Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Scanlines

SEPTEMBER 15, 1997:  "Fish gotta swim and bird gotta fly: insects, it seems, gotta do one horrid thing after another. I never ask why of a vulture or a shark, but I ask why of almost every insect I see."

-- Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek Say, like Dillard, you love bugs. (Don't be fooled: she loves 'em.) It's a strange fascination, and there's few friends to share it with. Where to find that same passion for Insecta on video? The much-acclaimed French farce Microcosmos isn't out yet, and all the old horror flicks are gross misappropriations of the form. But don't despair: with a patient eye, good documentary films on insects can be found. Herewith, your guide to the best and worst of it.

"The earth was created not with the gentle caress of love, but with the brutal violence of rape." This is the first, telling sentence of the Academy-Award-winning insect documentary The Hellstrom Chronicles (D: Walon Green, 1973), a film that shows much of the terror but little of the wonder in the daily life of insects. (Nature is red in tooth and claw, Darwin said, but this is ridiculous.) Your host for this chomp-fest is a certain Nils Hellstrom, a strange, self-important, and ultimately nonexistent entomologist, a chattering menace who is revealed in the credits as a fictional composite of the day's scientific thinking. (If so, the day's entomologists must have been a snide lot.) There is some fascinating footage here (of royal succession in a beehive, for instance) but it is marred by Hellstrom's insufferable narrative arrogance. With its us-vs.-them mentality and palpable fear of Armageddon, The Hellstrom Chronicles is tainted with a social commentary that seems dated in this less-alarmist age. Revolutionary, perhaps, in its time, but these days the film plays like a bad Fox special, and a sanctimonious one at that. Miss it.

Insects: The Little Things That Run the World (D: Alyce Myatt, 1989) is a 60-minute look at the Smithsonian's far-flung entomological enterprises. Produced by the Museum of Natural History, it is doubtless shown there every hour on the hour. Sadly, it does not transcend the form. Insects is a staid museum piece, more than a little self-congratulatory, maddening in its insistence on educational value. To be sure, you can learn some neat numbers -- there are 1,400 species of insects in a typical New York apartment building; for every woman, man, and child on earth there exist over two hundred million insects; beetles make up three-quarters of all living things -- and the deep, sexy voice of narrator James Earl Jones is a constant treat. But with little live action and an ill-advised concentration on the Smithsonian's collections (you like your bugs on a pin?), Insects borders on the dull. Strike that: It exists well within the boundaries of the dull, and can only be considered a disappointment.

Life on Earth (D: Christopher Parsons, 1986) seems promising -- a four-hour biological smorgasbord hosted by Darwinian Brit David Attenborough. And indeed, two of its 13 chapters, "The First Forests" and "The Swarming Hordes," contain significant insect footage, including a slyly entertaining bit on cross-pollination. (The slow-motion shots of insects taking flight are as aeronautically interesting a subchapter as you'll find in the video store.) But with the whole of planetary life to cover, Attenborough must of necessity give but scant attention to the insects, and while the chapters are studied and reverent, they are all too short. The focus on ants and butterflies does a disservice to their buggier brethren: Where are the stinkbugs, the walking sticks, the hissing cockroaches?

The desperate might turn to The Soil Makers: Decomposition by Simple Plants and Insects (D: Martin Moyer, 1966). This is a vintage nature documentary, which you may very well have seen in seventh grade science class. (I think I did.) It concentrates on carpenter ants, beetle larvae, and termites (although there are some strangely affecting father-son-dog scenes as well). While it is nice to see those industrious critters get some well-deserved recognition, The Soil Makers is short on thrills, and lacks the passion to make it a truly great film.

Weary? Disillusioned? I was too, until I tried Bill Nye the Science Guy: Reptiles and Insects (D: Erren Gottlieb and James McKenna, 1995). At last! Here is the passion! Bill Nye has a love of insects, a love of reptiles, and a love of science, and the overall effect is positively rejuvenating. See dung beetles, monster caterpillars, and yes, hissing cockroaches! They call it a children's show, but a generation of parents know that Bill Nye is one of the best things going on PBS. With smart cinematography, irreverent sound effects, and a little solid science along the way, it is a joy to watch. There's also Nye's deliciously corny humor, which had me giggling like a... like a... well, like a schoolboy. (Bug Llewellen as host of the Wapneresque Pupa's Court? Ha! A Rasta reggae ode to insects? Jah!) Reptiles and Insects is full of the rah-rah insect boosterism I like -- a celebration, to paraphrase Gary Larson, of all things cold and squirmy. Plus, you might learn a little something. Jay Bob says: check it out.

-- Jay Hardwig


Dracula vs. Frankenstein

D: Al Adamson (1973)
With Lon Chaney, Jr., Forrest J. Ackerman, J. Carroll Naish, Zandor Vorkov, John Bloom

Picture, if you will, Jerry Seinfeld with a goatee, curly hair, egg-white makeup, plastic fangs, and red, red lips. Now, visualize a Frankenstein monster with a face that looks like a wad of chewed-up bubblegum (or one of those dang dried-apple dolls you see at the artsy-craftsy flea markets). Get the idea? J. Carroll Naish, in his last role, wears enormous Buddy Holly glasses, rolls around in a wheelchair, and clacks his dentures together noisily as Dr. Frankenstein, when the ridiculous Dracula (Vorkov) shows up and demands that they join forces. Together they send the monster (Bloom) out after Frankenstein's ex-partner (Ackerman, of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine fame) to knock him off. Lon Chaney, Jr. (also his last role) plays a sort of Igor character, killing at the behest of the unholy duo when he's not clutching a black-and-white puppy. Eventually, the puppy runs off (probably to talk to his agent about better roles), but shows back up to lick Chaney's face in his pathos-laden death scene.

With a painfully long, off-key song and dance number, a Dracula who speaks in a monotone with a heavy reverb, an LSD segment, and Russ Tamblyn at his most drug-addled as the leader of a scooter-trash gang, this movie's got it all and then some. Director Al Adamson was notorious for taking several years to finish a movie, which helps explain the geriatric stars, but not how shockingly bad it turned out. Still, there's something appealing about Naish's mumblings and Chaney's two-legged-dog role, at least for true trash aficionados. With a climactic battle between Drac and Frank that... well, that has to be seen to be believed. Now, picture a peanut gallery full of irate little matinee-goers deceived by the promising title, throwing their popcorn and Raisinets at the screen.... -- Jerry Renshaw


Weekly Wire Suggested Links







Page Back Last Issue Current Issue Next Issue Page Forward

Film & TV: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14

Weekly Wire    © 1995-99 DesertNet, LLC . Austin Chronicle . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch