Fade in. Day. The Attenborough home in Leicester, circa 1935. Two young Attenborough boys, Richard, about 12, and David, about 9, are playing on the floor while a neighborhood man watches them.
Neighbor: Well, boys, have you thought about what you want to do when you grow up? Play sports? Drive race cars? Dickie, how about you--football?
Richard: Oh, no, I want to act and one day make a film about Gandhi.
The Man stares in stunned discomfort and turns hopefully to David with an inquiring glance.
David: And I want to go to New Guinea and be the first person to film the Birds of Paradise.
The Man flops back in his chair, flustered, and pulls a handkerchief from his pocket, which he repeatedly dabbles across his sweating forehead.
This imagined opening scene from an epic probably never coming to a Cineplex near you is only slightly fanciful--Sir David Attenborough himself admits as much in the opening documentary of this excellent 2 DVD compendium of various specials he's hosted over the past decades. After seeing illustrations of the Birds of Paradise in a book he was given as a child, he made it his life's goal to get to the forests of New Guinea and see the rare Birds of Paradise firsthand. Attenborough in Paradise then takes us on a whirlwind tour of various aviary delights, including many species of Bird of Paradise whose fabulous plumage must be seen to be believed, and whose mating rituals had never before been filmed. The documentary also includes some rare late-50s footage of Attenborough's first attempts to film the elusive birds.
A Blank on the Map stays in New Guinea as Attenborough attempts to track down a lost tribe in a remote central New Guinea mountain region. At the time the documentary was made, New Guinea, incredibly, was still being mapped, with frequent flyovers of its vast central region. One such flyover had spotted what appeared to be shacks and gardens in an area previously thought to be uninhabited. Attenborough joins up with the expedition sent into this densely forested area in an attempt to make contact with these people who had never seen a European before. Suffice it to say, contact is indeed made, and there's some unexpected hilarity in watching Attenborough attempt to "converse" with the tribesmen. Not unexpectedly, there's really no introspective examination beyond Attenborough's brief closing comments of what this meeting might mean, both psychologically and culturally, for these previously "pure" people.
The Lost Gods of Easter Island begins with some arresting images of a strange carving that Attenborough had won at an auction, a carving supposedly from Easter Island. The strange fish-eyed totem leads Attenborough on a quest to uncover the links between the famous mammoth stone heads of the Island and the lesser known carvings. Featuring an excellent history of the island, with some beautiful images of the statues, the documentary ultimately focuses in on its true subject matter--the Gods of the Eastern Islanders, which are represented in both the statuary and the carvings. Attenborough actually ends up spanning much of the globe in his attempts to find out more about the mythologies and rituals of the Island insofar as they're revealed in the various works of art, so the documentary becomes a wonderful travelogue as well. There's also a moral for clear-cutters everywhere about what rampant deforestation can mean for a society.
Bowerbirds: The Art of Seduction finds Attenborough in Australia, watching, not surprisingly, Bowerbirds, avian creatures who, on the male side, build bowers (large collections of bones, shells, and other interesting items) that help them attract the opposite sex. The documentary then begins a survey of various techniques used by males in both the bird and human families (including clever interpolations of Keith Michell dandying himself up in The Six Wives of Henry VIII) to attract mates. Some bird species rely on their beautiful plumage, others, like the Bowerbirds, make special collections of objects that they hope will help them woo a lover. Attenborough also visits his frequent haunt New Guinea to see another variety of Bowerbird, whose building prowess is truly extraordinary.
The Song of the Earth is a standout in this set, as it explores the natural history of music. Attenborough proves himself a more than adequate pianist in the opening and then teases us with his hopes to make a connection between the sounds of the humpback whales and the guitar of Jimi Hendrix. In the wild arena, Attenborough focuses on everything from high frequencies (bats) to low (elephants) and just about everything in between. To Attenborough's credit, he doesn't simply stop with a catalogue of various sounds produced by animals (and humans), he asks the deceptively simple sounding (yet actually quite profound) question: why? Why do so many species make "music," as opposed to sounds meant to "converse"? As with any decent cultural anthropologist or naturalist, Attenborough seeks some common ground between disparate styles and lands, and if he ultimately doesn't find any, the attempt is full of literally beautiful music. But he does, somewhat unbelievably, find a connection between whales' and Jimi's music-making propensities.
Attenborough himself is the subject of the fascinating and heartfelt Life on Air which recounts his amazing life and accomplishments in some detail. As fans of Monty Python may remember (Michael Palin as an Attenborough-esque naturalist surrounded by saxophone-laden tribesmen), Attenborough's impact on British society has often been the grist for parody, but the man himself seems to enjoy being the butt of jokes as much as anyone, a good sign that he is largely egoless. Palin himself interviews Attenborough for the piece, and elicits some fond reminiscences from his subject. Covering both the personal and professional sides of this august individual, Life on Air is actually a great introduction to start with on this set if you're not previously aware of Attenborough's contributions both to natural history in general and the art of the television nature documentary in particular.
The Amber Time Machine, though it's teased as a kind of Jurassic Park expose (probably to exploit the connection between the two Attenborough boys), is actually a more narrowly focused piece on amber itself--how its origin stumped people for ages and how it manages to preserve ancient specimens literally stopped dead in their tracks. Again starting with a childhood fascination, Attenborough's lifelong fascination with the subject is evident as he explores a piece given to him as a child which holds several secrets.
Overview: No single person has contributed more to the nature documentary than Attenborough, and this 7 special, 2 DVD set is an unparalleled way to experience the man's sometimes overwhelming expertise.