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Taking a break from the oil spill coverage

OCEANS

The jury is still out on whether the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is the worst of the oil disasters that threaten the life in our oceans. It has some stiff competition, preceded by the famous Exxon Valdez disaster. The company responsible for this mess is BP (as of now I heard Halliburton might also share responsibility) and so far it’s going to cost them about $350,000,000 to clean it up and could go as high as $15 billion. Of course this doesn’t begin to cover the losses that fishing companies are going to incur and the many coastal sea food restaurants that are going to see a steep drop in customers. As of this writing, a second containment dome is being dropped to try and stop the flow of gushing oil. I believe around 200,000 gallons of the black stuff is being released per day. Time is of the essence. The cost isn’t that much if you look at BP’s return on investment. This is like a rental car service replacing one window from a whole fleet of their vans.

The scale of this problem is really hard to imagine. Obviously we talk about how it affects beach tourism in 4 or 5 southern states. Black globules will keep creeping up on shore for months, maybe years. Washed up dead marine mammals aren’t far behind. What does this do to endangered species, nevermind the lives of people who depend on fishing to make a living. Check this out: “7 Long-Term Effects of the Gulf Oil Spills”

It’s an ugly thought. Rightfully it’s pissed off a lot of people.

But nobody’s going to be taking this to the streets. Or the sea, in this case. It’s an issue that everybody hates but besides watching BP try and fail capping the leak with a containment dome, there isn’t much else anybody can do. Sean Penn is still in Haiti and unavailable. It’s just a helpless feeling of sitting, watching and waiting.

Luckily, Oceans is in theaters. Since we’re just sitting around and watching anyway, now’s a good time to remind ourselves about the real value that will be lost in the coming days, weeks, months and years.

It may seem like a bittersweet experience, but I don’t think the timing could have been better.

Oceans is brought to us by the filmmakers behind Winged Migration. For those who’ve seen that movie, this statement should illicit a little more excitement than usual. Typically I don’t follow filmmakers of nature documentaries the way I follow filmmakers of fictional movies. There are documentarians you can consider “auteurs” but it doesn’t apply to nature films. However, there was something a little different about Winged Migration that I thought truly distinguished it from its brethren.

They developed a camera system inspired by hot air balloons to go after these birds and follow them along their migratory patterns. The camera literally flies next to them and captures for the first time in any nature documentary, ever, the feeling of flying beside a group of birds. It is nothing short of spectacular footage. These filmmakers follow a lot of different species with this camera system, and they found very creative ways of tying different “stories” together. They convey a feeling of inter-connectivity and some semblance of a narrative. For instance they follow a migration of birds out to an industrial factory or to a rural farm. At the factory a bird is slicked with oil, at the farm it is nearly crushed by a combine. Obviously those are staged scenes. but it doesn’t lessen the impact. If anything you marvel at how they accomplished it and made it look so effortless.

With the ocean, these French filmmakers had a new and harder task ahead of them. Connecting everything in the ocean with some narrative or cohesion is difficult. It’s a vast universe of creatures that vary from the familiar to the completely alien. And yet, I think they did it yet again. They’ve found transitions that move us through the narrative that might be a little staged but nonetheless make it feel like a more elevated documentary about the ocean than we would expect. I’m thinking specifically of a moment where the narration (comfortably maneuvered by Pierce Brosnan, scripted by the filmmakers and somehow translated with the foreign charm still intact) talks about the change of a species within a lifetime during which man was able to reach the moon. From their perch on a rocky coastline, a group of Iguanas watch a Delta rocket blast off into the night sky. They’re mysteriously drawn to this event, their attention completely focused on the climbing space ship that’s reflected in their eyes. There’s a sharp awareness in their eyes.  Then it cuts to the ship reaching for the stars, and a whole universe waiting for it light years away. Then something happens that takes us back down to Earth. The stars become microscopic creatures floating in the darkness of the ocean. We see a close shot of an egg that could easily be mistaken for a giant gaseous planet.

Countlessly, it happens again and again. I see images of the ocean and it tricks me into thinking I’m looking at the night sky. We don’t need to imagine what alien life might look like, because it’s actually down there. As if nature is trying everything to see what works, what doesn’t.

Of course, the more familiar is equally as arresting. Like taking out the garbage. We all do it. And there are crustaceans that do it too. In one scene, Crusty is digging out sand from his little hiding place. His neighbor, a type of crab, who I’ll call Crab, is harassing him while he’s doing it. Crab tries to assault him. Crusty gets super pissed off, and he tears off one of Crab’s arms. Then he holds it up to his face, showing him what he’ll do to the other arm if he doesn’t make like an egg and beat it. Crab considers it for a second, weighing the risks versus benefits, and finally leaves.

The encounter wasn’t staged. But the filmmakers went to painstakingly great lengths to make sure we could interpret the narrative as it unfolded. I think that takes a special skill that you don’t see in all nature documentaries. There is another scene between a sea lion trying to coax his child into taking his first swim into frigid Pacific water. Its eyes are like a little puppy’s. He’s on the ice when he sticks his head into the water, looking around. Afraid to take the plunge. What you see, amazingly, is a baby sea lion doing the same thing that we do when we’re kids taking our first swim.

Even if it’s totally staged, which I don’t think it is, it’s a testament to the craftsmanship of the movie.

Bruno Coulais is the composer, just as he was in Winged Migration and believe it or not, it makes all the difference. Here’s a sample tune from Winged Migration. After I saw it, I rushed out and bought downloaded the score. That was ten years ago. I think I used Napster back then. To this day I’ve never heard a more interesting musical accompaniment to any documentary.

Migration used an underlying theme, and then Bruno composed variations of it to score the film. The music works with the picture. Here, Oceans has both the freedom of the sea’s vastness but also the claustrophobia of being underwater, especially at those murky, dark depths. The musical results are fascinating. It’s more subtle, but still tied with the story. Where music was definitely in the foreground during Migration, here it is pulled back a little. But there’s just no mistaking Bruno’s style.

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