Wednesday, December 3, 2003


I don’t think I’m giving too much away by telling you “Winged Migration,” a G-rated documentary now playing at art houses throughout the land, is about birds. And when I say it’s ”about birds,” I don’t mean this in the way one might say, for example, that “Dr. Zhivago” is “about Russia,” or that “Kingpin” is “about bowling.” No. Rather, I mean it in the way you might describe “Deep Throat” as being “about fellatio” because there is literally NOTHING ELSE IN THE ENTIRE FREAKING MOVIE!

The point I'm trying to make, or belabor, here is that there's nothing but birds in the movie. They fly (a lot), they swim, they hop on rocks, they stick worms in their baby's mouths, and then they fly some more and hop on some more rocks, and then they do some of their preening dances and crap like that. And then they fly some more. And finally, for a sort of encore, they fly. There's no characters, there's no story, there's no talking birds or singing birds or birds that comment wryly on human foibles, there's no bird that belongs to some cute kid and the bird flies off to the sheriff and scratches out a message on his desk and then the sheriff goes and rescues the kid from a well. There's nothing like that.

It's critically acclaimed. "Breathtaking!" say the critics, and "Exhilarating!" and "Astounding!" And really, you can't argue with them. I mean, the pictures are amazing. The movie follows birds migrating, and it follows these birds like the movie is flying right next to them, over oceans and under bridges. And I mean THE SAME BIRDS!!! It follows THE SAME BIRDS flying from, like, Tierra del Fuego to North Dakota, and not only does it follow them in the air, but the camera is WAITING for them when they land in some swamp or something to take a break and have a snack. And you see them do all that, and then they take off again and the camera goes with them again.

OK. Maybe sometimes it's actually different birds that just look like the same birds, and it's just edited to make you think it's the same birds, but at times it is literally the same birds because some of them are distinctive in one way or another and you can tell. It's astounding (and breathtaking! and exhilarating!) You spend most of the movie thinking, "How the hell could they possibly get that shot?" Did they have cameras attached to other little birdies? Did the flocks call ahead to some pond for reservations or something so the crew would know they were coming? This reaction will be universal---you can't see "Winged Migration" and NOT wonder how the hell they did it.

And yet...well, here's the deal. I'll lay it out for you up front. The movie is profoundly, even transcendentally, lame.

Here's the question I was asking myself when I came out of the theater: if I had that amazing footage, would it be possible for me to make a worse movie than those idiots did? And I honestly don't think I could. In fact, I'll go this far---if my cat Glob (our dimmest) could be given an opposable thumb and infused with the technical knowledge needed to edit film, lay down a music track and compose narration, and you gave him that footage, he would make a better movie than "Winged Migration."

At this point in my review, it is necessary (for reasons that will become apparent), to pause and inform you that I do not hate French people. Some people hate the French these days, but I do not. It is true they can be parochial and smug and arrogant, and they have many silly political ideas, but in my house, I still make french fries and call them french fries and I would drink a glass of French champagne if somebody gave me one and I still shave a truffle onto a plate of noodles when I'm feeling unusually sporty. I've been to France and I enjoyed myself, and I had no problems with the French people I have encountered. I mean, honestly, they don't spend ALL their spare time organizing national strikes and blowing up MacDonalds and trashing synagogues. When I was there, for the most part, it seemed the French were doing exactly what I was doing, which was sitting in cafes and drinking and smoking, or laying on a beach wondering if the chick three blankets away was about to take her top off. That's pretty much all they ever did, that I saw. That, and ride buses. They ride buses a lot.

I had to go into this, obviously, because "Winged Migration" is a French movie. It's a really, really, really French movie. Everybody who worked on it, every name in the credits, is French. All the ornithologists were French, all the cameramen were French, all the grips, all the sound people, all the assistants to everybody, all the caterers, all the porters, all the electricians---French, French, French, French, French. Even in the long list of Thank Yous, everyone who was thanked by name had a French name; non-French were thanked by title only. So they thanked "Jacques Bourbon, Third Undersecretary to the Second Assistant to the French Ambassador to Senegal" and then on the next line, they would thank "The Mayor of Boston." And the credits went on for weeks, of course, so after a while you sort of got the impression that EVERYBODY IN THE WORLD was named Guy or Monique or Pierre or Yvette or something, and if your name happened to be, for example, Michael, well then, there was almost certainly something seriously wrong with you.

But it went beyond that. (And here's the hard part, the part that's difficult to explain.) It's not that the movie was bad because it was French, it's that all the silly elements that went into making it a ridiculous movie were peculiarly French silly elements. It's as if they sat down and made a list entitled "All The Things We Could Put In The Movie To Make Others Think French People Are Dolts," and then they checked off the items one by one in the editing room. It occurred to me at one point that if the footage had been given to Monty Python, they might have made it this way as a sort of extended joke about the French.

Let's start with the music. Now remember, this is a nature movie, and nature is a struggle. The birds are flying thousands of miles to survive, and some of them get wounded and eaten by crabs, and some of them get stuck in storms, and some can't find food. I mean, migration is no picnic. So what kind of music do they stick in the middle of this majestic and beautiful life-and-death struggle? Well, one tune I remember was a kind of Moulin Rouge, smoky, barroom chanteuse-type song, sung with appropriate French languor by some chick who's obviously no better than even money to make it to the end of the song before she commits suicide. The other one that stuck in my head was a tinkly little cabaret number, sung by a languid guy this time, that played over a scene where this huge freaking walrus was about to chow down on half a dozen cute little penguins. The lyrics were in French, of course, and I couldn't understand them, so I found myself wondering what the hell this whining, sneering little twit could possibly be moaning about that might shed some light on the scene before me. Love? Betrayal? Walruses? Running out of cigarettes?

"Les Oiseaus"

I sit in my cafe without you.
Monique, you little birdie,
I am a big fat walrus.
I drink my vin rouge and think of you.
I need more Gauloises.
Your love is ice,
Like the ice I waddle across
To eat you and your penguin love
And drink more wine.
Anybody got a smoke?

---Music & Lyrics by Jean-Paul Tete-de-Merde
(translated by M. Kubacki)

No one on earth other than an extremely silly French person would score that movie with this music. I wouldn't do it, you wouldn't do it, even Glob wouldn't do it. I found myself waiting for the next bit of absurd music and stifling chuckles out of fear the blue-haired Audubon Society members in the audience (i.e., everyone) would beat me to death with their binoculars if I were to laugh out loud.

And then there was the narration, and the graphics. Now you might think that if you sat through a 98-minute movie about birds, migrating birds, a movie that contained nothing but birds, you would come out of there knowing a little something about birds, at least more than you knew when you walked in. You would be wrong about that. The only actual information they saw fit to impart to the audience were things you already knew or things you could not possibly care about.

The complete narration, for example, consisted of a French guy with a Pepe LePew accent butchering five or six English sentences, in one-sentence increments, every 18 minutes or so. Here’s an example. I'm watching a flock of geese and they're flying through a snowstorm, but they're flying, man, they're migrating, and nothing's gonna stop them, and they got snow on their heads and they're not real happy about it, and you can't help but root for the poor bastards---yeah, come on, geese, you can do it---and the guy says, "Sterms can be a beeg problem forrrr me-grrrating berrrrds." And that's it. That's all he says, until like twenty minutes later when you're watching some other birds that have just flown 300 miles over water and they finally find a patch of land where they can rest and eat some cockroaches, and Pepe returns to tell us, "Me-grrrating berrrds need food forrr theirrr journey," and then he has to go eat another plate of snails and drink a half-bottle of Bordeaux before he thinks of something else to say. Maybe it's some kind of French union thing where he gets paid overtime if he says two sentences at once and there are mandatory vacations built right into the movie.

And the guy really couldn't speak English. I mean, the titles and credits and graphics were in English, and they clearly went to some trouble to make their movie distributable in English-speaking places, and then they use Pepe for the five sentences of actual narration so you can only make out about twenty of the thirty words he says. How tough would it have been to grab some American tourist off the streets of Paris for five minutes? ("Hey, mon ami, you wanna be in the movies? Read this.")

The rest of the information was in the graphics, the silliest, dopey French element of all.

Each time they showed a new bunch of birds flying (and there were ten or twelve different species they followed), they would flash a sentence on the screen telling you how far this particular bird migrates. "The grey goose migrates 650 miles from Ethiopia to Barcelona" or "The banded grebe migrates 1250 miles from Guatemala to Wyoming." Then, with the next bunch: "The common greckle migrates 825 miles from Thailand to Western China." I'm making these up because I intentionally did not memorize the actual places and distances, suspecting (paranoia was now setting in) that when the movie ended there would be a bunch of French ornithologists in the lobby handing out papers and No. 2 pencils and giving us all a fun little quiz, or as they would call it, a "queeze," and I was goddamned if I was going to give them the satisfaction of having educated me.

There are two sorts of people in the world who consider this sort of information "knowledge." The first is six-year-old boys. If you give a six-year-old boy a book about bird migration, and he really gets interested in it, you are condemned to two weeks of bird migration conversations with that boy, all of which will follow the same general lines:

BOY: Do you know how many miles the common greckle migrates?
YOU: No. 1000 miles?
BOY: No. It's 825 miles. Do you know where the grey goose flies from and where it flies to? YOU: Not really, no.
BOY: It flies from Ethiopia and it flies 650 miles. Guess where it goes to.
YOU: Uh…Lambeau Field?
BOY: Nope. Wrong again. Barcelona. You don't know much about migrating birds, do you?

The only other people who view this sort of thing as "educational" are the French, with their tedious Encyclopedies on every possible arcane topic, and their wine appellations and chateaux rankings and Guide Michelins and nationally-televised grammar tests. For long car trips, I often take along the Larousse Gastronomique and read from it to the wife and child. "Oh, here's a good one," I'll say, "the 83 uses for lard! Or would you rather I read you the 26 distinct ways to prepare kidneys?" They think about this, debate it a bit. "No, Daddy," they decide eventually, "tell us all the ways to fatten a goose, just one more time. Please."

Viva la France!

Copyright 2003 Michael Kubacki