I can take a hint. Having grudgingly allowed me to exceed my allotted number of column-inches in last month’s paper, the editors of the Mainstreet threatened me with legal action if I ever did it again. I’m sure that with the passage of time they’ll return to being their usual forgiving selves, but meanwhile I’ve decided to err on the side of caution. How about a review of a 77-minute documentary on insects?
Hey, I’m serious. There’s a lot to be said about a really good 77-minute documentary on insects. A lot, but hopefully not over three columns’ worth. The film I’m talking about is Microcosmos: People of the Grass (1996). Aside from craven surrender to editorial authority, I also chose Microcosmos because it’s been a while since I looked at a good family film. People of the Grass earns a solid “G” rating despite occasional scenes of sex and violence. Morality is less of an issue when the sex involves the mating rituals of snails or ladybugs, and the violent offenders are spiders and pheasants. Besides, the main point of the film is to astonish us, not make us run screaming from the room the next time a daddy longlegs turns up on the sofa.
Microcosmos was truly a labor of love. The filmmakers, Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou, are biologists first and directors second. They worked under none of the time constraints felt by mainstream filmmakers. Their end product was the result of 15 years of research, including two years to design the new cameras and magnifying lenses which would allow them to go where no entomologist had gone before. Capturing the two dozen individual sequences used in Microcosmos took three years of shooting. It probably took James Cameron less time to explore the wreck of the Titanic than it did for the directors of Microcosmos to go eyeball to eyeball with that single larval mosquito that rises up out of the water, near the end of the film, like a harbinger of the Apocalypse.
At the time of their movie’s release, Pérennou and Nuridsany were rewarded with the Technical Grand Prize at the 1996 Cannes festival and the Best Cinematography César at France’s equivalent of the Academy Awards. This must have been a spectacular work to see on a full-size screen. Despite the splendid richness of the mammalian, reptilian, aviary and piscine orders, there’s nothing to quite match the utterly inexhaustible alienness of the insect world. There are 8600 species of birds, and over 140,000 species of butterflies. There are nearly as many species of cockroaches as there are of mammals. Insects outnumber humans by a factor of twelve million to one; they’ve been on this planet 185 times longer than we have. One of the most fascinating museums in the world has to be the Insectarium in Montreal’s Jardin Botanique. Every color scheme, every abstract or expressionistic design, every shade of iridescence or luminescence, every symmetry of grace or convolution of grotesqueness, every evolutionary instrument of motion, sensation, or death is on display.
In Microcosmos, a single rhinoceros beetle lumbers across the miniaturized landscape like a resurrected Triceratops. As one reviewer commented, “It’s Jurassic Park in your own back yard.” There’s enough inspiration here for a thousand science fiction, fantasy, and horror films.
Microcosmos opens with a live-action version of that great NFB short “Zoom,” which in about five minutes took the viewer from the vantage point of a boy sitting in a boat on a lake out to the furthest reaches of the universe, and then back down the proboscis of a mosquito feeding on the boy’s arm and into the subcellular universe. Microcosmos inhabits the mosquito’s world, where the mere surface tension of water becomes as tangible as a trampoline. A diving spider manipulates air bubbles the way a chef tosses pizzas. Raindrops geyser into fluid sculptures which were almost certainly the inspiration for the high-tech morphing animations in Terminator 2 and The Abyss. My favorite moment is the one where a giant raindrop strikes a blade of grass and launches a ladybug into a freefalling back somersault.
Pérennou and Nuridsany’s picture is a feast for the ears as well as for the eyes. Laurent Quaglio deserves kudos for his création sonore, an audio landscape which captures the multitudinous natural sounds filling this miniature world. It’s the best audioscape I’ve heard since the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink.
There is one thing which Microcosmos does not have. A narrator. If you’re watching this with your children and one of them asks what’s going on, you’re on your own. If it’s any consolation, I would suspect that in some instances entomologists themselves don’t have a clue. How long did it take Karl von Frisch to figure out how bees identified distance sources of nectar? Do stag beetles really fight, or is this the insect equivalent of the WWF? Are snail mating rituals as sensuous as they look? Why do processional caterpillars march in single file? Did the dung beetle who rolled his ball of dung onto a thorn get it off by accident or intention? Does an aphid farm run by ants operate much differently from the Douglas Lake Cattle Company? And what the heck are those two ants doing with the drop of water between their interlaced mandibles?
These kinds of in-your-face wonders have always inspired those who favour Creationism over evolution. Explain this! they cry, and point to the Orphyrus Orchid which guarantees its propagation by looking so much like a specific species of bee that bees of that species try to mate with it. Secular or divine, Microcosmos reaffirms the miracle we all inhabit when we open our senses wide enough. Evolutionary biologist JBS Haldane, asked what he thought our world taught us about the nature of its Creator, replied succinctly, “An inordinate fondness for beetles.”
The Arts have not been kind to insects. In literature, we have Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Karl Capek’s The World We Live In: The Insect Play. Bugs generally turn up in horror flics as giant mutants devouring hapless humans. Even The Hellstrom Chronicle, that distinguished cinematic forebear of Microcosmos, had an irreverently paranoid narrative line which condemned humanity to ultimate servitude or extinction at insect, um, “hands.” Perhaps this reflects our unconscious awareness that bees and wasps kill more people each year than all large “man-eating” predators combined. People of the Grass is a welcome, loving effort to redress the balance. Get out your magnifying glasses & microscopes. And let’s hope for an encore.
(P.S. Thanks to David Day for the excellent chapter on insects in his book The Eco Wars: True Tales of Environmental Madness. For those you who still relish insectile paranoia, stick Guillermo del Toro’s Mimic in your DVD player after the kids have gone to bed: giant mutant insects devouring hapless humans in the New York subway system. Cool.)
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
Mind-bending macrophotography. Superbly sensual soundscape. No more words needed. Watch & Regale. No greater miracle than these. Check out the “cast list” at the end.
Composer Bruno Coulais currently has an impressive198 credits on Imdb, and a career which has now spanned more than four decades.
This was cinematographer Thierry Machado’s first film. He has made only eight films in the years since.
This was also directors Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou’s first film, with only three later films for Nuridsany and two for Pérennou.
Given the subject matter of Microcosmos, I can’t resist the opportunity to throw in another plug for one of my all-time favorite museums: Montreal’s Insectarium. I used to visit it yearly on field trips with students, and my faith in the unending marvels of the natural world was renewed with each visit. Imagine walking into a place that had the greatest work of the film industry’s best costume designers and special effects artists, except in miniature. That’s the Insectarium. The building has recently been radically redesigned, and I can’t wait to see it after its metamorphosis. The original, incredible collection was largely the result of one entomophile, Georges Brossard, whose global quest for specimens makes Indiana Jones look like a slacker. Brossard donated 250,000 insect specimens to the city of Montreal in the 1980s, with the proviso that a building be created to house them for public display. Brossard died in 2019, at age 79. Unfortunately, I believe both Brossard’s autobiography and biography are available only in French. A Canadian Encyclopedia article on Brossard & the Insectarium will be found here: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/the-montreal-insectarium