If you don’t have TiVO, get it. (I have DVR from Time Warner Cable, which is pretty much the same thing.) If you don’t even own a TV, and especially if you like to proudly announce this fact every chance you get, which is every time normal, sane people are talking about the Sopranos or whatever, get a frickin’ clue! (Do you also proudly proclaim that you only listen to NPR on the radio? And, worse, is that actually true? If so, please know that I have nothing but pity for you.) Get help. Get a life. And get a damn TV! (And make sure it’s a High Definition set, and then get a High Def cable box too–they are usually free.) There is so much great stuff on TV these days, it’s almost unbelievable.
Case in point: the craziest, most astoundingly compelling nature documentary I’ve ever seen, Ultimate Enemies. (And, no, I do not just watch documentaries; I am equally addicted to CSI: New York, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Boston Legal, Top Chef, and Pimp My Ride. So what? And I haven’t even mentioned Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert, without whom life would be basically incomprehensible!) I have shown this documentary to various people at my house over the last six months or so (I had recorded it from the National Geographic channel one night pretty randomly to watch the next day during dinner). No one that I’ve shown it to has been less than hypnotically spell-bound by it, so far. The film, by the husband-and-wife team of Dereck and Beverly Joubert, documents the relationship between a pride of lions and a herd of elephants, both of which frequent the same watering hole in Botswana. Thinking about it a little bit, I have identified five main things that combine to make this film so mesmerizing, and I’ll say a bit about each below.
1. The Subject Matter
Okay, here’s the story: a group of adolescent lions reaches an age when they are no longer welcome in their own pride, and are forced to wander west across hostile terrain in Botswana until they reach a watering hole. Tired and hungry, they find that there is not much in the way of prey there, but at least there is water. Then the herd of elephants comes to drink. Now, everyone knows that elephants cannot be hunted by lions. They are just too big. If the lions are kings, then elephants must be emperors. But are they? In their desperate hunger, the lions prove otherwise. Unbelievably, they learn to kill elephants, and they do it methodically and brutally and mercilessly. For example, early on they discover that a mother elephant’s first instinct is to protect her youngest calf, so while one or two lions harass the youngest, the rest go after the second-youngest. By the end, the oldest lioness (who weighs maybe 400 pounds) develops such delusional bravado that she jumps onto the back of a six-ton bull elephant (12,000 pounds!) from a tree and attempts to wrestle him to the ground. Alone! It is an insane moment.
The story of this battle of skill vs. sheer size, speed vs. sheer strength, desperate aggression vs. calm defense, etc., makes for irresistible drama.
2. The Photography
If images of the immensely graceful and noble movement of a lion do not evoke deep feelings of simultaneous awe and fear in you, maybe you haven’t ever been near a real lion. And the photography in this movie is so beautiful and so artfully composed and edited that the dangers feel immediately present. Some of the scenes of death are so elegiacally shot that their poignancy has more than once moistened the eyes of the more tender-hearted of my visiting viewers.
3. The Poetry and Writing
Here’s where things go totally mad: the narrative is almost indistinguishably interspersed with poetry written by Ian McCullum and Dereck Joubert. I’m not sure whether to call the poems good or bad, but they work in a weird way. They lack clear meaning and instead are just suggestive of grand themes and ancient rivalries, sometimes in a completely over-the-top way. They are portentous and ominous in tone, and they combine with the fearsome footage to produce a remarkable emotional effect. It is difficult for me to describe this intertwining of poetry and poetic writing, so I simply adduce an example of it here, from near the beginning of the film:
Africa comes at you from both sides.
It is a golden ray of light,
And a dark sloping shadow.
It has the power to abandon pretenses,
And the humor to play with your body.
Did no one tell you
That you belong to the hungry belly?
The fractured group of lions is swamped because of their weakness as a working unit. And the hyenas have sensed something: their lack of confidence. Right now, the young nomadic group could break up and scatter into the wind as lost individuals, but the large lioness who so often takes the lead, starts to greet and reassure the others. As she does so, she fixes the group together in a social bond, and they become one: at last, a pride of lions.
But one day, through the haze of failure in this desolate landscape, the large lioness sees signs:
The tracks of which gods are those, walking inside me,
Are they from the fire, or the flood?
Are they the ones who wait for me?
And is this my map of blood?
Is this my destiny?
They have arrived. After a journey through some of the hardest country in Botswana: paradise. And this time, they don’t seem to care if their arrival sends shock waves around them, this time perhaps they have come too far to give up.
See what I’m talking about? No? Just hold on, I think you will…
4. The Narration
Now imagine the example of writing I gave in the previous section being read by one of the richest, most dramatic voices in the world, one that is so sensuous that to just passively let it wash over one produces the feeling that one has been intimately caressed: the voice of Jeremy Irons. His timing is unhurried; his cadence, perfect. It is an extraordinary performance, and I’ve never heard anything like it in a documentary, ever, and very little like it elsewhere.
5. The Music
Last, but by no means least, the big, symphonic music is expertly orchestrated to add yet more dramatic flair to what is already an almost unbearably thick atmosphere. The results are, well… judge for yourself: click here to see a video of the part that I have transcribed in section three above. You will have to enter “Ultimate Enemies” in the “Search All Video” box, and then click Go. Then click on the first video (uppermost and leftmost). Go ahead, do have a look now.
And here is just a bit more to tease you, about the part when the lions arrive at the watering hole and tensions with the elephant herd first begin to rise (play the video and read along, if you like):
There is a behavior emerging that could be new, or an echo from the past. It could be a remnant of a time when mammoths may have ruled the Earth but still fought for their lives against the stabbing fangs of sabre-toothed cats.
Today, the battle is flaring up again. Ancient behavior or simple opportunism? It’s impossible to tell, but these two rivals are like two unstoppable forces of nature, careering through the universe towards the inevitable collision.
The males know it. The old bulls look down at these stubborn cats and test their will. They aren’t going anywhere. They are the owners here. And what the young nomads see is the beginning of a storm brewing in this show of defiance between these enemies. The ultimate of enemies: the largest, and the fiercest; the grey, and the gold.
To buy a DVD or videocassette of the full program, click here.
Read an article by Richard B. Woodward about Dereck and Beverly Joubert and their amazing films in Outside magazine here.
All my previous Monday Musings can be seen here.
Have a good week!