DVD Review Of Crown of the Continent

Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 9/23/09


  There are a variety of ways one can approach a nature documentary. There are those that serve to be more informative and functionary in their relaying of information, as they document the differences and similarities among our planet in a learned and insightful way, and then there are the more artful documentaries that serve to transport one to a specific place to witness a time that everyday eyes would not otherwise earn the chance to witness.

  Although these approaches are not mutually opposing, for as the famous The Living Planet, hosted by Sir David Attenborough, and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos indicate, science and nature documentaries can fuse both facts and photography to make art both in the visual and narrative sense.

  Crown of the Continent is a half hour documentary I remember seeing on PBS a number of years ago, and I always remembered it. Created by filmmaker John Grabowska, Crown of the Continent explores Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, in Alaska, and includes stunning, artful photography, along with a great voice over narration (both in writing and in actual voice) that corresponds with the visuals at hand. The film is a visual essay more than anything else, as the narrator takes us back to his “place of his boyhood dreams,” evoking the writing of Jack London and the philosophies of Dick Proenneke. 

  In fact, if there were one nature documentary you should watch, this would be the one. There are landscape shots that are so stunning for example, that they rival anything done by Werner Herzog, Terrence Malick or Michelangelo Antonioni. So in other words, the mere “stunning” quality of the visuals is not only dependent on the landscape itself, which anyone can “seemingly” do, but also Grabowska’s (and photographer Steve Ruth’s) skillful eyes. The visuals, coupled with the musical score by Todd Boekelheide, make this film a memorable, poignant and poetic experience.

  Wrangell-St. Elias National Park carries the continent’s largest glaciers and offers a spectacular step back into time. In one scene, for example, global warming is evoked by the mere solitary drips that quickly begin to cascade off a melting glacier—and in contrast to that, is the image of large glacial pieces breaking off the sides of mountains and then tumbling into the sea. Then we are shown the quiet drips again, followed by the loud, plummet of glaciers. The very fact that this is done via way of images rather than being functionally told what is happening (and why) is akin to reading a metaphor in a poem, leaving viewers with implication and reflection, rather than didacticism.

  The DVD itself contains two documentaries, a second one on the Kennecott Mill in Alaska, which details the story of how the mill worked to produce copper from that of the Alaskan Wilderness during the early part of the Twentieth Century. Although the second film is only eighteen minutes long, it relays the facts, but does so in a more instructional, rather than artful way. In fact, having this second documentary on the disk only aids in making Crown of the Continent appear even better by comparison, for it is not that Kennecott Mill is a bad documentary, it just has the unfortunate experience of following one that is a masterpiece and thus it pales in comparison.

  Crown of the Continent is produced by the National Park Service, and many PBS stations regularly run the program for free. I highly recommend anyone interested to seek out this stunning work of visual art, this step back into childhood memory, wonder, nature’s indifference and dream. Understanding, as the film notes, not just the parts of life, but the sum.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Examiner.com website.]


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