No, not the giant stadium extravaganza…
Here, I’m referring to the somewhat tamer “Walking with…” six-part television series, done in the style of David Attenborough — that is to say, the film presents dinosaurs as wildlife subjects being observed by an off-camera narrator (in this case, hushed commentary is provided by Kenneth Branagh).
I was pretty pleased when Jey told me that such a thing existed, as Attenborough’s nature documentaries are one of the most familiar and beloved exports of Britain. (According to Wikipedia, “[a]n opinion poll of 4,900 Britons conducted by Reader’s Digest in 2006 showed Attenborough to be the most trusted celebrity in Britain. In a list compiled by the magazine New Statesman in 2006, he was voted tenth in the list of “Heroes of our time”.)
Also according to Wikipedia, the whole “Walking with…” series “used computer-generated imagery and animatronics to recreate the life of the Mesozoic” and strove to keep the focus on the subject, so forewent the use of expert “talking heads”. My generation’s main exposure as children to dinosaurs came from Jurassic Park. So for me and Jey, it was quite a thrill to see the “Walking with…” treatment of dinos in the wild as subjects in their own right, without any human-focused theatrics.
We’ve only watched the first episode of “Walking with…”, but so far it’s a bit like “March of the Penguins” (or any of the several films Disney has been producing using “Planet Earth” footage). Parents struggle to survive. Babies get eaten. Other babies just barely escape.
I know that nature is red in tooth and claw, but it’s still hard for me to watch those parts. There’s something so lovely about birds and reptiles in eggs, isn’t there? Something lovely, but also keenly fragile. I quite clearly remember seeing, as a very young child, a documentary about turtles laying eggs in the sand, baby turtles hatching from the eggs, and their journey across a busy highway to the ocean. Even then, it was all about the life cycle and survival and the inherent hope in self-perpetuation.
Life in the Mesozoic is tough.
So, I guess not much has changed, even since before recorded history.
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Of the many (many!) valuable lessons offered in Carl Sagan’s 13-part series “Cosmos”, the one that’s stuck with me, and the one which made me begin the “Anglofilmia” project with this show, is the idea that we humans are both completely insignificant in the long view of the universe, and that the finite, fecund duration of our lives on earth is what gives life its meaning.
This existential self-awareness is, for me, what makes looking at the horizon of the ocean, or gazing into the inky black sky, especially pleasurable. It’s what gave me shivers when I read the lines in T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?…
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
But even though learning this lesson as a child has fundamentally shaped my beliefs and my interests (especially my fondness for time travel literature!), no one can say it better than Carl Sagan himself:
“The long, collective enterprise of science has revealed a universe some 15 billion years old: the time since the explosive birth of the cosmos, the Big Bang.
The cosmic calendar compresses the local history of the universe into a single year.
If the universe began on January 1st, it was not until May that the Milky Way formed. Other planetary systems may have appeared in June, July and August…but our sun and Earth, not until mid-September.
Life arose soon after.
Everything humans have ever done occurred in that bright speck at the lower right of the cosmic calendar.
The Big Bang is at upper left in the first second of January 1st. Fifteen billion years later is our present time, the last second of December 31st.
Every month is 1 and a quarter billion years long. Each day represents 40 million years. Each second stands for some 500 years of our history…the blinking of an eye in the drama of cosmic time.
At this scale, the cosmic calendar is the size of a football field, but all of human history would occupy an area the size of my hand.
We’re just beginning to trace the long and tortuous path which began with the primeval fireball and led to the condensation of matter: gas, dust, stars, galaxies, and, at least in our little nook of the universe, planets and life, intelligence and inquisitive men and women.
We’ve emerged so recently that the familiar events of our recorded history occupy only the last seconds of the last minute of December 31st.
Some critical events for the human species however began much earlier…minutes earlier. So we change our scale from months to minutes.
Down here, the first humans made their debut around 10:30 p.m. on December 31st. And with the passing of every cosmic minute — each minute 30,000 years long — we began the arduous journey towards understanding where we live and who we are.
11:46, only 14 minutes ago, humans have tamed fire.
11:59:20, the evening of the last day of the cosmic year — the 11th hour, the 59th minute, the 20th second — the domestication of plants and animals began, an application of the human talent for making tools.
11:59:35, settled agricultural communities evolved into the first cities.
We humans appear on the comic calendar so recently that our recorded history occupies only the last few seconds of the last minute of December 31st.
In the vast ocean of time which this calendar represents all our memories are confined to this small square.
Every person we’ve ever heard of lived somewhere in there. All those kings and battles, migrations and inventions, wars and loves. Everything in the history books happens here, in the last 10 seconds of the cosmic calendar.
We on Earth have just awakened to the great oceans of space and time from which we have emerged. We are the legacy of 15 billion years of cosmic evolution.
We have a choice:
We can enhance life and come to know the universe that made us, or we can squander our 15 billion-year heritage in meaningless self-destruction.
What happens in the first second of the next cosmic year depends on what we do, here and now, with our intelligence, and our knowledge of the cosmos.”
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Like many schoolchildren, I learned the ‘rhyme’ meant to help us remember the six wives of Henry VIII: “Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived”. But it wasn’t until I watched the Showtime series “The Tudors” starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers that I realized the value of actual, human faces to create in my own mind a memorable historical context.
Sure, the show may play a little fast and loose with some events in the timeline, but it also makes these stiff textbook figures real people, with desires and faults all their own. There’s a huge difference in reading Anne Boleyn’s final speech or that the executioner was sympathetic to her, and in seeing his eyes and hearing the quiver in her voice.
Though my experience with The Tudors was not the first time I’ve experienced this fleshing-out of history (notably, the portrayal of the onset of the plague in Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver (Baroque Cycle) affected me similarly, as did the depiction of the rise and fall of Oliver Cromwell in The Devil’s Whore), it was the first time I was inspired to help others see it, too.
So for Christmas last year, I gave my husband Jey a coupon as a gift: “This coupon entitles the bearer to a year-long journey of exploration and education.” (Yes, we’re big dorks who are inclined to give this type of gift.) I included with it a very rough timeline of British history beginning with pre-civilization, and films set in each period.
We’ve spent the past several months intermittently clarifying the dates on the timeline and filling in the blanks with appropriate films and television shows, where possible. There are several periods of history which are notably bereft of film-related content, and several which are so flush that it’s really difficult to narrow down which we’ll actually watch.
Thanks for joining us on our journey!