The Netflix Report

Movie reviews from my Netflix queue. Highly personal and opinionated!

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Monday, April 17, 2006

The Life Of Birds

Got time for three DVDs covering a total of nine hour-long episodes from this BBC television series? David Attenborough is a spectacularly watchable TV nature documentarian, with a career spanning more than fifty years in on-air documentaries. If there is a patch of ground on any continent that he hasn’t stepped on, it’s not for lack of trying. And if you haven’t seen his work, shame on you and get one of his series. Any of them.

This 1998 series’ title pretty much covers the content. You get focuses on fishing birds, meat-eaters, mating habits, living conditions, communications, egg laying and protection, raising the young, etc. The photography includes many jaw-dropping closeups and framing masterpieces where they just happen to be in exactly the right spot at exactly the right time (which we have come to expect from nature documentaries and are far too blase about these days). Some birds are photographed in distinctive behaviors for the first time ever. And through it all walks the supremely unflappable Attenborough, always concentrating on the animals and never shifting the focus of the program onto himself (are you listening, Mr. Crocodile Hunter?).

In nine hours of viewing, you are certain to find your attention wandering now and then. Give yourself a mental challenge by figuring out the production mechanics on this show. Attenborough appears in about 30 different countries, at all times of the year, focusing on the one aspect of behavior that the episode is dealing with and smoothly linking from one segment to the next. I finally came to the conclusion that they had to script out the entire nine-episode series with the places and shots they wanted to capture, laid out a travel schedule to get to all the right spots, contacted the local experts on the species they were featuring, cleared all the political and legal hurdles, and then delivered prescripted material with improvised dialog and post-produced links. All this is so perfectly blended that you can’t find a seam anywhere to indicate what was done when. It is a masterpiece of production work that makes my head hurt to even contemplate it.

My favorite pieces in the series were: Footage of the lyre bird in the communications episode on disc 2 (mimicry so varied and note-perfect that you would swear it was fake. A wild bird in the jungle has learned to imitate the sounds of chainsaw foresters and automatic self-winding cameras of tourists.); Egg layers on disc 3 (The kiwi lays an egg weighing one-fourth its entire body weight); Meat eaters (I can’t remember the name of the bird that eats the African lungfish, but it’s straight out of Jurassic Park).

Completely suitable for kids (and cats... ours was fascinated).


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