In David Attenborough's latest BBC nature series Life Story, the animals play very human roles
For years now the BBC has been less a public broadcaster than a continual seething crisis masquerading as a state institution. Its programming is at turns crass, crap, and cretinous. Its news reportage is propaganda. Its executives are paid vast sums for doing very little, while its cherished stars have one by one been unmasked as rapists and paedophiles. Its funding structure, a television license fee enforced by TV-detecting radar vans that don’t really exist, is strange and stupid and out of date. It can’t be long before the whole thing is chucked onto the slagheap of cherished British traditions earmarked for privatization, along with our green and pleasant fields, our quaint racist pubs, and what will surely soon become the ArcelorMittal Semi-Finished Steel Products Royal Family. In the meantime, the Beeb has done the only thing it can still do: Make a sumptuous, sweeping nature documentary depicting the grand cycle of all life on the planet, presented by Sir David Attenborough, reluctant national treasure and possibly the only person involved with the BBC in the 1970s who’s managed to avoid molesting anyone.
Writing about David Attenborough is hard, because in a lot of ways he was my childhood. I grew up thundering across the African steppes and soaring from pole to pole on albatross wings, with occasional, dull, ugly interludes in which I went to school or ate my dinner in a nondescript tract of north London. Every Sunday evening on the BBC there’d be another incredible voyage through the animal world, always accompanied by David Attenborough’s glorious voice, the voice of the best granddad you never had, comforting, funny, heartfelt, and infinitely kind.
It didn’t really matter that very little of it was, strictly speaking, true. Go watch pigeons in the park: Left to their own devices animals will generally tend to do very little. A nature documentary always has to impose some kind of narrative, pluck out some interesting cinematic moments from the flat monotony of mere life. We see a tiger chase down an antelope, and a tiger fending off vultures from her kill, and a tiger trying to protect her cubs from amorous males; we’re told these are all the same tiger, and that these events all happened in the order they’re shown. We believe it, because we don’t want to ruin the story. Depending on the protagonist, we might cheer for predators or prey, lovable loser males or strong independent females. There’s nothing inherently wrong with theater, but in Sir David’s latest, Life Story, it turns into something far more sinister.
Despite appearances, Life Story isn’t really a nature documentary, and it isn’t really about wild animals. It’s about filmic images themselves. Any pretence of documentary style is abandoned; instead we’re given a six-episode mélange of cinematic and televisual conventions. Each episode examines one stage in any creature’s life – birth, adolescence, courtship, parenthood, and so on – through a number of different stories, some as standalone segments, some breaking at a moment of climax or suspense and recommencing later. Will our baby meerkat fend off a bloodthirsty snake? Can the hunting dogs move their litter to safety in time? Stay tuned to find out.
A waved albatross, faithful for life, sits on a stony crag. As his big sad black eyes scan the iron-grey seas he hops about pathetically, waiting for his mate to return, hoping she’s survived the winter. Even in the southern sunshine, bleak whites and greys dominate. But what we’re really seeing is the hero of a 1950s romance, sitting in an old train station full of noise and smoke, anxiously ruffling his newspaper and filling his pipe. A whistle: It’s the 5:42 from Ealing, from which his lover may or may not alight. Has she made her decision? But there she is. When the pair are reunited the music swells and the returning beloved dances towards him with a sinuous twist of the neck. The birds knock their beaks against each other: it’s the kiss, that postwar movie kiss, his elbow behind her neck, their lips locked tight but never moving.
Elsewhere in the same episode, fur seals duke it out for beach space off Antarctica. It’s all tracking shots, slow motion, flying droplets of seawater and blood. Our heroic young challenger speeds across the pebbles, fangs drawn, to do battle with a dominant male. Jason Statham bursts into a Russian mafia boss’s hideout, a den of tacky gilding and fizzing champagne, in a fury of machine-gun fire. As the blood pops in gleaming splatters, we cut to the fat crime lord’s supermodel harem, shock splashed across their round furry faces. Honey ant queens in Arizona act out a political thriller set in the long cloistered halls of Moscow, Washington, and Vienna. A bald eagle scavenging for the last salmon in the stream becomes a dorky high school girl who just can’t catch a break. Hummingbirds buzz about in a manic stoner comedy, duelling grouse pay feather-flapping homage to Rocky Balboa, and a perfectly ordinary turtle mom will do perfectly extraordinary things in an inspiring story of love, courage, and determination.
Closeup, no context. High-definition figure against blurry, inconsequential ground. It all looks fantastic, every quivering hair and snuffling nostril shown in mesmerizing detail. It also looks fake. Previous documentary series at least tried to pretend that the stories they depicted had actually happened somewhere in the unknown wild; here they don’t even bother. A newly hatched mantid crawls over flat waxy leaves in a hungry jungle, dodging spiders and raindrops and its own cannibal siblings. It’s pure style, the focal depth so paper-thin that there’s no way to pretend the jungle isn’t actually a few potted plants in a studio somewhere near Bristol. There’s no sense that these creatures live in any sort of ecological network. Instead there are little personal stories, as hermetically sealed as Aesop’s fables. And everywhere, there’s an obscene focus on the face. Spider-faces, iridescent, worried. Octopus-faces with throbbing bulges and weird gelatinous tubes, old and scheming. A sad tiger-face with one mutilated eye. Any shot of bodies in motion must be cut with faces, the music and the narrative conspiring to flood the animal eyes with some kind of appropriate emotion. It’s an attempt to humanize them, to collapse them into a list of Hollywood clichés. It doesn’t work. The animals fight back.
Terrible things have been done to the animals: most of them are wiped out and gone for good; some are slaughtered by the millions, mulched up and turned into nuggets; a few still sulk in the dark old woods and the deep old oceans, hunger-crazed and desperate. We’ve also turned them into metaphors. Children are taught: the fox is cunning, if a person is cunning she’s like a fox; the weasel is cowardly, if a person is cowardly he’s like a weasel. But if you look long enough at the face of a wild animal it all falls apart. Whatever wild animals are, they are not like humans. They don’t think like we do, or feel, or fuck. We might talk about instinct in an animal, sexual desire, social ambition, parental bond, but we have no idea what the experience of any of this could actually be like for a chimpanzee, let alone a spider. Animals are weird and brutal, and the face of a wild animal has a distant and inconceivable seriousness, something that a mere human could fall into forever without ever hitting the ground.
In contemporary continental philosophy, there have been two major theories of the animal’s face. For Derrida, following Levinas, the animal face in its vulnerability speaks to an absolute ethical duty toward the other. More interesting is the model proposed by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus. The face, they point out, is historically contingent. It’s an abstract pattern coded onto the contours of the head, an arrangement of black holes on a white wall. “The face,” they write, “is produced only when the head ceases to be part of the body, when it ceases to be coded by the body, when it ceases to have a multidimensional, polyvocal corporeal code.” Faces don’t just appear in closeup; the closeup is a part of facialization. Flat and abstract, invading the terrain of the living being, the face is never human, never even animal, a strange and inorganic malignancy.
Given all the relentless facialization at work in Life Story, it’s strange that the series has cannibalized so little from the great tradition of horror cinema. Only one sequence comes close: a peacock jumping spider rooting around in the dark undergrowth to find a mate who will kill him once she’s done, and even that is spoiled by a lot of silly accordion music. It wouldn’t be hard to do: David Attenborough’s 2001 series The Blue Planet is full of nods to the genre, especially in the deep sea episode. In these black alien depths full of life beyond reason, strange xenomorphs mercilessly kill and eat anything they encounter. An ocean of dark sounds: background atonal throb, harsh electronic pings of blinking bioluminescence, frenzied strings as some fishy abomination lunges for the kill. There’s plenty more weirdness up here on the surface, but Life Story is incapable of doing it justice.
The story in Life Story goes like this: Life is a quest, and the goal is to live long enough to pass on your genes to the next generation. Life is full of threats and perils, but it’s a game that can be won, by making more life – more threats, more perils. More than that, the whole thing is essentially good and essentially wholesome. When real events in nature contradict his fuzzy ideology, Attenborough doesn’t sound so much shocked as disappointed. In 2006’s Planet Earth he shows us a tribe of chimpanzees raiding another group’s territory. They catch an infant enemy and bludgeon it to death. Then, placidly looking out from those wise brown eyes, gently hooting from mouths that are so nearly human, the victors tear their victim to shreds and eat him. “Killing a competitor makes sense if you want to protect your food supply,” Sir David says, “but exactly why they cannibalise the dead chimp is not fully understood. It may simply be a chance for some extra protein.”
Georges Bataille could have told him why the chimps eat their victims. In Eroticism he writes that “[animal] life is a swelling tumult continually on the verge of explosion. A more extravagant procedure cannot be imagined… The wish to produce at cut prices is niggardly and human.” Chimpanzee cannibalism is an expression of nature in all its mad, glorious, senseless excess. Animals are not machines that calculate their protein intake against their chances of breeding. There’s horror in nature, but none is quite so intricately grotesque as turning all this grand insanity into a pleasant little story, one where cutesy music plays and the narrator cracks little jokes.