Sometimes just graphically engaging is plenty

Some years ago, while exploring caves in the southern Thai province of Trang, I came across stalagmites that grew on larger stalagmites like thick boar’s bristles, extending this way and that with apparent disregard for gravity, as though maybe seeking the exit. Try as I might, I couldn’t figure out how these things had formed.

Back in my hotel that evening, parked in front of the TV, I’m gazing in wonder, caveman-wise, at the moving picures. (I didn’t have a TV at home, so this was kind of a treat.) A Discovery Channel special has me whipping around the world viewing images of all manner of exotic things. Then—what strange cosmic symmetry—there are my my pig’s-bristle stalagmites.

Whoa! What have we here? The voice-over has just said these are “eccentrics.” Suddenly I find myself groping for a pause button. (I did watch videos at home.) That’s great! I’m thinking. And? And? But that’s it. We’re already speeding on to some bit of marine life in the Caribbean or a frozen furry mammal in Siberia, or maybe it was a giant quartz crystal in Armenia.

I can’t believe it. This really pisses me right off. What’s the point of showing me such interesting stuff, if I’m going to be left ignorant of how it got that way, and why, and everything? (This was in pre-Google days, so getting more information could be a chore. Now it takes just a minute or two to discover these things are known as helictites, and only a few more to learn all kinds of fascinating stuff about them.)

This is all by way of leading up to impressions of the documentary I saw last night here in Bangkok, just 100 baht at the Lido.

Judging by a quick tour of Rotten Tomatoes reviews, the critical consensus tended to find the film visually splendid but superficial—an 84-minute movie version of that Discovery Channel approach. Graphically engaging, but intellectually frustrating, the film stimulates plenty of wonder and curiosity, and then insults its audience by providing nothing beyond images. So is this a documentary for our age, four years in the making and technically brilliant only to serve as pablum for iPad enthusiasts on the go? (Hey, as a Kindle user I thought I should get a wee jab in there.) In fact, I want to offer a dissenting view. Maybe it was because we saw the French version (poor old Pierce Brosnan, the voice in the English one, took much flack for the fatuousness of his comments, though I rather doubt he did the English scripting). I enjoyed it, and a bunch of facts might have just got in the way of my appreciation of all the magnificence and variety and mystery. There’s something to be said for simple, pre-verbal apprehension of experience. Or something. Though the kid with the narrator did look as though he’d been drugged, or maybe just as though he really, really wished they were already at Le McDonald’s, the way he’d been promised. Merde.

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