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Posts Tagged ‘Lawrence Pressman’

As anyone who’s dug through the archives of the blog will know, a lot of my earliest reviews were written for the online newspaper of a very early social media/open-source collaborative encyclopedia website, and I still do a piece for them every week. Usually this is a topical review, which has obviously been tricky for the last couple of months, but at least this frees me up somewhat to contribute to the themed issues the paper occasionally runs. They recently did an ornithological number, which I treated with due respect by submitting an update of my 2012 review of The Giant Claw, and I have just been informed they’re following this up with a bug-themed issue, and would appreciate something appropriate.

Well, as you know, if I have a genuine passion in my life, it is science fiction, and there does seem to be an implicit link between insects on film and the SF genre. You can start the line with Them!, and then trace a path through the years, taking in such treats as Tarantula! (not actually about an insect, of course, but as we shall see taxonomic precision is not the strong suit of arthropod-related cinema), The Deadly Mantis, The Fly and its sequels,  and so on, down through Phase IV and on to the present day (personally I’ve always felt that Aliens in particular owes a huge debt to Them!). This doesn’t even touch on the Japanese contribution to the tradition – how can one not mention Mothra? (There are also the giant caterpillars which appear in Rodan and, much later, Godzilla Vs Megaguirus.) It’s actually a lot harder to think of insect-related movies which aren’t SF – the only ones I can think of are The Naked Jungle and The Swarm, in which Charlton Heston and Michael Caine contend with large numbers of our exoskeletal friends.

Still, the sheer number of bug movies in the SF-horror vein suggests there has always been money to be made here. This may explain the nature (no pun intended) of the distinctly odd movie The Hellstrom Chronicle, made in 1971 and directed by Ed Spiegel and Walon Green. The Hellstrom Chronicle was advertised in the style of those SF-horror projects, on the strength of its various baleful pronouncements on the future of the human race, which seems to me to be rather disingenous considering it is actually a wildlife documentary (albeit one including brief clips from Them! and The Naked Jungle). Nevertheless, the film was a financial success and won an Oscar and a BAFTA, so it clearly didn’t do anyone any harm.

After some striking opening footage representing the formation of the Earth and the origins of life itself, and then some nice footage of carnivorous plants doing their thing, we meet the radical scientist Dr Nils Hellstrom himself. Hellstrom has a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy), an MS (Master of Science), and is WF (wholly fictitious). He is played by Lawrence Pressman, who basically hosts and narrates the entire movie. Hellstrom is, by his own admission, a fanatic, a heretic, and a lunatic, and has fallen out of favour with the scientific establishment due to his his unpopular Big Idea: this is that, in the ongoing struggle between the human race and the insect world, there can only be one victor, and it’s not going to be the big soft pink fleshy things.

The rest of the movie is basically Hellstrom trying to convince the audience that we’re all doomed, and supporting his argument with various pieces of state-of-the-art footage of insects in their everyday lives. We are treated to segments showing battles between red and black harvester ants, more ants attacking a termite colony, the curious sex lives of spiders, a startling sequence showing what it’s like to be inside a plane flying through a locust swarm, driver ants on the march, and so on.

The photography still looks good even nearly fifty years on, with many striking images; no doubt it seemed even more impressive back in the early seventies. It is quite fascinating and absorbing, even before one considers the contributions made by Hellstrom himself. These add a lot to the tone of the movie and the impression it leaves, but viewed objectively they are frankly a bit of a mixed bag. Hellstrom’s thesis was apparently synthesised from the work of a range of contemporary entomologists, approved by two advisors from the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, and then turned into a script by David Seltzer (later to have a decent career as a writer-director, most notably as scriptwriter of both versions of The Omen). I’m guessing the advisors didn’t get a look at the final script, or if they did their notes were ignored.

There are some interesting philosophical ideas here: insects have no capacity for intelligence or abstract reasoning, but – argues Hellstrom – this also means they are incapable of stupidity or irrationality. Their lack of individuality likewise gives them a competitive advantage. (And so on: there are some ecological ideas here too.) But on the other hand, you can imagine the advisors seething every time Hellstrom refers to the entire class of insects (eight million species, more or less) as a single creature, analogous to humans (one species – extant, anyway).

In the end, though, one kind of gets the impression that Dr Hellstrom and his theories are basically here to provide a bit of colour and atmosphere to link together bits of (very impressive) footage showing insects and their cousins up close. And this they do successfully. I suppose it’s always a question of how you find an audience for this kind of film, which isn’t typical cinema fare – twenty-five years later, a European movie called Microcosmos was released, which took a much more lyrical-pastoral approach to the same sort of material, largely eschewed narration, and once again did very well for itself.

The Hellstrom Chronicle turned out to have a curious afterlife as well – apart from winning various big documentary awards, it also inspired an actual SF novel by Frank Herbert: Hellstrom’s Hive, portraying a human society run along the same lines as a nest of social insects and its conflict with ‘wild’ humanity. Perhaps more significant, though, is the way the film presents wildlife footage with a strong element of narrative, including the use of incidental music to heighten the drama and impact of what is being shown. I’ve no idea if this was an innovation of the film, or something which was widespread in nature films at the time. Certainly, The Hellstrom Chronicle does this well, and the technique has become ubiquitous in wildlife documentary series today: one of the reasons I’ve more or less stopped watching this sort of programme is that any kind of scientific or educational underpinning has been dropped in favour of simple spectacle, very often sentimental. But it would be excessively harsh to hold The Hellstrom Chronicle responsible for this. This is obviously quite an odd movie, and in some ways it feels quite dated now, but the quality of the microphotography and Pressman’s well-pitched performance keep it engaging even today.

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