Krippendorf’s Tribe (1998; Dir.: Todd Holland)
By Daniel Barnes
Tim Conway’s legendary Dorf character was a bumbling Germanic dwarf who waddled his way through a series of faux-instructional videos in the 1980’s (Dorf On Golf, Dorf On Fishing, Dorf on the Industrial Military Complex, and so on). The entire bit hinged on the universal truth that there is nothing funnier than a guy who puts shoes on his knees and pretends to be a dwarf when he really isn’t. On the other hand, the not-so-legendary character of Krippendorf (Richard Dreyfuss, not quite a midget, but at least a foot shorter than his co-star Jenna Elfman) is a bumbling American anthropology professor who starred in only one film, a movie which counter-argued that there nothing is funnier than locking a menstruating 12 year-old in a cage and anointing her with pig urine (more on that later in this review, and to therapists for the rest of my life).
To be fair, Krippendorf’s Tribe isn’t quite on the same laugh riot level as Dorf, but the film is no less varied in its instructional wisdom. For example, we get…
As the film opens, Krippendorf’s family is still reeling from the death of his wife. The household is a disaster, his daughter treats him with icy disdain, the older son is acting out in disturbing ways, and the youngest son refuses to speak to him. Hilarious so far, but it gets even better. When Krippendorf learns that the university he works for is ready to pull his grant money, he delivers an impromptu lecture in which he claims to have discovered a long-lost New Guinean tribe. Despite the fact that his children are present at the lecture, Krippendorf forgoes the minor matter of shame, and passes off his child’s mangled plastic toy as a primitive dildo. Naturally, the faculty is delighted with his findings (Who wouldn’t be? Primitive dildos!), and presses him for more information on the nonexistent tribe and its culture. His back up against the wall, Krippendorf does the only thing a single father can in that situation – he dresses himself and his children in blackface, films their racist interpretations of tribal rituals, splices the footage in with previously shot film of actual natives, and disguises it as real-life anthropological research.
Krippendorf’s first order of business involves faking a circumcision ritual by using his 4 year-old son as bait, pretending to remove the foreskin with a stone machete. This “comedic” sequence is extremely prolonged, atonal and disturbing, to the point that I lamented my lack of a time machine, or any other technology that would have allowed me to travel back and assassinate D.W. Griffith for allowing this madness to happen. When Krippendorf shows his grisly circumcision footage to the public, it causes a huge sensation that has television network execs clamoring at his door for more . It makes sense, because we all know how popular genital mutilation is with the general public these days.
As the deception deepens in scope and widens in notoriety, Krippendorf’s children begin to reflect his corruption — in the film’s least family-friendly sequence, Krippendorf’s middle son gives a sociopathic show-and-tell presentation to his entire school. The delightful cherub claims (out of thin air, mind you) that his father’s lost tribe performs a ritual in which they take a newly menstruating girl, lock her in a thatched hut, and anoint her with pig urine. For good measure, he presents to the school a cage filled with one of their pre-teen classmates (she is unmistakably played by a young Mila Kunis), a girl who has apparently agreed to participate in this depravity. The capper to the scene: a close-up shot of the pig’s nether-regions, followed by a quick cut to a close-up of Kunis opening her mouth wide. You’d think that trapping a child in a cage and spraying her face with pig urine would cause more than a minor fuss, but Krippendorf simply assures the principal that it won’t happen again and that’s all there is to that.
KRIPPENDORF ON…SELLING YOUR SEX TAPE
But that’s not all there is to that. Krippendorf is squeezed further by the imminent foreclosure of his house, so he agrees to sell sex footage of his phony tribe to the Discovery Channel (or whichever science and nature network aired hardcore pornography in 1998). He doesn’t have any sex footage, of course, so he liquors up Jenna Elfman (playing a hero-worshipping professor who unwittingly promotes the phony tribe), dresses her in native garb, films them having sex without her knowledge, and airs the video on national television. Once again, Elfman is only mildly perturbed at Krippendorf’s adorable antics, and later helps him further the deception when he impersonates a tribal chief at a gala dinner. At this point, the film began to take on the quicksand tone of a waking nightmare, culminating in a scene where Krippendorf, in full tribal regalia, humps Tom Poston’s leg.
Krippendorf is clearly one of the most hateful characters in modern film, a sick monster that makes Hannibal Lecter look like George Bailey, but ultimately he is let off the hook. His heretofore silent youngest son finally speaks up, and implores his father to continue the deception in one of those the-lie-makes-us-feel-better-about-the-truth speeches that have been so popular ever since Life is Beautiful ruined everything. Through a series of stomach-twisting contrivances, the university faculty decides to embrace Krippendorf, and agrees to write off his faked footage as a practical joke. Blackface, circumcision, child endangerment, kidnapping, and date rape…you know, that old bit! This film is a hateful, disgusting, and amoral travesty, to be sure, but at least give it credit for being the rare mainstream family comedy to openly despise people of all races, creeds, and genders. The only thing that could have made the film’s slapstick misanthropy any “funnier” would have been if Krippendorf were to stick moccasins on his knees, crawl around, and pass himself off as a long-lost dwarf tribal elder. I guess they were saving that one for the sequel.