Tuesday, 22 October 2013

David Attenborough

I have written before about my debt to filmmakers like Hitchcock, Ford, Truffaut, Hawks, Kurosawa, Bergman, Ekman and others for making me first a film enthusiast and then a film scholar. But David Attenborough also deserves to be mentioned among them because he has had an equally large impact upon me since at least 1984, when The Living Planet came out both as a TV-series and a book. I was actually using him even as an inspiration for the structure of my thesis. For its narrative drive to be more specific. Many filmmakers could learn a thing or two from him about structure and pacing, and so could scholars. This is not something I was conscious of back then as a precocious pre-teen, when it was the images and the fun of learning new things about animals and plants and Earth itself that were the reasons I was hooked. They contain enough thrills, sadness, humour and beauty to last a lifetime, and they are more satisfying than much of fictive narrative art. But later on, when re-watching for example Life on Earth (1979) and The Living Planet as an adult, I was struck by how carefully and skilfully they were told. The individual episodes in themselves and also how all of the episodes together form a whole, that they are not freestanding but intricately linked. The episodes tell a story that has a beginning and an end, and the sum total of each series becomes bigger than the individual episodes. So I had that in the back of my head when writing the thesis. (I should probably have mentioned him on the acknowledgement page.) Watching several series in a row is also a special experience, not least to see how the things one can do, both ethically and technically, change rapidly over the years.

Attenborough was (still is) a major player at BBC not least since he combined an academic and scientific foundation with a background as network controller and manager at BBC. He more or less created BBC Two, and among other things he brought colour, snooker and Monty Python's Flying Circus to British television. But as important as all of that was, it is in bringing the wildlife and the science of it into the homes and offices of people all over the world that is his unique importance in the history of television. Of course Attenborough was not alone in making these films and series; there were producers, directors and camera men, as well as the BBC. You need to distinguish between the series which he just narrated and the ones that were his own projects. Those are the ones that really matters, the Life series. All of those series mentioned in this post are part of that major undertaking, which has now been going on for some 35 years. 

The series teach the viewers many things, such as how evolution works, the mating habits of crickets or the survival tactics of a giant bush in the desert. They also teach us how fragile the world is, how humans are threatening it through poaching, waste-dumping, deforestation and simply be becoming more and more plentiful for every year. They also remind us that we are one species among many, just another animal. We should not sentimentalize other animals, humans are not alone in our capacity for warfare and cruelty, but neither are we alone in being capable of feelings such as sorrow, affection, curiosity and joy. That is not a question of anthropomorphism, I would rather suggest that it is arrogant to assume that such feelings are uniquely human. But that is another discussion.

Attenborough is now 87 years old but he is still hard at work, and I am looking forward to his next series. Here are some clips from earlier years. The first one is from The Trials of Life (1990).

Here are some sea cows, from The Life of Mammals (2002):

And this extraordinary sequence with Attenborough and mountain gorillas from Life on Earth (1979):

These scenes emphasis the everyday life of animals, and Attenborough himself. The many wordless sequences of astonishing beauty and awe (or horror) you will have to find for yourself. 

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