Saturday, July 02, 2005

Go Ahead! Let the Penguin IMAGE Outwit you.

What’s a sixty-year-old man doing with stuffed animals on his bed?

Penguins at that—mostly Emperor Penguins—gifts from family and friends over the years. Remember Bloom County? Opus? Thank you, Berkeley Breathed.

I went nuts over Opus. And then other penguins. And then it started. Stuffed animals, dishes, pajamas, t-shirts, books, nature films, expensive crystal figurines, neckties, ceramic penguins. Pewter penguins. Even a life-sized vinyl blow-up Emperor Penguin doll. You name it, I have it (or had it once; downsizing required a process of natural selection). The word got out: give the guy a penguin for his birthday, Christmas, Ramadan, Fourth of July.

Now comes the best of all: “The March of the Penguins.”

Against a backdrop of “nature photography” in astonishingly muted shades of ice blue and stark white, understated to make it the more terrifying and resplendent, the “march” is the stately waddle of thousands of Emperor Penguins across the ice of Antarctica to lay one egg for each lucky pair so the species can survive. “March” is also the month of the long shuffle. Thank goodness for a “nature film” that isn’t narrated with an overdose of scientific palaver—simply images of penguins with Morgan Freeman elegantly describing the action:

the march, slide, waddle, of a line of thousands of birds, a multitude hard to imagine, heading out seventy miles across the “summer” ice to the exact spot where each of them was born in order to perpetuate the flock;

one of the most erotic sequences on film when an Emperor couple (like so many humans these days, they practice serial monogamy, and the joy seems to be in finding the mate for the season) does their slow pre-copulation dance; close-ups of the incredible beauty of these giant birds;

the hatching of the dearest little panda-faced chicks you’ve ever seen, and their first meal mysteriously provided by dad;

a genuinely terrifying sequence of a leopard seal attacking a group of the ladies (having laid her precious egg after sixty-three days in the huddle of penguins-against-the-storm, the wife-for-the-season heads back to the ocean for dinner while her husband protects and hatches the egg) swimming under the ice filling their depleted bellies to feed their chick after they waddle back to the rookery;

another distressing sequence in which a Giant Antarctica Petrel (what’s a bird like that doing in Antarctica, anyway?) attacks some chicks out on their first tentative swagger without the protection of their moms (mom and dad have traded duties by this time);

and more.

All of this is presented in a montage in which the image is the action is the image. And the image, to misquote Suzanne Langer, “articulate[s] forms which language cannot set forth” (misquoting because she’s talking about the abstractness of music in Philosophy in a New Key). But why not? Why not film, in a purely Flaherty-esque way? The images of this film, while they are birds that anyone can respond to and love, “…are not emotions at all. They merely [look] the way moods feel…” (My regrets once again, Mrs. Langer.)

I realize not many people are as hooked on penguins as I am. But more people will be after they see “March of the Penguins” in their local movie joint in the next few days. And you might even have an experience of seeing forms of feelings that “language cannot set forth.”

Don’t miss it.