November 16, 2009
Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ****
What a little gem is Proteus, which brings together a profusion of seeming opposites -- science and art, history and fantasy, Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner and the 1872 voyage of HMS Challenger-- that in reality work in tandem toward the betterment of our globe.
Writer/director David Lebrun's model documentary from 2004 (but only released to DVD in the past year) leaps off from the story of one of the world's more unsung heroes: the 19th Century German
scientist/artist Ernst Haeckel, who discovered, described, named and sometimes even painted thousands of new
species, particularly those called radiolarian, which this film captures in image and art in a staggeringly beautiful way. Here, as with the discovery of DNA decades later, the beauty of biology and nature's forms leads to scientific discovery and evolutionary theory.
Lebrun's style is to meld facts, very well selected, to multitudinous old photographs of everything from famous scientists and their finds to the Italy and Germany of a century or more ago, and then couple it all to a splendid narration (by Marian Seldes) that has us hanging on every word. It is simply amazing how much terrific information Lebrun has compiled to fill this mere 60 minutes. You'll learn everything from what joins single cell organisms, to galaxies (their form and design!), and all about Haeckel and his family and how he came to influence everyone and everything from Lenin to Freud, Nazis to Art Nouveau and the Transatlantic Cable. Haeckel may have faded from popular memory but Lebrun has placed him front and center for rediscovery.
The uses of alchemy are mentioned here, and truly, during this jam-packed hour, Lebrun seems some kind of alchemist himself, spinning facts and photos into documentary gold. You may also wonder, given the film's short running time, why quite a few of its minutes are spent coming back and back again to display the many forms of the radiolarian -- set to some thrilling music by Yuval Ron. Yet so beautiful are those forms, I suspect you won't mind a bit.
Proteus is an education in miniature.
Posted by cphillips at November 16, 2009 11:21 AM