Saturday, 12 January 2013

The Good, the Bad and the Vertically Ludicrous

In a way that links very weirdly with thislast week I caught up on the first episode of the latest BBC Attenborough nature documentary, Africa. The episode, 'Kilimanjaro', had to be one of the weirdest bits of TV I've seen lately.

Most people get that in these kind of nature shows, the subjects are always anthropomorphised a little bit so we can relate to them, understanding and empathising with their hardships by drawing parallels with our own natures and experiences. The often bleak adventures of the cute and cuddly play out like a recurring nightmare, or a Doctor Who episode where somebody always dies. Life is brutal, we are made to understand, and the fluffier you are the harsher it is—but look at all these crazy and inventive and borderline whimsical ways that life has evolved to cope with such things, in the course of this long, off-the-rails game of one-upmanship. 

In a genre reflecting the formulaic nature of life itself, the same endless cycle of birth, reproduction and death, like any genre we look to the details, the novelties, the bits afforded us by new technology. But as far as us viewers go, the core attraction is the same—wonder and empathy, the bits that make us go, 'Man, that's life.'

Close-up of leopard   Gaggle of birds   Squirrel drops its nut

The way they get us to engage with it is basically by making it into a film like any other, treating it with a soaring score, lush cinematography, and footage stitched together into single narratives so that the snippets, say, of half a dozen leopards pass for the adventures of one. A commentary is overlaid to fill in the plot details, and even sometimes something of the animals' emotional states of mind.

Most of the time this is all kept relatively muted, but with 'Kilimanjaro' I think they had a particularly weird day at the editing office. If these documentaries have a tendency on occasion to turn these creatures into caricatures, to treat them like a gallery of entertaining eccentrics, for empathy or for humour, I don't think I've ever seen an episode that pushed as much in that direction as this one, and the result was surreal.

It started with the music. Usually we're treated with an incidental score that subtly manipulates our emotions and picks the right moments to leave us alone so that things can get back to feeling just a bit detached and scientific. In 'Kilimanjaro', we get jogging bird-things rendered hilarious by ridiculously plucky music, which I guess isn't too beyond the norm, but also a lone leopard youth striking out on his own for the first time accompanied by a very distinctive, Ennio Morricone-esque lonely Spanish guitar, with lots of lost-looking leopard gazes intercut. It was at this point that I noticed it go beyond incidental to something that chose to evoke outright, well, movies, in a very specific and slightly preposterous way.

This kind of surreal playfulness continued throughout the episode, from the leopard youth's transition into the role of a dopey teenager, to the errant footage of the squirrel-thing dropping its nut, comically inserted to make it look like a reaction to the leopard's direct gaze; to Attenborough's commentary of the black rhino dating scene. It's a lot of fun to watch, but I did wonder, how seriously are we supposed to take this? Does it still count as credible when they do these things?

Giraffe approaching from a distance across parched landscape   Giraffe hoof on the ground   Close-up of giraffe snout

Then there were the giraffes. The ten-minute behind-the-scenes segment they showed at the end of the episode suggested that they got about one minute's footage of the fight between the two male giraffes before the whole thing was over. Compared to what they did with this, the leopard's soundtrack was nothing; the height of restraint. For the giraffes, we got an extended cinematic sequence that managed to reference at least three different films before crashing very dramatically to its end.

The scenario was that a gruff old male currently owns some much-desired, irrigated, female-inhabited territory and a younger male shows up to challenge him. To the victor, the spoils. For rigorous educational purposes, they decided to treat it like a Sergio Leone film. The young one appears a distant hazy figure on a parched horizon and the old man watches him approach. The visitor's shadow lengthens. His hooves step into view. The old man watches and chews. Then they meet and there's a stand-off.

In a fantastic glimpse of nature's own sense of the dramatic, the two giraffes stand side to side, necks elegantly crossed like fencers crossing swords. The necks then snake, whip around and strike as the two giraffes attack each other in slow motion, each impact sending ripples and inflicting wounds.

Eventually the old man stumbles. The young one casually, haughtily, looks the opposite way as though disinterested at the old man's fall, but is in fact carefully positioned, and then like a cold motherfucker he whips his neck back around to deliver the fatal blow.

But then... fucking Matrix. Still all in slow motion, the old man ducks; his head drops as his enemy's passes over him; it swoops around

'How does he do that,' whispers an awed female giraffe somewhere off to the side, 'move like they do?'

and strikes the upstart in the back of the legs.

And then oooooh-so-slowly, as if to draw out all the pain, all the tragedy, in recreation of a classic scene the young giraffe crashes by fateful increments to the ground, his long neck falling like a snaking timber, his legs up in the air, his expression already defeated, and then his head hits the ground and he's lost in a cloud of dust.

Giraffe falling into the dust after fight

The slow motion, so they tell us in the behind-the-scenes segment, is supposedly so we can get a good look at every movement and impact for some ostensibly scientific, informational reason. I don't believe that. I believe that what the slow motion did more than anything else was make it more dramatic, in exactly the same way that it's dramatic in most films that use it. I can't remember if they used it again for a prehensile victory kiss between the sugar daddy and one of his girlfriends, but I wouldn't be surprised if they did.

Before the episode really begins, there's an introductory sequence that gives a preview of the whole series to come. It ends with a giraffe winking. I don't know quite what it is you're trying to do, Africa, but I'm onto you.

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