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On Top of the Whale (1982)

Het dak van de Walvis (original title)
A parody of anthropology, linguistics, and cultural imperialism. The film follows an unlikely team of linguists into the wilds of an ersatz Patagonia to study the last speakers of a dying ... See full summary »

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Herbert Curiel ...
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Luis Mora
Ernie Navarro
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A parody of anthropology, linguistics, and cultural imperialism. The film follows an unlikely team of linguists into the wilds of an ersatz Patagonia to study the last speakers of a dying language. That language apparently consists of a single word, which therefore means everything. Written by International Film Circuit <ifcplanet@aol.com>

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20 June 1986 (USA)  »

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On Top of the Whale  »

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A parody of scholarly endeavors
5 April 2009 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

On Top of the Whale is a very strange film even by Ruiz standards. It's set in an alternate future in which Communist Republics have become the norm in Europe and they have places named after people like Malcolm X. A scholar meets a rich Communist who happens to know the last two people from an Indian tribe that is thought to have perished so he decides to study them and their language. It turns out that this language consists of about 50-60 words, each of which can be pronounced hundreds of different ways to change the meaning.

Trying to find meaning in a film like this one is a difficult thing. I look at it as a parody of anthropology and linguistics. The film isn't quite a comedy but it certainly has more humor than most art-house films. The scholar and his wife (who seems to be something of a scholar herself) seem to come to conclusions about the tribe that are somewhat dubious. Their methods often seem unscientific if not altogether absurd. For example, they seem to be think that their studies will have an influence on the things they are told by the Indians. When a young girl tells the female scholar that mirrors make women pregnant the scholar warns her not to repeat that because the Indians may incorporate this idea into their mythology. This is but one of many things that seems to mock the field of anthropology.

This film is made a bit harder to understand by the way language is used. Apparently the film is in six languages and the dialogue switches from one to another mid conversation fairly often. This isn't so bad when the language is one other than English but the source I got this from (VHS) didn't have subtitles for the English and everyone had accents that were hard to understand. Another odd thing about this film was Ruiz's choice to use a red filter about 50% of the time. I'm not sure what his purpose was with this but it didn't look great, especially with the already poor quality of the transfer. Still, Ruiz's usual flair for images was present in the non-filtered scenes and it wasn't bad looking overall.

On Top of the Whale is a challenging viewing experience and one that I believe it would take multiple viewings to really appreciate. As such, I didn't find it to be one of the most satisfying in his canon but it's still well worth checking out.


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