Food for Thoughtless

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

With his hangdog face, rumpled overcoat and black beret, Tobias Schneebaum looks like one of those wild-eyed old men you find in, say, Prospect Park, absentmindedly feeding the pigeons and ranting on to exactly no one about Leon Trotsky, nuclear physics or the '52 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 aboutKeep 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 years old 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 we get the sneaking suspicion before long that the Shapiros are little more than exploiters in the Jerry Springer mold. In the course of filming, they even dragged the resistant old man back to the Amazon to spend a day with his former dining companions, gambling on the chance that it would do him (and their movie) some good.

Tobias Schneebaum stands tall in a sea of Asmat headhunters
Tobias Schneebaum stands tall in a sea of Asmat headhunters
Tobias Schneebaum stands tall in a sea of Asmat headhunters
Tobias Schneebaum stands tall in a sea of Asmat headhunters
Tobias Schneebaum stands tall in a sea of Asmat headhunters
Tobias Schneebaum stands tall in a sea of Asmat headhunters
Tobias Schneebaum stands tall in a sea of Asmat headhunters
Tobias Schneebaum stands tall in a sea of Asmat headhunters

It's hard to tell what it did. For the most part Tobias and his old pals just stare at one another.

The Shapiros may be snowed by the guy, but there's little evidence to suggest Schneebaum was one of the great explorers of the Twentieth 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-Fifties 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, along with the guy who walked across the country backward and the contortionist who could wrap both calves around her neck. Here we see him in a clip from 1969, baffling host Mike Douglas for a couple of minutes. "I went to a more civilized world," he says of his Peruvian adventure.

In the Seventies 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-worshippers, they're the guys who likely 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, too, and we get a glimpse of him reunited on the seat of a dugout canoe with the old tribesman who once was his bedmate. Long trip. Brief moment.

Comedy is not the Shapiros' strong suit (neither is film editing), 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-shorted 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 -- something straight out of Zelig. Old acquaintance Norman Mailer pops up onscreen to tell us how the supposedly intrepid Toby once asked him to remove a dead mouse from his apartment, and when the Shapiros shoot him eating a Nathan's hot dog at Coney Island, we can't help imagining him munching on a human fleshburger back in the rainforest. 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. We also learn that his attraction for the exotic was first stirred when he saw the so-called Wild Man of Borneo at a sideshow in his youth.

"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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