The line between a film being experimental and a film just being weird is often pretty thin. “The Modern Jungle” straddles that line. Ostensibly telling the story of don Juan (Juan Juarez Rodriquez) and his neighbor Carmen (Carmen Echevarria Lopez), this film is part documentary, part narrative, part spiritual journey and only partway to giving the audience a reason to care.
The film opens in a theater, and we soon realize the film we are watching is in fact just the first of several framing devices used to compound the story. There are spiritual sequences, dream sequences, a four minute long advertisement for the corporation that is the supposed villain of the piece and two main characters who stumble through it all — narrative and cohesion be damned, all in the name of art.
“The Modern Jungle” professes to be about industrialization, globalization, and the ways in which these things can impact real people at the ground level. And while there are parts of the film that clearly touch on that, there are also long stretches of disjointed scenes and actions that seem to connect to each other in no discernible way. The director of the film, Charles Fairbanks (“Pioneers), explained afterwards that some scenes were filmed documentary style with some aspects done up and faked for the camera. Without knowing which scenes are which, it’s hard for this film to succeed as either a documentary or a piece of fiction. If the audience does not know what was real and what wasn’t, then how can it interpret the thing it is watching on the screen?
A number of scenes feature Juan talking directly to the camera for long stretches with no response. These scenes are truly uncomfortable and confusing to watch as a viewer, and no indication is given of who he is talking to or why no one is responding to him. At the time it seemed that he was supposed to be talking to one of his employers at the corporation, but Fairbanks later confirmed that in fact this was Juan talking to Fairbanks, who said for a variety of reasons he did not want to respond. This sequence only adds another layer to the confusing whole that is “The Modern Jungle” rendering the audience utterly baffled.
As a work of experimental art, the film can safely say it succeeds in being experimental, but to the detriment of possible enjoyment an audience could gain from it. It’s hard not to wonder what the point of it all is, and when the director later confirms that, “There really was no specific message I wanted to convey,” the viewer is left leaving the theater with countless questions, but only one that truly matters: What did I just watch?