Thursday, September 07, 2006

March of the Chaplinesque Lovebirds

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
Made cautious by all the fuss surrounding Luc Jacquet's 2005 documentary, "March of the Penguins," I elected to avoid the film during its theatrical run. Even the assurances of my co-workers - "Oh, you'll absolutely love it! It's right up your alley since you're so into animals." - only served to strengthen my sanction. When a film generates excessive buzz, especially of a vaguely politicized variety - in this case, much ink was spilled debating the socially conservative subtext of the documentary - I prefer to wait out the media storm, to let the reviews fade from my mind before heading to the rental store.

And so, on a blustery, wet Saturday, over a year after the film's release, I scanned the shelves of Astoria Video Express and settled on the image of an Emperor penguin looking down at its hungry chick. I sighed, thought about it for a moment and decided that I'd waited long enough. I did want to the see the film, after all, and even the blurbs boldly printed on the DVD case, snippets I usually ignore as creative collage work on the part of the studio, further whet my appetite. "Astonishing!," proclaimed David Ansen in Newsweek. "Riveting!," promised Stephen Holden, of the New York Times. And so, that evening, as Ernesto soaked the Tri-State area, I popped in "March of the Penguins," turned up the volume on my home stereo, and prepared to be riveted, astonished, and generally engaged.

Encouragingly, the film opens with some stunning aerial photography of Antartica's otherworldly landscape. (In fact, the film work throughout "March of the Penguins" is exceptional and cinematographers Laurent Chalet and Jerome Maison have been justly lauded.)

But then, not two minutes in, the first sign of trouble: "Based Upon the Story by Luc Jacquet," the credits read. Wait. Isn't this a documentary? What "story" are the credits referring to? There is, after all, a significant difference between documentary and fiction, even fiction inspired by real events. Shortly thereafter, Morgan Freeman's dulcet voice begins to describe the harsh conditions at the bottom of the world. After hearing only a few lines of Freeman's narration, I realize this is a film best suited to children. Freeman's genial reading brings to mind the cliche of the old, patriarch storyteller. There isn't necessarily anything wrong with this, but Freeman's lilting delivery too often sounds condescending.

But these issues are forgivable, minor faults. If National Geographic and Jacquet can produce an intelligent nature documentary that engages young viewers by framing the penguins' annual journey as a children's epic, then so be it. The world needs more children interested in the well-being of other species and the health of ecosystems at large.

Unfortunately, "March of the Penguins" is not an intelligent story pitched at a young audience. Jacquet supplies Freeman with an appalling script, one that manages to patronize both viewers of the film and the bird it ostensibly celebrates. A minute or so into the narration, Freeman says, "So, in some ways, this is a story of survival, a tale of life over death, but it's more than that really. This is a story about love." Sentimental clap-trap of this stripe is a staple of Disney-style animal documentaries(1), but I am surprised to see National Geographic associated with it. Why must so much natural history writing, particularly film narration, reduce the wonders of the natural world to cartoon significance, clumsy or cute approximations of human behavior? Whatever their reasons, the team behind "March of the Penguins" feeds viewers a canned narrative, replete with emotive musical selections and conservative film editing, tricks and techniques not foreign to an editor of daytime television or Hollywood romances. If we were to transplant ourselves to Antarctica and, in person, observe the mating ritual of an Emperor penguin pair, would we find the vaguely violent frenzy romantic? Would we "see it" in slow-motion, accompanied by a soothing a New Age soundtrack? When the chicks take their first, tentative steps, would we giggle as they stumble about the ice and hear in our heads some sweet, doodling tune? Probably not. These actions aren't funny or romantic for the participants and, unedited, they would not likely be so for us. Why not honor the arduous, annual journey of Aptenodytes forsteri and the marvel of the chick's birth and maturation without attaching our own assumptions and moral framework?

Before I'm written off by some readers as one more proponent of cold, hard science, I should point out that I am no less guilty of anthropomorphizing animals than anyone else.(2) The attribution of human characteristics and emotions to other species is an altogether natural activity. What's more, it is an important, even vital one. Zoomorphism and animal-human relationships, often sexual, are central to the myths of many cultures and religions, and, for time immemorial, we've understood the world via other animals just as we understand those species through ourselves. Lest we forget, we too are animals, and the words we use to describe our more abstract and profound emotions - love and grief, for example - are merely qualifications of deeply rooted drives, behavior observed in different measure throughout the animal kingdom. In other words, the temporary bond experienced by a mated Emperor penguin pair may not be entirely irrelevant to human marriage (or any other romantic union), but we should take care not to confuse the two. It's well and good to talk of love when considering a human couple - if not always accurate - but to project this word, our word, and all that we associate with it, onto another species is problematic. Firstly, it confuses viewers who know no better. Secondly, doing so is no different than projecting the assumptions and practices of one culture onto another. In short, it's ignorant, and reflects a laziness or a woeful lack of curiosity.

Again, I'm not advocating a prohibition of anthropomorphism. Disney - and other studios, particularly those specializing in animated features - has made a fortune appealing to our desire to anthropomorphize, both for laughs and pathos. Clearly, most people appreciate these sentimental takes and, although I feel such fictions more often reduce than celebrate, I don't want to get sidetracked attacking Disney. Disney doesn't claim that "Bambi" is an accurate portrayal of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) behavior, nor do they argue that "The Lion King" provides a lesson in lion (Panthera leo) pride dynamics. Luc Jacquet, however, does claim that Emperor penguins are in love.

Curiously, when asked about the "family values" subtext of the film, the director balked, telling the San Diego Union Tribune that he intended no such message and that "it [is] intellectually dishonest to impose this viewpoint on something that's part of nature....You have to let penguins be penguins and humans be humans." I agree completely, but "March of the Penguins," whatever its stance on family values and gay marriage, does not "let penguins be penguins." In fact, the French version of the film - the original script Jacquet produced - goes so far as to include "dubbed" voices for different penguin characters. Charles Berling, Romane Bohringer, and Jules Sitruk speak as if they are father penguin, mother penguin, and chick. Instead of attaching Morgan Freeman's soothing narration about "family time" to a shot of a mated pair huddled about a young chick, Jacquet prefers to present the adult penguins whispering sweet nothings to one another and cooing approvingly of the product of their "lovemaking." That certainly isn't my idea of letting penguins be penguins!

As I sat through the closing credits of "March of the Penguins," I found myself recalling the emotional reaction I had to Werner Herzog's "Grizzly Man," a powerful film that wrestles with man's complicated relationship to other species and our own species' coping mechanisms. "Grizzly Man" was overlooked by the Academy Awards - indeed, the documentary was not even nominated - the same year "March of the Penguins" was awarded the golden statue. In fact, in terms of revenue, the French production is the second most popular documentary ever made. But I suppose I shouldn't be entirely surprised by the Academy's choice or any of the excessive praise lauded on Jacquet's "documentary." Most people prefer animals as cartoon proxies and are uncomfortable understanding them as flesh-and-blood relatives. Luc Jacquet threw out the slop - he is guilty of making a weak, if pretty film - but the rest of us marched to the trough to feed.

Photo credit: image ripped from the homepage of South African scientist, Neil Malan

(1) The most notable of these series, and the one most often subjected to academic consideration, is Disney's True-Life Adventure Series, which aired in the late 1940s.

(2) If you were a fly on the wall of my studio or apartment, you would witness lengthy conversations - note the word choice, as though they are two-sided - between my cat, Mister Misi, and myself. The same is true for my three snakes, Zuri, Sefu, and Kali. Given the rudimentary brain of a snake, the pythons certainly aren't engaged in any way with my rambling, but what matters is my involvement with them and my interpretation of their movements. The exchange is only as valuable as I make it, the communication abstract at best, but not absent. The relationship between pets and caretakers is largely defined by human projection and is one of many examples of healthy anthropomorphism. Lines can be crossed, however. When humans begin to clothe their dogs, for example, they cease relating to the animal as a fundamentally different creature and, in my opinion, do it a great disrespect. Each to his or her own, I suppose.


Michael said...

The footage in the film was spectacular, but I also balked at the schlock that they were dishing out on top of it.
I probably would have balked more, except that I had spilled Scotch all over my leg and was paying attention to the theater manager stalking up and down the aisles looking for the source of the fumes.

Anonymous said...

please, PLEASE get over yourself.

Hungry Hyaena said...


Following any of my more moralistic or self-regarding posts, your response would make sense, but I'm lost as to its relevance here. Maybe that's just because I'm not yet over myself. ;)

In any case, thanks for reading.