Film Review Of The Ends Of The Earth
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/21/13
American filmmaker John Grabowska has, in the last decade, become both the foremost nature documentarian of his country, and American public television’s natural yin to Ken and Ric Burn’s historical yang, in the field of documentary films. His list of excellence has been detailed in reviews of his prior works by my wife Jessica, and they include Sky Island, Ribbon Of Sand, Remembered Earth: New Mexico's High Desert, and the masterful Crown Of The Continent.
What makes Grabowska’s films so excellent- and to that list I can add his 2013 newest release, The Ends Of The Earth, is that they are not merely films of great visual power, but meditative, Thoreauvian explorations of self- both individual and specific (of our species), with a great emphasis placed on spare, but well wrought prose evocations that alternately complement the words and take off on tangents. The film is dedicated to the great 20th Century American naturalist and essayist Loren Eiseley (with parts of the film ‘inspired’ by essays from two of Eiseley’s best essay collections: The Unexpected Universe and The Immense Journey) and narrated by Pulitzer Prize winning author N. Scott Momaday, and is filled with memorable lines, such as, ‘part of ourselves unrealized in the momentary shape we inhabit.’
The Ends Of The Earth is a 56 minute long film festival version of a shorter film that will air this July on PBS stations across America, called Katmai: Alaska’s Wild Peninsula, and it follows the recent political and natural history of the western peninsula of Alaska that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Bering Sea, and is known, in Alaska, for its ‘notoriously miserable’ weather.
Early on, the film takes the first of two detours back in time, to look at vintage black and white silent film footage, with a 1912 National Geographic documentary film on an early 20th Century volcanic eruption on the peninsula, that left The Valley Of Ten Thousand Smokes. It’s an entertaining diversion that shows early attempts at documentary filmmaking, as well as capturing for posterity a fleeting moment of otherwise lost natural history, for, in the century since the eruption, the ten thousand smokes, or fumaroles, have long since cooled.
A return to the present follows the sockeye salmon runs up Alaskan rivers, and through the gauntlet of fishermen of Bristol Bay. The statistics of any individual salmon making it from birth to death in the same riverbeds are minuscule, yet enough make it back to die to help feed a healthy population of coastal brown bears, which are amongst the largest bears in the world, due to the plentiful protein the salmon being them- so much that salmon DNA ends up making the soil coast rich enough to give rise to a diverse and rich flora. The film then follows the fishing practices of the brown bears, and their sparring sessions. The moments captured range from the comic- sparrings that allow salmon to slip free of jaws, to the wrenching- bachelor males that kill young cubs that wander off from a protective mother.
After a brief segment on ‘the Glacier Priest,’ Jesuit Bernard Hubbard, and some extended shots and information on some of the majestic natural splendor that abounds, from volcano calderas to glaciers, we return to a black and white silent film interlude-this time on the volcanic eruption of Aniakchak, which resulted in a caldera that is at the center of a National Monument and preserve that is larger than Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks combined. Here, the peninsula’s famed miserable weather often turns quickly to marvelous, and we see clouds flowing over and down into the caldera, in a phenomenon known as Cloud Niagaras. From the caldera flows one of the world’s steepest rivers- the Aniakchak River, whose rapids drop over a thousand feet in its 15 mile descent to the Pacific Ocean. The film ends with some more wonderfully framed and composed shots of wolves and bears, against a setting sun.
The Ends Of The Earth is very interesting in its blend of the natural world and its interactions with the anthroposphere, as Grabowska dubs it. Aside from the excellent camera work by Grabowska (who wrote, produced and directed the film) and his team of cinematographers, Momaday’s sonorous, masculine, yet soothingly suprahuman voice is pitch perfect in tune and time with each image that flows into the eye, much as the clouds which Niagara into the caldera of Aniakchak. Todd Bockelheide’s soundtrack and scoring are also in touch with the sense of awe and fragility that Grabowska wants to display in this affecting yet articulate look into one of America’s overlooked wonderments.
In correspondence to me, Grabowska revealed his surprsie at the enthusiasm the film drew in selling out several screenings. An interview re: this film can be read here.
The Ends Of The Earth is hopefully not the end of Grabowska and his filmic study of wild America. As one who grew up watching Mutual Of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, featuring Marlin Perkins, and, later, Marty Stouffer’s Wild America, it is both satisfying and gratifying to see that Grabowska has not only picked up their legacies, but deepened and enriched it from mere documentary to genuine film and art, and great examples of both. As with Stouffer and the Brothers Burns, here’s hoping that PBS wisely decides to get behind Grabowska’s career, and that can best occur if people who regularly watch PBS tune in to catch this film, in its truncated version, or attend any screenings of the full length film at local film festivals. Tell them I sent you, and wink knowingly.
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