bad before I won't enjoy it, and I enjoyed this one--I would give it a solid "B". The best human performance was put in by the Apache witch doctor. (The best overall performance by the spectacular New Mexican scenery). In one horrifying scene, the villian glowers at Maggy's daughter, who has tried to escape. "You won't hit me," she says, "because then you'll get fewer pesos for me, and you know it." The brouhah scoops up a handful of sandy dirt, forces it into her mouth, and as she gags, says to her "that is what the rest of your life will taste like."

The use of drugs and potions in the movie reminded me of something I have been thinking about lately a little, given the troubles in Haiti, which with voodoo (or Voodun) is a kind of capitol of bad medicine. Wade Davis's fascinating book, The Serpent and the Rainbow (nothing like the ridiculous movie) is a anthropological adventure story of the yummiest sort. Yes, they really do turn unfortunate people into zombies in Haiti, and at the risk of making one of those awful, value laden, ethnocentric judgments, it seems to be a thoroughly evil practice. But then pharmaceutically lobotomizing someone, burying them alive, digging them up and then enslaving them is not something I do in my culture, so perhaps I do not fully understand its contextual hermeneutics.

An even better book is Davis's One River. If you have ever wanted to explore the rain forests of South and Central America and discover where all the various botanical intoxicants, hallucinogens and healing drugs come from, this is the book for you. It would be perfect for a rainy day inside a tent or next to a warm fire. Last summer in Peru, I drank a little bit of a truly disgusting potion made out of tapioca root that had been chewed by Indian women and then spat out into pot and fermented for a while. This was part of a ceremony that was put on for the eco-tourists at the lodge we were staying it. The ceremony involved lots of drums, young scantily clad male and female dancers and a large snake. I was the only tourist to drink any of the home brew, probably because I was the most adventurous, or alternatively, the most drunk, having already had some indeterminate number of gin and tonics, which I do recommend in the jungle. If I ever get another opportunity to drink this spit spirit, or whatever you call it, I think I will pass it up. It tasted horribly like what it was, and I can confidently say that the oral hygiene among Peruvian rainforest Indians could stand some improvement. The idea that people drink enough of this stuff to get drunk is truly appalling. The other native remedy I tried was chewing cocoa leaf for altitude sickness. This is the leaf out of which cocaine is made, but the refined product is much, much more potent. Chewing the leaf is like sipping a strong cup of coffee continuously. It does suppress appetite and make it easier to carry loads uphill at altitude, too easy in fact. I stopped using it because I felt it made me exhaust myself, since I think it makes you less aware of how hard you are working. But it sure takes the edge off hiking up a steep trail with 50 lbs. on your pack at an hour when God wants you back in your warm sleeping bag. On the down side, it makes you produce copious quantities of bright green spit and is quite bitter. You need to make sure you don't inadvertently pack any back to the States, as they are notoriously humorless about the stuff at the border. Folks down there also make tea out of it.