Wed July 16, 2003
You thought you knew about migratory birds and the limits of photography.
By John DeSando, WCBE's "It's Movie Time"
If you thought you knew about migratory birds and the limits of photography, then listen up because Jacques Perrin's ("Microcosmos") "Winged Migration" lets you into a world of flight no museum or even on-sight observation could match.
Over three years, Perrin (the Cousteau of birds and insects) filmed migrating birds on all seven continents. The plot is simple: Birds go north in summer and south in winter for one reason, survival in its most basic form, eating. Yes, you knew that; what is new, however, is that you fly along with the birds, feeling the resistance of the wind and the incredible stamina of animals that must travel sometimes for thousands of miles before they rest.
In New Zealand, I watched the Albatross soar with unworldly wingspan; I saw the penguin pass like ancient nuns across the opening of the duck blind. But in neither case was I able to fly or walk with the birds--Perrin does. The experience is transcendent.
Perrin claims at the beginning no digital effects were used in filming the birds. Good information because at multiple points you wonder how he could have filmed that shot: the parrot flying from one side of the Amazon to a branch directly in front of the camera, the snowbirds reacting to and fleeing the roar and descent of the avalanche. Some shots as if from a satellite are suspect, however. Mostly it is being in flight with the birds, which look far less elegant than from the ground with their bulbous bodies, skinny necks, and laboring wings. The ultra light aircraft and hot air balloons served Perrin well.
Except for hunters bagging a few mallards and crabs destroying a wounded bird, there is little Darwinian survival going on here, perhaps a source of criticism for hardcore realists. Some critics decry the lack of extensive narrative although there is a peace in the flight that almost demands silence. The heavenly music is at times overwrought, and the repetitive nature of the flights contrasts sharply with Perrin's seemingly endless variety of insects and conflicts in "Microcosmos." But then these are 2 different worlds, and we are the better for Perrin letting us see both.
I wish he would do a documentary on politicians; their predatory patterns would be fascinating on the screen.
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE's "It's Movie Time," which can be heard streaming at www.wcbe.org on Thursdays at 8:01 pm and Fridays at 3:01 pm.