Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Penguin Passion

Checking again the dashboard, we notice a disturbing trend.  Plenty of pageviews from most of the continents (including Africa -- from Egypt), but… none from the great state of Antarctica!   This is intolerable!!

Accordingly, we here provide a review of my favorite film.  (The reference to the “Passion” concerns the Mel Gibson film that came out around the same time -- and which I also reviewed, if anyone is interested.)

HUT two three four (the penguin "Passion")

            A very good movie has managed to make it past the Cerberus of masscult-- and this despite the added stigma of having been originally French.  In the original it was called "La marche de l'Empereur"; it now is actually better, dubbed as "March of the Penguins".  The plural is important, as is the lack of all Imperial pretension.

            Nature photography has reached such a pitch of excellence in our time, that even the odd bit stumbled across while channel-surfing may be memorable and riveting.  But Hollywood does not trust it at feature length.   One of my fondest cinematic memories from childhood is the Disney film, "The Living Desert", yet it has had few progeny.  In 1971, some fine footage of insects made it into the theatres, but under the meaningless title of "The Hellstrom Chronicles"; it was given an  overheated pseudo-sci-fi wraparound, as though the public could not be trusted to take nature plain, but it must be sugar-coated, or rather  smeared with NutraSweet.

            Nothing of the sort  mars the present offering.  Indeed it is remarkably spare in its treatment, even classical.  The focus is relentless on the central fact of survival against odds, during a frigid and exhausting trek across the ice, in a dogged attempt to obey the commandment, Be fruitful and multiply, though one perish in the attempt.  It is not a popcorn movie.  It is a good date movie, but only with someone you are serious about. There is a complete abstention from the trivializing Wild 'n' Wacky World of Animals point of view.  Once, it is true, one of the pilgrims slips and falls, eliciting a laugh from the light-minded.  But in the stark context of this forced march along this frozen Via Dolorosa, it is rather as wrenching as those stumbles that mark the Stations of the Cross.  Though the movie deals in, and does not flinch from,  birth and death and love and grief and sacrifice and even madness, it has the delicacy and dignity (sorely missed) of early Hollywood, when faced with certain things that should be known, but yet not shown.  (Sex was what one imagined might have happened between the kiss and the cigarette, never depicted but only inferred.)  And despite the ever-present menace of death, we are spared the actual sight of blood.   As in the early days of cinema, before the rot of slasher movies, a killing was the more sobering for being seen as the wrenching of a soul from its moorings, rather than a mere mashing of meat.  This restriction required of the director, and of the audience, some artful indirection.  Here  the killer is the leopard seal, sliding along morosely under the ice; and the image that sticks with you is that of a succession of penguins escaping back through the one small hole in the ice -- pop! pop! pop! pop! until one, just p- p-- ahh... only the head emerges, then he slips back forever.

Nor, despite appearances, is the film truly or fully a science film, though it is factual, even soberly so.  Except as regards the great central ritual of the pilgrimmage, the film is sparing with information.  Where exactly on the continent are they nesting?  What is known of their evolutionary history, back to a flightless state?  (And were there prehistoric penguins as big as dinosaurs?) How long do penguins live? How many are there?  Are there other species of penguin, and do they all act – do they act at all like this? What species of sea-creatures do penguins eat?   And what is that bird that eats (or means to eat; mercifully we are not shown the meal) the clueless chicks?  (The folks sitting behind us hazarded it was a "condor"; the film never mentions the word "skua" or "gull".)   The movie lacks the wide-ranging interests (and thus distractability) of the amateur naturalist, pursuing each butterfly into the bush; in its single-mindedness it is almost more like Mel Gibson, resolutely excluding most of the Gospels  so as to focus on his one big theme.

In the memorable and defining opening shot, it is not even clear that we are dealing with a nature film at all.  We first see a handful of figures at a shimmering distance, like a mirage, as though this were  not snow  but baking sands.  The species is not discernable, nor the genus, nor the phylum even; we do not know if we are dealing with humans or with the jinn. (Much indeed as the eponymous protagonists of L’île des Pingouins first presented themselves to Saint Maël (on whom be peace), who baptised them, deeming them men.)  The dark shapes resemble nothing so much as the "black moving objects" in abaya-ridden Arabia: and the long slow patient annual ritual march that follows, has echos of the Hajj.

It is indeed, finally, a nature film, but it has been flavored with some other genre, which at first I could not quite place. The knee-jerk response is "Greek tragedy", for its sobriety and its sense of implacable destiny:  but really it is far from that.   For one thing, it lacks a hero, having rather unsung several thousands of them.   And there is no tragic flaw, but a collective trial.  One point of comparison does suggest itself -- and it too is Greek.   Namely, the march of the Ten Thousand, in the Anabasis of Xenophon.  There too, their agony was over  when they at last could cry, "The sea! The sea!"

There is something in the plight of penguins  that turns the contemplative mind to theology.  Simultaneously dignified and risible, vertical yet chained to the earth, soldiering on in their icy exile, devoid of every luxury and of every distraction from, as it were, the eternal questions.  The cineasts who made this film  will have been familiar with that work of their countryman, Anatol France, "L'ile des pingouins" (1908), which explores this theme at book-length.  We may ask: Whence comes this resonance?

First, Antarctica is itself, almost literally a fallen world.  Time was, it floated in milder climes, where the broad sun ripened the grape and vine, and the creatures of the forest  feasted thereon. Then, like Atlantis, it sank -- or rather slipped, tectonically, winding up (in a process that took longer than that angel's fall from the heights of heaven to the depths of hell) at the -- oh, *no*, not *this*! -- South Pole.   The sense of dismay is pungently summed up by the penguin mariners of the recent animated movie "Madagascar", who after an extended catabasis to their ancestral continent, standing in the gloom with no sounds but an ill wind, at length exclaim: "This sucks!"

Further, penguins are, almost literally, fallen birds.  Fallen from the sky, where, in despite of their bird-nature, they can no longer fly.  To see them trudge clumsily, mile after mile, on their little feet (they seem to have legs no more than wings), is to sense, what is true for us also:  We are not made for this, but for a better world.  (A truth that is obscured amid the glitter and blare of the malls, but stark upon the blinding ice.) 

And yet there is something prelapsarian about the penguins, a thing that indeed tugs at us  like a magnet  the filings, we in our fallen state.  We may quote the saint:
“Habitants de cette île, quoique vous soyez de petite taille, vous semblez moins une troupe de pêcheurs ... que le sénat d’une sage république. Par votre gravité, votre silence, votre tranquille maintien, vous composez sur ce rocher sauvage  une assemblée comparable aux Pères-Conscrits de Rome…”    

Ipse dixit.   They live in a world  at poles from Eden, yet a world stripped of all temptations, devoid of all, save necessarily of Him who is never absent, silent though He may be.  – I cannot resolve the contradiction.

The penguins have had no Messiah, so far as we know; they are still, it appears, waiting.  And waiting.  And waiting.  Yet there are echoes of Christian themes.   The most poignant scene in the movie is the lament of a mother over her dead chick: a penguin Pietà.  And we get  even a glimpse  of what might possibly be meant by the strange dogma of the resurrected body, when the coffle of mortals  in their gravitational chains  at last reach, and plunge into, the aqueous element,  and -- fly, fleet and unfettered, ----- utterly transformed.


I am fond, despite all, of that old hoaxster of an epigram, that "the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing".  What the epigram may mean, or what the hedgehog may know, I know not (though it is pleasant to have any occasion to be reminded of  the hedgehog, our modest and seldom-celebrated friend).   Yet having witnessed the life-cycle laid out here with such care, we are obliged indeed to affirm, that the penguin  at any rate  does know one gigantic thing, -- knows it single-mindedly to the possible exclusion of all else:  a thing as vast as the sky that overarches his little trajectory of life, a thing as wide as the ice which he must traverse with unrelieved weariness, always either starved or gorged, and as deep as the sea which renews him when it does not slay him:  and that is, fidelity.   Fidelity to the mate whom he feeds and is fed by; fidelity to the band with whom he huddles against the whipping winds, taking his turn at the periphery where there is nought to turn its lash; fidelity to the chick for whom he well may give his life, and over whom he grieves  if the cruel chill claims it.  - - And fidelity, philologers instruct us, is the etymon of faith; as it might be, the egg of it.

            St. Francis, it is said, preached to the fowl.  Had he managed to journey to that white world, he might have found a most attentive audience.

[© 2007  David B. Justice. -- article to appear in American Penguin (Oct 2036); reprinted with permission]

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