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Issue #1584      March 6, 2013

Culture & Life

Dumb and dumber

Conservation took something of a battering last week. Did you see where officials in Switzerland shot dead the last surviving bear in the country? There had been three of them, but two were killed by speeding cars when they crossed the border into Italy. The lone, and probably lonely, survivor had taken to following tourists’ in quest of tid-bits, so the Swiss government did what any responsible enlightened modern government would do: they had the young bear shot. The owners of ski resorts had probably complained that it “threatened their business”.

When the shooting of the bear made headlines around the world the Swiss authorities probably realised that somehow they had slipped up. But, like all extinction phenomena, once you have killed off the animal it’s too late to begin having second thoughts.

Surely it would not have been beyond the capabilities of the Swiss to capture one lone bear and transport it to a zoo or wildlife reserve? They could even have made a feel-good film about its capture and preservation. Instead, in the best traditions of bureaucracy, they shot it.

Stupid, stupid, stupid! Extinction, after all, is forever.

In Africa, the White Rhino is now extinct in the wild. The elephant may soon follow suit. So might the lion, symbol of Africa itself. In fact, so valuable are portions of a lion carcass as “trophies” for rich American tourists that special commercial lion “safari parks” have been set up where for a hefty price rich US citizens can hunt and kill their very own lion, and take the bits back to hang on their wall.

Meanwhile, all over Europe, North America and parts of Asia, desperate but under-funded last-minute attempts are being made to bring back from the brink all manner of animals that only half a century ago were being ruthlessly and proudly “eradicated”.

In North America they are trying to bring back the timber wolf. In Britain, beavers, stoats, weasels and badgers as well as birds of prey that have been hunted out of the mainland are being belatedly protected and hopefully eventually reintroduced from remnant stock surviving on off-shore islands.

Here in Australia, home of the estuarine crocodile, largest in the world, people in the north still go swimming or wading in rivers alone. And when a croc takes one of these careless fools who have entered its domain, a horde of macho hoons with guns rush to blow the “killer” away. The animal is guilty of intruding into “our” world, not the other way round, it seems.

The world’s wildlife is a renewable resource, but a very fragile one, in need of constant surveillance and study to keep it viable. To treat it carelessly, as though it would always be there regardless of what we did, as the American settlers did with the great clouds of passenger pigeons that once darkened the USA’s western plains, would be criminally irresponsible in the light of our knowledge today about the interconnectedness of natural phenomena.

There isn’t a lot of money to be made from conservation in the short term, which puts it at odds with capitalism from the word go, but in the long term it would be hard to overestimate the worth of conservation to humanity. The rich, and those who would like to be rich, cannot be allowed to go on ruining the planet for their own selfish ends.

Changing the subject completely, my wife and I went to see Lincoln the other day. It was surprisingly good. I say surprisingly because American films about iconic US figures are wont to be overly laced with “mythic” qualities to the detriment of both history and drama. To a large extent, however, Lincoln avoids those pitfalls.

Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln.

Curiously, the film reminded us most strongly of the best of the later Soviet historical films. There was the same fine attention to detail, the excellent art direction and brilliant sense of period, the very fine acting of course, the sense of people living in a period rather than actors in costumes, a lush music score (performed in this case by the Chicago Symphony) and particularly the superb photography.

There developed two contradictory aesthetics governing the style of wide-screen cinematography. The US style sought to make the viewer aware that there was more image beyond the edges of the cinema screen, that what was on screen was not composed like a traditional still photo but extended outward.

Japanese and Russian cinematographers on the other hand favoured a style that sought to compose the widescreen image so that it was entirely bounded by the edges of the frame. This style often produced stunning pictorial images, especially in B&W cinemascope films. The carefully composed images in Lincoln have the same fine photographic quality as the best Soviet colour period films.

Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones all give bravura performances and the film owes much to the thoughtful use of their talent. However, the film perpetuates a popular US falsehood. The Civil War was not fought to free the slaves, however much some Northerners favoured abolition. Indeed, if the Union armies had only been more successful in the early stages of the war, and the rebels defeated earlier, the question of freeing the slaves would never have seriously arisen.

The war was waged by the forces of rising capitalism in the North against a would-be feudal slave-owning aristocracy whose backward economy was holding back the further economic development of the increasingly industrialised North. Only once in the entire film is the economic basis of the South’s economy referred to, and that of the North not all.

The arguments and counter-arguments that would have characterised the struggle over the USA’s future economy went on mostly behind closed doors. It can only be deduced from the positions taken on related issues by the leading figures of the time. On the other hand, the belated struggle to abolish slavery, when the war was all but won anyway, was waged mostly in public and its arguments were recorded in the mass media of the time.

I recommend the film.   

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