The Emperor’s cool new clothes

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman whose highest cinematic experience is Bunty& Babli must avoid films with subtitles. Imagine feelings of said woman when told (ten minutes after she has bought tickets) that the film had no human beings and that she was going to be watching big penguins for 85 minutes. Yes, yes you have an IMDB-sneer coming over because you would have never gone near the movie hall without checking what La Marche de L'Empereur (The Emperor's Journey), was about. But right now she feels like Scrooge on Christmas morning. Proven wrong and yet so wonderful. If you missed the film at the International Film Week (June 9-15), I click my tongue in irritating pity.

I am not too keen on birds. This while sounding suspiciously like Elton John, is the truth. Now though I am willing to make a special exception for the emperor penguin who is prima ballerina, premiere danseur and corps de ballet in this musical on ice. The movie charts the epic journeys of Emperor penguins across the surreal white and blue landscapes of the Antarctic. Luc Jacquet and team reportedly spent 13 months on the white continent to make this film that was subsequently piled high with many awards including the Best Documentary Oscar in 2005. I think I could have watched 85 minutes of ice set to Emilie Simon singing All is white. 85 minutes of the grass not growing. But instead the visual that stuns you over and over is the neat, eerily human, ‘one-arm-distance’ march of these incredible creatures with built-in GPS devices.

Penguins arrive from every part of the continent to a predestined spot for an ornithological Woodstock. They meet, mate and hatch outrageously cute baby penguins. So far we have a blurb for Animal Planet. But it is a million light-years away from the mindless auditing of wildlife documentaries.

An over-read, under-loved bearded critic (who had an overdose of FTII summer workshops) began to snort in my brain at some point. "The greatest anthropomorphization after Lassie…a Franco-American conspiracy to promote domesticity, monogamy and false romanticization” he would write. I gulped because that fatal emotion called ‘Senti’ does arrive occasionally in this movie.

What if the bearded critic was having a good day when he watched the film? Then the younger brother of Senti, Machismo was sure to rule the reviews. 'Survival of the fittest,' 'unflinching courage', 'Mother Nature's brutal gauntlet'. More blurbs written by pugnacious manly chin.

After a while I dumped the imaginary bearded darling because the movie is completely enjoyable for its simple poetic narration, dizzying visuals and great music. And because the beard has always got movies wrong. (Refer back to his Goddard conversations and insistence of watching Solaris to the end.) Mostly I was happy to end my relationship with him because I knew he would have insisted on quoting his ever-favourite Desmond Morris.

And that made me wonder what Elaine Morgan would have made of the movie. Elaine Morgan who wrote The Descent of Woman, (1972) expanding with impressive research, Alistair Hardy's “Aquatic Ape” theory. Alistair Hardy showed that the enigmatic features of human physiology which are rare or even unique among land mammals, are common in aquatic mammals. This and much geological evidence, he said, was indicative that our ancestors had returned from land to live in a semi-aquatic environment for a stretch.

Elaine Morgan, amateur scientist and true child of the political seventies based her brilliant and witty book on this controversial theory to blow whale-sized holes in androcentric evolutionary theory that harrumphs loudly and offers dubious circular reasoning whenever confronted by questions like "Why do women have breasts?" Morgan's less than perfect scholarship was off-set by her fearless questioning of evolutionary dogma and useful insights. Three decades later the theory has gained credibility. For many of her readers the biggest contribution was her cool contempt for the 'man the mighty hunter' a staple of traditional evolutionary theory. This continues to be tossed around by chat-show hosts being ‘objective’. In hearty voices they point out that 'after all' nature meant men to be hunter gatherers and quote with relish the violent behaviour of the baboon (which by the way is a monkey not an ape). This desire of men in suits to be associated with muscle-flexing types neatly ignores the fact that the creatures we are said to be descended from are the peaceable chimpanzees and gorillas.

In the La Marche I watched the females walking for weeks across the ice to the sea and back to fetch food while the male penguins hatched the eggs. For the two coldest months of Antarctic winter, male penguins huddle against blizzards bravely protecting first the eggs and then the chicks. I was reminded irresistibly of Sri Lankan and Filipino women working in the Middle East as domestic servants to provide for the children they have left behind in the care of their nervous husbands. The mighty hunter-gatherer theory is probably the husbands’ greatest source of misery without which they would have probably looked after the children cheerfully. Elaine Morgan, wherever you are, you would approve of this movie for the most pragmatic yet kind 'family drama' ever to make it to Warner Bros and Pallavi theatre.

Update: You can find the version DH carried here.


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