Culture

Unthinking our place in the universe

BEIRUT: The problem with old-fashioned documentaries was their assumption that the public wanted to think about things. Maybe that’s why documentary – like art house cinema, which also encourages audience engagement – rarely enjoys wide theatrical release in most territories. Take the “science doc.” Practically invisible in cinema, documentary treatments of the natural world tend to nest in television, where they’re more likely to be preoccupied with “nature” than hard science.

What’s available on TV runs the gamut from David Attenborough’s (kindly, picturesque) “Planet Earth” series to Animal Planet’s (redneck, repetitive) “Gator Boys” – though the local programming of Animal Planet and Discovery channels has also indulged in Yeti-esque wildlife fantasies that might make a 20th-century tabloid editor blush.

To coax audiences into the murky waters of hard science – quantum mechanics, say – broadcasters like the BBC and PBS carefully camouflage documentary’s lecture hall roots with a balance of distracting visual effects and personalities – Brian Greene, Jim al-Khalili, Neil Degrasse Tyson – evidently chosen to appeal to certain target groups.

Upon this stunted landscape, Terrence Malick’s 2016 documentary “Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey” seems a bold cinematic gesture of substance and lyricism. The film premiered at Venice last year, where – in the wake of Malick’s previous two features (both star-studded cheese fests) – it was warmly received. It will have its Beirut debut at Metropolis Cinema Thursday, the opening film of the Ecrans du Réel documentary film festival.

“Voyage of Time” might be summarized as a short history of us – from the coalescence of space gas to the explosions, gouts of lava and hissing sea of planet formation, from the bubbling of microbial life to the emergence of fantastical beasts, prehistoric and extant.

There’s a nicely executed depiction of an apple-core-shaped asteroid slamming into a prehistoric Earth, shoving it into an ice age, and an episode that follows a troupe of early humans gamboling, childlike, across a post-ice age landscape.

The lion’s share of Malick’s feature is preoccupied with these often-majestic images from terrestrial and cosmic natural history – the sort of thing usually relegated to window dressing for big-budget science fictions a la Ridley Scott.

Playing in counterpoint to them is documentary footage from contemporary terrestrial culture. The camera looks in on the barefoot, mentally unhinged (once-institutionalized) homeless people who exist on many North American streets.

It visits refugee camps and colorful public rituals in various locales. In one sequence, the crew trains its lens on some Nordic festival replete with kids in Cossack hats and bear-costumed adults in chains.

In another, they shoot a public square somewhere in southeast Asia, its tarmac slick with blood gushing from the slit throats of dead and dying water buffalo.

The film nods to this region’s recent history, with a montage of images – street demonstrations, uniformed Israeli gunmen standing about an Arab body prone on the ground, destroyed dwellings, displaced persons.

Running 90 minutes, Malick’s full-length film is substantial enough to satisfy Attenborough fans but anyone expecting an amiable English-accented voiceover to explain what audience members are seeing on screen will be disappointed.

Cate Blanchett does provide a Commonwealth-accented voiceover but her script doesn’t address the footage directly, let alone discuss the research inspiring it. Instead Malick has penned a poetic monologue addressed to “mother.” It’s left to the public to decide whether these prayerful pleas of yearning and trepidation are directed to Mother Earth or some deity.

By now this synopsis will sound familiar to anyone who spent some time with Malick’s Oscar-nominated 2011 feature “The Tree of Life.” That film commences with an extended cosmic history lesson that’s also punctuated by the voiceover supplications of a female voice.

It wouldn’t be reductive to read “Voyage of Time” as a “Tree of Life” redux (wildlife documentary veteran Paul Atkins was cinematographer for both films), with its cosmic natural history bits prolonged, its central coming-of-age tale excised and replaced by documentary footage.

In a career that’s frequently revisited the childlike wonderment of his fictional characters, “Voyage of Time” is Malick’s most stridently lyrical work. No doubt this reflects the filmmaker’s spiritual preoccupations, and it will find some play with the public.

While inoffensive and nonpartisan, the prayerful verses Blanchett voices on Malick’s behalf will likely alienate agnostic audience members and try the patience of those for whom images flickering on a screen have limited allure without some intellectual ballast.

Audience members who adore beautiful images cast upon a big screen, accompanied by a score oscillating from Bach to Part, will happily ignore the voiceover’s intermittent distractions. Some may even embrace its sentiments.

For those who find it increasingly difficult to watch the litany of self-destruction that defines human culture, Atkins’ mingling of state-of-the-art wildlife footage with speculative imaginings about the origins of the universe, us and everything in between, may offer momentary relief.

“Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey” screens at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil May 4 at 8 p.m. Ecrans du Réel runs through May 9. For more, see metropoliscinema.net.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 04, 2017, on page 16.

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