Saturday, August 15, 2009

Day 203: Attenborough in Paradise (1996) - Rank 4/5


All right, I'll admit it - I'm a sucker for nature documentaries. So in watching David Attenborough (the BBC's answer to Jacques Cousteau in the Naturalist Cold War that I like to imagine really happened) track down birds of paradise, I figure that it's a given that I'll find the documentary time well spent. Indeed it was, primarily because "Attenborough in Paradise" had two strengths going for it. The first was the absolutely gorgeous photography of birds that have scarcely been seen by the human eye before. Creatures with plumage and vocalizations so ornate and bizarre, they seem more like creatures dreamed up by Peter Jackson's WETA company for the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Attenborough explains that the unusual phenotypes of these birds are due to a peculiar evolutionary quick where the females have become obsessed with mating with males that display an array of showy colors, generation after generation. Take a look at this and tell me that you actually object to watching footage of something so breathtakingly beautiful contort its body into surreal shapes for the sake of "getting laid."


The second strength is Attenborough's clear passion for the natural world, and especially for the animals featured in this documentary. He begins with the preface that he endeavored to capture birds of paradise on film decades earlier, but failed miserably. This is then his great, second chance to redeem himself and satiate his craving to see these organisms in person. When he finally does, the results are both endearing and, at times, hilarious. For example, he recognizes the "arena" of Wilson's bird of paradise and being familiar with the species neurotic need for cleanliness, decides to throw leaf litter into the arena to lure it out of the trees. When it descends from the canopy, shots of the iridescent, technicolor creature tidying up it's breeding space are juxtaposed of quick cuts of Attenborough peeking through the nearby bushes at it. His devilish grin is priceless - I felt almost as if he were channeling a schoolboy who was in process of watching the quintessential "girl next door" undress in front of her window. There's just something about individuals in their golden years expressing giddiness that I find whimsical. And if it's accompanied by fantastic nature footage, well, all the better.

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