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Steve and Nigel and Jane and Goliath

"It's a documentary, you see...."

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, June 27, 2001.

In the 1950's, most people my age gained their first exposure to nature films and documentaries through Walt Disney. They were called Real Life Adventures and were narrated with the voice of Winston Hibbler, whose perfumed tonsils were as notable as Rod Serling's, Carl Sagan's, or whoever it is that narrates Front Line for PBS. There were films on the lion, and seals, and one very interesting piece on lemmings, a Lapland rodent.

Lemmings, so goes the folk tale, periodically get worked up and run off the cliffs around the North Cape and drown in huge numbers, sort of a reverse whale beaching. And sure enough, there on the screen were hordes of rodents running off of cliffs, swimming and drowning. It was only thirty years later, in the 1980's, that scientists revealed that lemmings do no such thing, which focussed attention on Disney and his supposed documentary. Eventually it was admitted that the producers of this film faked the sequence. This was pretty bad, but in fairness absolutely nobody complained in the 1950's. Hibbler, who was the voice but not the scientist, got brushed with the tar for something over which he had neither control nor knowledge.

Here, a half century later, television has abandoned the nature of Disney and given its nature programming over to a bunch of Australians and smarmy British ex-patriots in legal need of a drip bag of Seconal. Steve Irwin, the Aussie, and Nigel something, the Brit, have transformed the whole interactive process with the television audience. While children once used to scream in fear for Howard and Osa Johnson, now drunken college students scream and applaud for the animals to take a monologue-ending chomp out of the nether regions of these two exhibitionist gasbags. These two aren't alone. There is a buff American with a lisp who chats up the fauna of the American South, and a seeming endless series of never-were television stars who grace the screen with a drugged and blissed-out simian staring blankly at the camera. Scientists, clearly hoping to be the next Sagan, intone at forty-five degrees to the camera in supposedly spontaneous moments that smell heavily of the writer's lamp and the essay part of the grant application. In short, any pretense of documentary is gone.

The modern corruption of all this started with one of the great deities of the genre, Jane Goodall, and her interface with the camera. It is superfluous to recite the immense trove of knowledge about chimpanzees that Goodall provided the world, but her work is in serious need of reflection. Start with the truism that discussing a problem alters the problem, a social construct that finds basis in chaos theory and Brazilian butterflies. Then reflect that insertion into an observable situation alters the situation into something else, and you are not observing, for example, chimpanzees in the wild, you are observing chimpanzees with a woman sitting among them to what alteration of behavior there is no known reference. The camera loved Goodall, and she may have been coerced into doing things by the middle aged men of National Geographic of which she would not have scientifically approved. She discovered chimps were cheerful cannibals and worried about her own child being stolen and eaten, so she built a cage for her kid to protect him, but having the baby around had to have changed the chimps' behavior. And once Goodall became so familiar to them that they felt no fear and sat in her lap and groomed her, and allowed their babies to do so, it may have been a documentary but not of chimps.

It can be safely assumed that chimps were unimpressed with the blonde beauty beyond curiosity and potential food value and protection from leopards and poachers, but those are lifestyle altering insertions. Goodall always had the good taste and restraint not to talk into the camera while pretending objective observation or 'real life' occurrences that blasphemed the documentaries of the past. Unlike others, she was never there with camera when bears met tigers in remote jungles and fought, or when snakes attacked huge mammals or when other statistical improbabilities happened, and likely under compulsion by producers desperate for action of some sort. Her dramatic moments on film, given nearly a half century of footage, are pretty rare. This alone casts shadows over the filmed results of people who enter the wild for three weeks on a budget and schedule, and emerge with sensational incidents.

It is all excused under 'raising awareness in the public.' I am not sure of what, though. If everything is beautiful to Irwin, eventually nothing is to the audience. There is something wrong with throwing a saddle on the back of nature and riding it to death before bored crowds while claiming to save it. It's as bad as driving mice off a cliff and telling the world they wanted to do it. Honest. It's a documentary, you see. This is DC.