Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Film Review: THE SILENT WORLD (1956, Jacques Cousteau & Louis Malle)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 86 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Jacques Cousteau (oceanographer, hero, legend, defender of the environment, filmmaker, and scientist), Louis Malle (AU REVOIR LES ENFANTS, ATLANTIC CITY, MY DINNER WITH ANDRE, THE FIRE WITHIN).
Tag-lines: None.
Best one-liner(s): See review.

Shit the bed! I have been rendered speechless. I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Jacques Cousteau and his cronies (the inspiration for Wes Anderson's far less ludicrous LIFE AQUATIC- from the stilted re-stagings to a musician on board to the bulbous underwater observatory to red woolen caps to island diversions to exactly duplicated camera angles) wander the high seas more in search of shits and giggles than genuine scientific research in this 1956 documentary. A lot of the novelty revolved around the then-new high-tech underwater cameras, but now this film is appallingly hilarious. Need a coral reef sample?- use an axe! Need a census of reef-dwelling fish? Blow the bastards up with TNT!

This is, indeed, really happening.

A hapless dying blowfish, now on land, inflates itself in a panic. Jacques explains that it's a defensive measure against being eaten- 'BUT IT'S NO MATCH FOR DYNAMITE!' (Jacques himself provides a vaguely self-aware, smarmy Herzogian narration throughout.)

Prepare yourself for some surreal fuckin' sights. Like six Frenchmen riding each other's ankles as they hitch a ride on a water scooter. Speaking of hitching rides, ANY time they see a giant turtle or tortoise, the initial reflex is to take it for a free ride.

See a Frenchman weighing down a sea turtle as it struggles to reach the surface and breath! See a Frenchman riding two tortoises like giant, mobile shoes! What's the first thing you think of when you see tortoises? To use them as picnic tables and benches, of course! While on this 'tortoise island,' they encounter a black "island man" who explains the life cycle of the tortoise to them in offensively dubbed pidgin English. "Me think the turtle cry not because of 'de pain...but cause of 'de sorrow."

Later, they make friends with a Grouper they name 'Ulysses,' feeding it scraps of meat, trying to dance with the fish. All I can think of is Herzog, in GRIZZLY MAN, saying "And what haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food." So they 'befriend' the Grouper, who then keeps coming back for food...because they fed it. This pisses off Cousteau and the gang who now dub Ulysses a 'nuisance.' 'Time to put him in jail!' They bring down a shark cage and imprison the Grouper for a spell. As they depart, they release him and wistfully impart 'We'll never forget you, Ulysses!' Indeed.

And the science?! They frequently boast about how great their technology is, mocking a Greek diver using outdated equipment, and then they run one scientific test across film's entirety. What do they do the rest of the time? They dick around like frat boys on vacation. There is one incident in particular that is the perfect example of mankind's folly, and the ability of tragedy and comedy to bleed into one another. Cousteau and his crew are chasing a group of sperm whales, trying to get close and "study" them. Things get off to a good start when they accidentally ram one whale and then one of the crew tries to harpoon another, just for the hell of it. And they're riding these whales' asses, too. "Increase the throttle!" Of course, tragedy strikes. They ran over a baby whale, which is now horrifically lacerated by the engine. Immediately, Jacques blames the whale, saying its 'youthful brashness' was the reason for the tragedy. Of course it's the whale's fault that was run over at top speed. Blood is pouring everywhere; one wouldn't think that a single animal could contain so much blood. The ocean, now crimson, begins to fill with sharks- 30 or 40 of them. Jacques and the team harpoon the dying whale and shoot it in the head to put it out of its misery. The sharks begin to gorge themselves. Jacques and the team immediately spring into action, pulling out the shark cage so that they can film it, Jacques  adding that he 'hopes the cable will hold' for the sake of the cameramen within. Given the scarce amount of the whale left at the finish, I have to imagine that they filmed the feast for several hours. As soon as the cage is out of the water, and they're finished shooting the 'orgy,' the sailors seek righteous revenge against the sharks. They actually say the phrase that they're 'avenging' the baby whale.'
So let me get this straight: they ran over a baby whale because they were dickin' around, the sharks came because they're animals and that is their instinct, they let the sharks eat until they were done filming, and then they murdered the sharks to avenge the whale?  They must harpoon and pull up twenty or thirty sharks out of the water onto the deck, whereupon the crew bludgeons the shit out of them with poles, harpoons, and, my personal favorite, giant axes. Whew. I feel like I'm watching a dozen bulls in a china shop. Why don't we just beam this out into space and let the aliens put us out of our misery?
Alright, guys, four stars for being fuckin' lunatics, and showing me far more about the depths of humanity's ignorance than the depths of the ocean's 'silent world.'

-Sean Gill


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the perfect description of The Silent World.

I was feeling the same sense of shock and disbelief while watching it, but at the same time I was finding that the beauty of film, the goofy narration, and scripted scenes made me strangely aware that I was enjoying this Cousteau-style documentary far more than the typical, flashy documentaries they have now.

Sean Gill said...


Thanks for stopping by! Indeed, Cousteau's style is extremely engaging, and, if you can discount the less than civilized shenanigans of he and his crew, as a filmmaker I give him a hearty thumbs up.

Anonymous said...

I had many of the same reactions as you did to Cousteau and crew's nonchalance about harming the environment they purport to "research." However, your review suffers from two notable omissions. The first is that the film has some extraordinary shots of the ocean and is beautifully made--from a cinematographic standpoint. For this, it should be credited as a work of art and I don't think you do it justice.

Second, you ignore the historical context of Cousteau's work. Prior to him, the notion of environmentalism in the ocean was pretty marginal. There were some aquatic environmentalists, but not many. People had very different attitudes generally about the human impact on the earth and Cousteau can hardly be vilified for being a product of his times. In fact, he took to heart some of the criticisms against his film and later became a pioneering environmentalist for the oceans. I believe he came to regret some of the things he did in The Silent World.

Sean Gill said...

Anon. #2,

You're absolutely right about this being a beautiful film. Louis Malle is one of my all-time favorite directors, and his cinematography here– in collaboration with underwater work by Philippe Agostini (RIFIFI, LE PLAISIR) is extraordinarily vibrant and immersive.

I don't mind taking on this film (which I think is excellently made) as a single, semi-out-of-context document within Cousteau's larger career, because the consensus is that he's a legendary pioneer of environmentalism, and this film's general lack of availability is likely in service to maintaining that image. I do not discount or deride his later achievements in the field of conservation, but rather look at this single window into a moment of his (and mankind's) ignorance. We must look at how it fits into his larger legacy– for example, if I were examining Eisenhower's role in using tear gas to evict American veterans and their families from Anacostia Flats in the 30s, I wouldn't necessarily have to mention his later military achievements against the Nazis, or his public infrastructure accomplishments with the interstate system.

It's sad, really, and is as much a "nature" documentary about human beings; these fumbling forms who enact abundant collateral bloodshed while seeking loftier, nobler ambitions. It's a film about the best of intentions, how little we truly know at a given time, how we're given to animalism and an animal's instincts, how we historically justify cruel acts in hindsight, and– in the end, given the ultimate trajectory of Cousteau's career– how we learn from our mistakes.