The Silent World (1956)

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For better or worse, there’s a tremendous sense of fun in Jacques Cousteau & Louis Malle’s seminal The Silent World.

I have long known of Jacques Cousteau and his pioneering technology through my father, he transferred his childhood interest of diving and the oceans onto me. Despite this, I was not aware that Cousteau and his team were the subject of several feature-length documentaries with two Academy Awards and a Palme D’or to boast of. When I stumbled upon The Silent World in a CEX shop, I was immediately attracted to the idea of seeing the ocean through the wonderful vibrancy of Technicolor – it was one of the first films to create such an experience.

The documentary follows Cousteau, his crew and a lucky little Dachshund aboard the Calypso. They may grow tired in the oppressive sunlight and absence of activity when they’re travelling across the vast, lonely stretches of ocean, but it is all proved worthwhile when they get into the water.

Using Cousteau’s Aqualung, the men swim around with relish, in one instance encircling a sponge diver heaving along in a metal helmeted diving suit that today we see only in tacky gold fish bowls. The man hiding in his relic of a suit doesn’t mind the aqualung upstarts, the men shake hands and scour the seabed for sponges together.

The greatest liberation however is afforded by their rotary propelled underwater vehicles. They glide among an array of wildlife with ease, including a sea turtle, with one diver seizing the opportunity and hitching a ride on the majestic animal’s back until it’s exhausted – it all looks thoroughly enjoyable until he overstays his welcome.

mir-tishinyiYou never see David Attenborough having this much fun.

Indeed, the documentary regularly reminds you of the age it comes from – they provoke most of the animals they encounter! When they happen across the group of whales, the skipper decides to try and harpoon one with little success, Cousteau narrates: ‘Under our skipper’s nose is a whale sixty feet long and he can’t resist having a crack at it’.  Soon after this, the Calypso’s propellers mortally injure a small whale and the crew mercifully kill the profusely bleeding animal.

This inevitably attracts scores of sharks, and the crew’s reaction to them surprised me more than anything in the film. Cousteau narrates: ‘For us divers, the sharks are our mortal enemies.’ As the sharks tear through the whale carcass of the men’s making, he continues: ‘Every seaman hates the sharks, after what we have seen, the divers can’t be held back, they grab anything they can to avenge the whale.’

The men proceed to brutally catch the sharks, tearing their mouths open as they yank them on board, battering some of them with the blunt end of an axe. Marine biologists would abhor such attitudes and behaviour today, however like with the lobsters and flying fish earlier in the film, the Frenchman probably made good use of them in the kitchen.

jc22The little Dachshund is used to such sights.

No animal is left unpestered, even land animals aren’t safe. When the men arrive at a desert island, they meet a group of giant tortoises and sit and stand on them as they casually eat their lunch. The men’s irreverence seems to leave an impression on the Dachshund, as he is seen nipping at the legs of a poor tortoise trying to mind his own business.

Their cavalier style also sees them blowing up part of a coral reef and collecting the detritus in the name of science – it’s an awfully destructive approach to taxonomy.

The crew restore your faith in them somewhat when they befriend ‘Ulysses’, a gregarious eighty-pound Grouper fish who, along with scores of other fish, becomes surprisingly tame when the men present them with a bag of delicious gristle.

There are moments where the men contrive conversations to show the viewer the procedures that happen aboard the ship. I use the word contrive because of how awfully stilted the men are, but this is mainly because of the useless dubbing on my Blu-ray, so I’ll give the crew’s acting abilities the benefit of the doubt. I liked Cousteau’s French-inflected English narration, but I would have preferred subtitles when the men spoke to each other.

The Silent World is a charismatic documentary that provides a compelling insight into the history of both diving and underwater photography.

78%

Into The Wild (2007)

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McCandless was a self-serving fool, and the narrative suffers because of this.

This film was recommended to me by a couple of friends, I was looking forward to it, it had an interesting premise on face value, but by not even half-way through, the film had lost its appeal for me purely because of the ostensibly ‘inspirational’ material it was based on.

The film, directed by Sean Penn, follows Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), a young, idealistic university graduate who yearns to leave modern civilisation and live off the land like some sort of noble savage.

I have backpacked around Europe and South East Asia, I wholeheartedly understand the appeal of travelling for extended periods of time and living out of a rucksack. I also, like many others I’m sure, can empathise with McCandless’s contempt for the expectations, uncertainty and pressure of young adulthood. But, quite frankly, McCandless was a selfish fool who lost all sense of rationality whilst making a grand statement about civilised society. He left his only sister with their emotionally distant, shallow and contentious parents to pursue his ill-fated adventure totally unprepared. So unfortunately, I couldn’t see past the lead character’s naivety and self importance.

But despite this, I did find myself compelled to watch McCandless’s interaction with the film’s supporting cast; the hippies, old man Ron Hanz (Hal Holbrook) and dare I say it even Kristen Stewart’s role were infinitely more interesting than McCandless’s ‘inspiring’ mission. To think some viewers find his story ‘inspirational’ shows entertainingly poor judgement, they can’t have seen the whole film! Again, I stress that this film isn’t bad film making, it features good performances from the whole cast and some good emotive interplay between them, but it is all set within the context of the lead character’s idiotic escapade, a fundamental aspect which I cannot bypass.

It’s a shame that McCandless has been immortalised for being so reckless.

63%

Baraka (1992)

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I can’t see how someone couldn’t like this film.

A bold statement certainly, however Baraka has an immense beauty that is surely universal in appeal. It is a documentary that’s without  narrative or narration, it captures a veritable plethora of imagery that reminds us that Earth is indeed a baraka, which is Arabic and Hebrew for ‘blessing’.

Any attempt to derive meaning or identify connection becomes merely incidental as you’re presented with the hypnotic scenery that Ron Fricke and his team have captured; it must have been difficult for them to cut their glorious footage down to 97 minutes. The film traverses verdant jungles, epic mountain ranges, sweeping temple complexes, arid deserts,  imposing cityscapes and haunting landmarks of evil such as Auschwitz and the Cambodian S-21 prison. Its human subjects are of all colours and creeds, with much of the film focusing on those who are less fortunate and sometimes utterly destitute. It is a sensational and occasionally disturbing cross-section of the planet’s landscapes, cultures and history.

The stunning wide shots and time lapses are scored with heady ambient music by Michael Stearns. His music is a cacophony of tribal chants, chimes and drums that’s vital in creating Baraka’s truly sensory immersion. My favourite piece is Baraka Theme, its broad, sonorous notes create a vast scope that perfectly accompanies the boundless panoramas.

There are so many moments I could talk about, I could throw effusive adjectives at almost every frame, however I feel mere words can’t do it justice. Baraka is a purely cinematic experience that’s somewhat futile to describe.

However, one memorable sequence I will mention is the factory processing of chicks that’s interspersed with the frenetic pace of Tokyo railway commuters; it is fascinating and ultimately quite unpleasant as the birds’ destiny in battery cages is revealed after having their beaks burnt. The camera offers insights into an array of factories, showcasing their subjects’ perfectly rehearsed skills in computer hardware assembly, textiles and poultry.

It is a film that demands to be shown on good equipment, a film that serves as a benchmark for one’s TV or projector. Apparently, it was the first film to receive an 8K transfer, what an awesome experience that must be, most likely better than real life!

When Baraka sadly finishes, you eventually move your eyes away from the screen for the first time in 97 minutes and realise that you’ve been dead still the whole time as you check your watch, surprised to see that many hours haven’t passed. It is a triumph that the moving image alone can achieve such engrossment.

86%