Wednesday, July 27, 2005

For Wordless Documentaries

AJ and I went to see March of the Penguins last night, and although the photography is completely stunning and I recommend it, I also want to gripe about documentary filmmaking, which advanced early on in film history and then regressed horribly and has remained frozen in a state of utter condescension to viewers, for the most part, ever since.

I realize it's a National Geographic film and everything, and that people really love when filmmakers do the sort of Mickey-Mousing we see and hear in March of the Penguins. I've sat through Mickey-Mousing in its worst forms, in GeoKids and other kids' nature documentaries, where animals are milked for their full comic potential at every turn, helped along by the music in case you don't get the joke, ba-dum-bum, wha wha wha whaaaaaaa, splat. (I could talk more generally about National Geographic and the dumbing of America, with special attention given to the print magazine National Geographic for Kids, which is full of advertiser-driven editorial drivel—what does Scooby-Doo have to do with geography, for example?—but that's another topic).

MOP opens so promisingly, with a very long shot of what looks like hooded figures engaged in wallking meditation on a flat white landscape. Succcessive shots bring us closer and closer to the creatures. We know them right away as penguins, of course, but see their movements freshly because they've been made strange for us. We are allowed to really see them.

But get them in their rookery, starting their mating ritual, and we're back in the land of cliché. They are looking for "true love," Morgan Freeman's wonderful, sonorous voice informs us in the intrusive, unnecessary narration; their courtship is made human. The score in a movie about penguins should work actively to discourage us from making the usual associations. Two penguins walking across the ice in concert are doing more than waddling amusingly. It's so sad, seeing images of such grandeur reduced to human triviality.

Ideally, there should have been no music at all. Or a score that didn't feel obligated to act as a narrative element. But I think I'm going to go with no music at all: everything you need to hear in this film is in the sound of the wind and the voices of the penguins. In fact, the voices of the mother, father and baby penguins are so important that the film should have made us pay perfect attention to them without distracting us.

As for the narration, it doesn't tell us anything, really, that we can't get by just watching the film. If someone needs to know exactly how many miles the penguins travel, they can look it up in a book. We can see that it's very very far. The photography shows us that the weather is extremely cold, the day increasingly short, the conditions perilous. We can see that a leopard seal just nabbed a penguin, that the southern lights are flashing, that this little seal is learning to walk by standing on her mother's feet—just like people do! Why did filmmakers stop trusting their own medium, or is this the work of some nefarious personality at National Geographic?

Read writer Ken Foster's comments on March of the Penguins

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