Sorta weird how this became the globe-trotter episode. I'd seen Babies a few weeks ago and was going to go with it as the sole focus of the show, then late last week I stumbled onto Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo and -- despite the little voice whispering ever so delicately in the back of my head, "YOU SAID YOU WERE GOING TO BACK OFF THE WORKLOAD, M*TH*F***A!" -- I realized I had to cover it as well. Hence, another double-up ep for ya (and just so you're braced, we'll be doing it again the week following next).
What changed my mind about Beetle Queen was debuting director Jessica Oreck's approach to the subject of Japan's seemingly nationwide fascination for insects. Oreck, who's also an animal keeper and docent at New York's American Museum of Natural History, lays the motivations out neatly -- turns out much of Japanese culture is rooted historically in the observation and appreciation of creepy, crawly things -- and examines how that veneration plays out in contemporary society through a healthy collector's subculture; commercially marketed supplies for both the support and preservation of pet bugs; and vending machines that dispense live creatures into the eager clutches of the nation's children (Japan, remember?). But then she takes it further, absorbing the animistic outlook of Shinto and such concepts as mono no aware and using them to model the film as a meta-presentation of the philosophies that drive the country's appreciation of the natural world. More than just simple nature film or an anthropological examination, Beetle Queen becomes the attitude itself, and a fascinating immersion into another society's vision of the world.
Director Thomas Balmès has a much simpler mission in Babies, but with a somewhat similar goal: Travel the world, capture on film the first year-or-so of four babies from markedly different corners of the world, and let the viewer examine what in those initial months are universal, and what is markedly different. The four societies Balmès selects -- a tribal group in Namibia; a farming family in Mongolia; and parents in urbane San Francisco and two-minutes-into-the-future Tokyo (again) -- all form distinctive incubators for their newest residents. Yet for all that the environments leave their marks on these kids (in one particularly indelible moment, the overstimulated Japanese baby suffers a grand mal meltdown within a nest of playthings), what stands out most is how closely the recently arrived experience their entry into the world. That may not be a revolutionary concept, but it does make for a viewing experience that extends beyond just the obligatory, "Awwwwww." (But you will probably go, "Awwwwww," at least once.)
Click on the player to hear the interviews with Oreck and Balmès.
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Halo: Reach - Autumn, 2010
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