Takoyaki Mon Amore
Lots of positive press in the media this week about Sir David Attenborough's latest film, which – obviously – is the perfect way of starting a review of something completely different. Well, mostly different. The wildlife documentary genre has diversified a bit in recent years.
One of the most vivid TV memories of my youth was watching Attenborough's Life on Earth in 1979, the show which really began his ascension to the position of global icon which he now occupies. This was not inevitable, however: the American networks which helped to fund that first series were a bit uneasy about the fact it was fronted by a then-obscure British TV executive and suggested that, for the US transmission, Attenborough's on-screen appearances be cut back to an absolute minimum and his inimitable voice-over be replaced by those of someone more familiar to the good people of Boise, Idaho – Robert Redford, maybe? Attenborough checked the contract and refused. Nevertheless, the influence of the US backers on the blockbuster series persists, and has – if you ask me – become rather more pernicious.
The first few big Attenborough series had all the big images and breath-taking photography you would expect – but coupled to this you actually learned something, about ecology, animal behaviour, deep time and how evolution functions. The world being as it is, you won't hear much talk about evolution in the new, blockbuster shows. Lots of beautiful images, stirring music, and powerful narratives about animal lives – but actual science? Not so much of that. The emotional response has supplanted the intellectual.
It's a trend fully on display in Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed's documentary My Octopus Teacher, available on that big old market-leader streaming site. Now, you might just possibly be drawn in to watching this film by the thought that it is about some wealthy eccentric who hires another person to teach his collection of cephalopods something. (Is this the time or place to get into that knotty 'what is the correct plural for octopus?' question? Apparently, it's octopuses, but I'm not expecting it to come up that much.) There's actually some potential there – another good title gone to waste. Or it could be about someone who is educated by an octopus, which likewise invites the potential viewer to engage in some productive speculation.
Well, it turns out to be the latter, sort of, but I do suspect most people will conclude the title of the film is a bit of a chiz. It concerns the activities of one Craig Foster (apparently some sort of documentary film-maker, m'lud, and also the producer of this film), who seems like an intelligent and intense fellow, though perhaps not a man one would wish to be trapped in a lift with. The story as the film tells it – and the only voice you will hear throughout the film is Foster's – is that Foster was having some kind of existential crisis, many years ago, when he decided to start swimming every day in a kelp forest off the coast of South Africa. It was during his daily briny sojourn that he first made the acquaintance of, um, a little octopus. (At the time of writing this film's Wikipedia page lists the cast as 'Craig Foster' and 'Little Octopus'.)
Foster says he was gripped by a sudden idea: what if he spent time every day swimming with Little Octopus and really got to know her and the kelp forest? Which is what he obviously did, as it's the topic of the film. The documentary goes on to recount the growing bond between Foster and Little Octopus, their increasing fascination with each other, Foster's grief and trauma when Little Octopus is partially-eaten by a pyjama shark (not as cute as it sounds), his joy at her recovery, and his gradual acceptance that the two of them are just not destined to be together. (I think there's scope here for a companion piece – maybe The Man with the Octopus Teacher's Wife – in which Mrs Foster's feelings about her husband's activities are made clear.)
At least, that's what we're told. Recently, though, the issue of just how extensively the narrative of this sort of documentary film has been massaged has become a live one, and it seems to me that there's something fishy about this octopus. The whole thing is framed as Foster looking back on his time with Little Octopus and her impact on his life – and vice versa, I suppose – and yet it is accompanied by suspiciously high-quality footage of the events he's talking about. Was he filming it all at the time? If so, who's doing all the second-unit stuff showing him swimming around? Are we actually seeing reconstructions of what happened, using a different octopus? Does the octopus know it's just participating in a reconstruction?
Frankly, it all comes across as a bit one-sided, too, and would be greatly improved by some input from Little Octopus herself, giving her side of the story. 'I was just overwhelmed by my feelings for her,' confesses Foster at one point. Was this a reciprocal situation, or was he just the latest in a long line of men to have their heads turned by a much younger and impressively flexible female? Sadly the technology is not there yet for Little Octopus to make a proper contribution concerning how she felt about this whole situation.
(One of the odder things I've been involved in recently was a protracted and slightly combative discussion over the philosophical issues involved in translating communications between human beings and intelligent cephalopods – we weren't even talking about that film in which Amy Adams teaches alien squid to speak English rather badly – particularly when it comes to proper nouns. But it has been that sort of year overall, I suppose.)
In short, I found the whole thing to be rather suspect simply on a conceptual level, but then it's pretty clear that the film is not intended to be especially rigorous when it comes to objective fact. The nature of cephalopod cognition and the possible inner lives of octopuses is a fascinating topic, on which books have been written, but it's one which is barely touched on here – although Foster does mention that one of the differences between Little Octopus and him is that her brain is largely distributed throughout her body – this film is only really educational in a 'look at these wonders of nature!' sort of way. The real focus of the thing is on Foster talking about Little Octopus in a brazenly anthropomorphic way, often accompanied by stirring violin or piano music. As previously mentioned, the whole film is intended to work on a sentimental rather than an intellectual level.
If you were to design a documentary intended to leave me cold, I think you would find it hard to do a better job than My Octopus Teacher – although I must confess to deriving a sort of pleasure from shouting at the screen, which I did on a regular basis throughout. The camerawork and images of the sea life in the kelp forest are, needless to say, very beautiful to look at – but most of the rest of it is borderline irritating. It might actually be a bit less annoying if they released an alternative version with all of Craig Foster's pieces to camera edited out, along with his voice-over. It would be nice to look at and still emotionally fairly stirring, I expect, and the most egregiously questionable bits would be excised, so I think that might be a great improvement for everyone.