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January 1997
Big Screen Bugs

By Cathleen and Colleen McGuire


Directed by Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou (1995). 77 minutes.

Angels and Insects. Directed by Philip Haas. Mark Rylance, Patsy Kensit, Kristen Scott Thomas (1995). 117 minutes.

Microcosmos is an eloquent documentary devoted to a single task: observing insects. Using unique, specially designed cameras, the film was shot at bug-eye level by French biologists Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou. The two spent over three years studying the denizens of a vast, fascinating universe ignored by most humans. Beginning with a sweeping pan of an immense sky, the camera slowly inches closer and closer to earth - through trees and bushes, past flowers and shrubs, finally focusing on blades of grass. There we encounter a cast of thousands worthy of a Cecil B. deMille production. In this common meadow in France on a single summer day from dawn to dusk, the documentary randomly tracks a day in the life of bugs.

Almost devoid of human commentary, the film bears silent witness to the comings and goings of a micro-metropolis of tiny creatures who cohabit this planet with us. A highly creative musical score - a device probably necessary to sustain general audience appeal - encourages anthropomorphic interpretations. Accompanied by a swelling operatic crescendo, we are enthralled by the prolonged climax of two snails kissing like some Gone With the Wind poster. Staccato drumbeats "narrate" the bustling of worker ants as if on a factory production line. Dramatic violins play as an overwhelmed little beetle pushes and prods Sisyphus-like a pellet of sheep dung with Herculean effort. Noisy horns underscore two stag beetles in combat, resembling a senseless macho confrontation between teenage boys. The exquisite cinematography likewise obviates the intrusion of spoken word. A close-up of one insect's coat of armor brings to mind an exotic Mardi Gras costume. Deep in the folds of a luscious flower, we watch a bee drunkenly suck nectar. The time lapse recorded birth of a water bug evolving from larva to the splendor of evanescent wings evokes the sacredness of life's passages.

While not a single human enters the filmic frame, at one point an enormous shadow hovers over a throng of ants. It is an average crow, yet from the camera/ants' perspective it appears as a beast of Himalayan proportions. While the bird pecks and eats its scurrying brunch, the ants continue apace, making no effort to flee or organize a defensive strategy. One is tempted to dismiss them as mindless automata. Yet, the viewer senses that incredible sense of cooperation is evident when we observe residents inside an ant hole neatly stacking their hoard with the meticulousness of housekeepers. The two scenes pose a paradox: seemingly purposeless meandering juxtaposed with actions of calculated precision. The viewer is left pondering the interplay between instinct and consciousness.

While the music and cinematography of Microcosmos beckons its audience to humanize the insects' behavior, one is also struck by how much we're like them.

Segue to Angels and Insects. Director Philip Haas has created a mini-Microcosmos in his portrayal of a 19th century English household.

Entomologist William Adamson (Mark Rylance) has just returned from 10 years of study in the Amazon rainforest. He now seeks patronage from a wealthy vicar, Sir Harold Alabaster (Jeremy Kemp), an amateur naturalist, who hires him to organize his insect collection and tutor his younger children. He soon falls in love with Eugenia (Patsy Kensit), the vicar's stunning, blonde, neurasthenic older daughter. He admires her beauty as lovingly as the ethereal butterflies he carefully impales for her father. Despite his "vulgar blood' and working class origins, they marry, and Adamson settles deeper into the baronial Alabaster manor and the dark secrets that lie within.

A brief opening scene presents Adamson in the Amazon surrounded by indigenous people engaged in a phantasmagoric midnight dance. The contrast between Adamson's (Adam's son?) wanderings in the "primitive jungle" could not be more sharply drawn than by his catapult via the Alabasters (the ultimate WASP surname) into upper class British society. Stiff dinner conversation is enlivened by new Darwinian theories of nature, while Victorian notions on race, class, gender and, sexual repression, hover as subtext.

The film's pacing is as slow as watching a glassed-in ant farm. Numerous close-ups of ant colonies and other insects serve as metaphors for human behavior. The household is like a hive, with worker-drones scurrying about the halls in the service of the vicar's family, especially his portly queen bee of a wife. A funeral procession resembles a column of ants. Colorful ball gowns mirror butterfly wings. When shocking secrets unfold, the entire mansion buzzes with the servants' hushed whispers, akin to a low beehive hum.

Some critics scoffed at the film's "politically correct" observations on culture and nature. The Alabasters represent the pinnacle of "civilized man": decorous, obsessed with lineage, comfortable with all manner of supremacism. Nature, newly colonized peoples, and weak, submissive women bluntly stand for the subdued Other. The dualistic themes may be obvious, but an intelligent examination of the intersection of imperialism, class, gender and species is still a rare treat, given most popular culture fare.

Class issues abound in the form of obscene wealth, domestics avoiding eye contact with masters, and the vicar's snooty son's disdain for Adamson, whose father was a butcher. As a flawless period piece, the film vividly depicts the stark sexism of Victorian England where upper class women are corseted and silent, reduced to vessels for birthing heirs. Rape plays a primary role throughout this film. Feminist relief comes in the form of Matty, the Alabasters' poor relation and quasi governess, crisply portrayed by Kristin Scott Thomas (who, coincidentally, supplied the lone human voice in Microcosmos). Matty masterminds a collaboration with Adamson to write a popular book based on their ant colony studies. Her erudite, self-assured presence is a respite from the other subservient, marginalized women.

The presentation of gender and class is strong, but Angels and Insects doesn't quite accomplish a deeper understanding of speciesism. Corollaries between "man" and insects (nature) are provocative, but conveyed at a distance, as if the director were observing the Alabaster household through an entomologist's magnifying glass. The audience is left wanting more insights on the connections between culture and nature, not just a mise-en-scene. For mere observation of species behavior, Microcosmos -without words and staged drama - more indelibly captures the wondrous peculiarity and mystery of nature's beings in all their complexity.

Cathleen and Colleen McGuire are twin sisters who, through the vicissitudes of genetics, have had endless opportunities to study the nature/culture question. They live in New York City.


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