The Jungle of Jules Levine, Directed by Michael Mileham
The Jungle of Jules Levine is a short film decades in the making directed by the prolific British-American filmmaker Michael Mileham and starring renowned actors Peter Cook (Bedazzled, The Princess Bride), Elliott Gould (Ocean’s Eleven, MASH), and John Denos (General Hospital, The Young and the Restless). Shot on location in Panama on the San Blas Islands and inside the dangerous Darien Jungle, filming was interrupted and delayed by decades because of the United States invasion of Panama in 1989. Finally completed in 2015, The Jungle of Jules Levine tells the story of an American scientist (an entomologist — an insect specialist) who travels on behalf of the Smithsonian to study phasmids (otherwise known as stick bugs) at the exact historical moment when shooting of the film was interrupted more than two decades ago: just before the American invasion of Panama in 1989.
Despite the repeated warnings of Jules Levine (played by the acclaimed Elliott Gould), an American in Panama, the Smithsonian scientist — at one point referred to as ‘Arthur’ by the drunk pilot who flies him to the San Blas Islands (but when Jules Levine recounts the story he says he doesn’t remember his name) — is adamant about continuing his research mission in the rainforest. The subtly humorous pilot (played brilliantly by the late Peter Cook) flies Arthur into Panama with beer bottle in hand, assuring him of his safety in the tiny rocking aircraft. (‘I’ve never had a fatal crash as far as I’m concerned’, he says). But he also gives an ominous piece of advice that the locals will echo once Arthur arrives on dry land. ‘Stay here for a while and you’ll be a changed person’.
Arthur (played by John Denos) is fully supplied by the Smithsonian and filled with advice from colleagues, but when he arrives in Panama he needs drinking water to take with him into the jungle. He stops at a beach bar where locals are gathered, including Jules Levine, who is wary of the scientist. He warns him not to go into the rainforest. But with the help of his friends and the man working the bar, he sells Arthur the five-gallon tank of water that he needs for an exorbitant $20. Jules Levine will become the narrator of Arthur’s story, an observer of his fate. He has seen people like Arthur venture into the jungle — and it seems they seldom return.
Guided by a small group of natives, Arthur ventures into the rainforest with his gear, sets up camp in a musty cabin, and explores the mysterious environs of his new base of scientific observation. He’s looking for stick bugs as part of his research project at the Smithsonian, but in his search he discovers all sorts of other marvels in the forest: large crawling insects, flapping butterflies, a family of white-faced monkeys, and a solitary poison dart frog. The latter will prove to be fateful for the young scientist.
Jules Levine tells Arthur’s story from his perspective as a local observer. He knows all about the dangers of the rainforest, and he has seen other naive Americans disappear into the foliage and never return. In Arthur, he sees the shadow of those who have come before him, with the same good intentions but woefully unaware of what is to come. Levine’s narration accompanies Arthur in the rainforest, and the story reflects Levine’s local knowledge and his low regard for anyone who goes into the rainforest without respecting it as he does. And although he narrates the story as it unfolds, in the end he tells the story after the fact, with the effect that everything that happens to Arthur, while sometimes shocking and unexpected, also happens as if decreed by fate. Jules Levine’s story of Arthur in the jungle is complete, told from the perspective of the one person who knows exactly how it ends.
His story consistently pits science against nature. Arthur enters the Panamanian rainforest with the mentality of a scientist, documenting every one of his observations, transforming the mystery of the forest and its strange creatures into the scientifically comprehensible: sound bytes in his tape recorder and data jotted down in his notebooks. He approaches the rainforest in precisely the way that Levine detests.
‘He’ll get his share of insects, all right, says Levine. ‘I’ve seen them come before. Other young men, other times. Always wanting something or someone to know they’re alive by leaving some kind of ripple in the stream of things, as if their lives are somehow more important’.
Recounting the story to a group of children after the fact, he tells them: ‘Nature is more powerful than science and technology can ever hope to be’. In the end, his story proves him right.
The film’s production value is stunning, and so are the visual effects. Shot on Super 35 film on location in Panama from the air and from within the rainforest, the film persuasively constructs 1989 rural Central America just before the American invasion. The Super 35 film adds a dated quality of another era. And the visual effects create on-screen the reality of someone who has lost all sense of normal perception after coming into contact with a poison dart frog. The story is creative and the writing is apt, and with top-notch actors in every role, it is also convincing. In the narrative aspects, though, the film falters when the voiceovers and the sound editing reflects the same dated feel as the cinematography, but not in a flattering way. Jules Levine’s narration and Arthur’s field notes, which together tell the story through two competing narratives — one scientific and one disdainful of science — are well-written and well-articulated, but they sometimes cut into the fabric of the film in a way that is more jarring than integrated.
Arthur’s story parallels the historical American invasion of Panama over the same period, and Jules Levine makes the necessary connection, asking accusingly whether the scientist is actually an agent of the CIA. He bemoans at once the invasion of nature and the invasion of Central America by the American hegemon, personified by ‘one more ignorant middle class city dweller trying to own a piece of what can never be his or anyone’s — trying to change our lives’. In the end, Jules Levine is right about a lot of things, especially about the power of nature. ■
Runtime: 36 minutes
Genre: Dramatic Short, Historical Drama
Country: United States
Language: English, Spanish
This film is the 2016 recipient of the Atlas Award for Best Visual Effects.
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The Jungle of Jules Levine is the recipient of awards at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival Awards, the Atlas Awards International Film Festival, and the IndieFest Film Awards. It was also selected as part of the Official Selection at the 2015 H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in San Pedro, California.
Shooting of the film was delayed for decades when the United States invaded Panama in 1989 at the same time that Michael Mileham, the film’s director, was shooting with Elliott Gould and Peter Cook in Panama’s Darien Jungle.
Mileham is a British-American filmmaker who got his start in film rather dramatically when, on a tour of duty in Vietnam, he participated in what became the Cannes Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary A Face of War. In the decades since, he has been known as a cinematic innovator and has directed, produced, or photographed more than a dozen A-list actor feature films and music videos.
Watch the trailer for The Jungle of Jules Levine:
This critical review was commissioned and sponsored by the filmmaker.
Featured Image: A scene of the Panamanian rainforest in ‘The Jungle of Jules Levine’, directed by Michael Mileham. Courtesy; Brooks/Myelin Productions.