Traditional nature films, while a subject close to are hearts, can run the gamut from wonderful - early Attenborough - to terrible - sorry Steve Irwin we hated your movies, may you rest in peace. However we find that nature films are often at their best when they stray from the conventions and get experimental.
Here’s a sample of a few of our favorite nature films that stray from the overwrought documentary conventions. (CC Photo by Steve Wall )
When people hear the words “Isabella Rossellini” and “porno” in the same sentence, they probably aren’t expecting to see the short films of the Italian actress and model dressed up like a praying mantis or a bedbug and acting out an insect’s complex mating ritual. The result is infinitely more amusing than arousing and definitely more entertaining than watching two rhesus monkeys (or two homo sapiens for that matter) go at it on the Discovery Channel.
There are a lot of things to like about Werner Herzog, (don’t get us started) but when Herzog turns his lens on nature, he is truly at his best. Among his best are Grizzly Man, the interviews with Herzog in the Burden of Dreams, and his Antarctic film Encounters at the end of the World. Here, Herzog offers up a deeply affecting character study of the scientists who would choose to live and work in the world’s most extreme conditions. One of the more memorable scenes include Herzog trying to break the tension with a particularly tightlipped interview subject by asking if he encounters any gay penguins.
Jacques Cousteau is essentially the Mick Jagger of the oceanographer world, and in typical rockstar form he wrecked stuff and generated controversy. His landmark film Silent World caught a lot of heat for the underwater havoc his crew wreaked while filming. In one scene, the crew managed to take out a baby whale before slaughtering the school of sharks that were attracted to the corpse. Despite the environmental wreckage, this journey through the waters of the Red Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean earned Cousteau his first of two Academy Awards for Best Documentary Feature and are still beautiful - if not particularly environmentally friendly - today.
But before Cousteau, before Herzog, before them all was Jean Painlevé, perhaps the best, and strangest nature documentarian to ever work. Working from the 1920-1970s Painlevé brought to his films a combination of general surrealism, unusual soundtracks (such as a film about Mollusk’s scored with Jazz), and a general…Frenchness that has yet to be beaten. In his words ”Wading around in water up to your ankles or navel, day and night, in all kinds of weather, even in areas where one is sure to find nothing, digging about everywhere for algae or octopus, getting hypnotised by a sinister pond where everything seems to promise marvels although nothing lives there. This is the ecstasy of any addict.” Consider us Painlevé addicts.