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Birds of a feather

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Appearing quietly amid the multiple explosions rattling the walls of the cineplexes, the new movie Winged Migration represents a phenomenon considerably more astonishing than Bruce Banner mutating into a raging green giant or Arnold Schwarzenegger remaining, well, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in all his granitic stolidity. The motion picture shows exactly what its title implies, the travels of thousands of migratory birds. It features no stars and only a couple of small but tragic explosions, but demonstrates a mastery of camera placement and movement, a technical sophistication, and a sheer ingenuity far superior to any of the run-of-the-mall summer spectaculars.

            Ostensibly a documentary about the extraordinary distances and special routes of the birds, the film actually constitutes a sort of visual poem, both epic and elegy, celebrating the beauty and power of the creatures it studies and calmly illustrating the brutality of an often indifferent nature and the cruelty of a careless humanity.

            Although it shows the movements and patterns of a great many varieties in the skies over just about all the continents, the movie particularly concentrates on those birds that traverse immense distances in their annual spring and fall migrations. Many fly thousands of miles, with the prizewinner the Arctic tern, which journeys an incredible 12,500 miles, essentially traveling from North to South Pole and back again. In addition to such familiar animals as Canada geese, snow geese, bald eagles, pelicans, penguins, even the common sparrows and starlings, the filmmakers show some less well-known ones, at least for North American audiences --- puffins, guillemots, barnacle geese, Eurasian cranes, European white storks, and so on --- countless flocks of thousands of birds photographed in motion against dozens of backgrounds of land and sky.

            To capture the mystery and beauty of the flights, the filmmakers spent four years following the migrations, shooting with all sorts of innovative methods and from all sorts of platforms. They mounted cameras in virtually every possible kind of aircraft: traditional helicopters and gliders, remote-controlled model gliders and helicopters, special delta wing gliders, balloons, and ultralight airplanes. As a result, the camera places the audience directly in the middle of many of the flocks, so that the audience participates in the great journeys. It is one of the rare instances when the human yearning for flight (as opposed to the sensation of imprisonment in a speeding metal tube) can approximate the freedom of a bird.

            Although the film imparts a great deal of information, some of it by means of a few sentences of voice-over and a few more sentences of prose on the screen, it easily transcends the usual nature documentary of the sort often featured on public television and certain cable channels. For one thing, it essentially maintains a quite literal bird's-eye view, so that when the picture takes wing, we fly among the flocks of birds, which calmly regard the camera as one of their companions on the journey. Although a lovely musical score accompanies the action, the real music occurs in the blowing of the wind, the calls and whistles of the birds, the percussive thrum of their wings.

            Most often, Winged Migration simply records the movements and actions of the birds, their takeoffs and landings, their amazing flights, and the various landscapes they traverse. The camera travels with a bald eagle through the Grand Canyon, with geese through Monument Valley and by Manhattan Island, over ancient castles, alighting on a windswept steppe or a polluted industrial city in Eastern Europe. Once in a while a human presence intervenes, as when a young boy releases a greylag goose from a piece of netting, or a peasant woman approaches a small group of storks that regard her with an equal curiosity.

            Without any actors or any particular plot, moreover, the picture generates considerable emotion from the simplicity and beauty of its subject. The pure joy of flight, the graceful aerial ballets, the majesty of a cloud of birds taking wing, the swooping arabesques of flocks of starlings, provide more exhilaration than a megaplex full of blockbusters. The sudden shock of some hunters' shotguns blowing geese out of the sky may move more people than any number of bombs, firefights, and car chases. A scene in which a predatory bird snatches a young penguin from its mother, who utters a screech of utter desolation, may instruct us more than any number of preachy weepies in the harsh lessons of nature red in tooth and claw and the agony of loss.

            Apparently fascinated by the natural world, the director of Winged Migration, Jacques Perrin, also made Microcosmos, a study of insect life filmed again on the level of its subjects. His pictures display a poetry seldom achieved in documentary film, perhaps because he recognizes in the movements and patterns of living organisms the grand artistry of nature itself, the world of ordinary animal life as one grand poem. Winged Migration pays tribute to the ongoing miracle of everyday creation with an appropriate poetry of its own.

Winged Migration, narrated by Jacques Perrin; written by Stéphane Durand and Jacques Perrin; directed by Jacques Perrin, Jacques Cluzaud, Michel Debats. The Little.

You can hear George and his movie reviews on WXXI-FM 91.5 Fridays at 7:15 a.m., rerun on Saturdays at 11:15 a.m.

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