The Guardian March 19, 2003


TV programs worth watching
Sun 23 March Sat 29 March

Ken Burns's previous award-winning documentary series on aspects of 
Americana have dealt with The Civil War, Baseball and Jazz. All have been 
splendidly made and enthralling to watch (and with their fascinating 
soundtracks, to listen to).

His latest series examines the life and career of Mark Twain (ABC 
9.30pm Sundays).

Twain (real name Samuel Clemens) epitomises literary Americana. Even when 
abroad (and he travelled widely) he wrote of the foreign world for 
Americans.

"My books are water; those of the great geniuses are wine", he once said. 
"Everybody drinks water."

During his long life he was a printer's apprentice and a riverboat pilot, a 
prospector and a reporter. He came to be considered one of the greatest 
humorists on earth and a brilliant performer on the lecture circuit who 
could entertain almost any audience.

Voices heard in Mark Twain include those of Phillip Bosco, Tim Clark, 
Blythe Danner, Ann Duquesnay, Carolyn McCormick, Amy Madigan and Cynthia 
Nixon. Kevin Conway is heard as the voice of Mark Twain.

The visual material unearthed by Burns and his team is truly remarkable.

A friend of mine, visiting a restaurant in the US, was recommended by his 
host to "try the steak . it's good here". When it arrived, it was not a 
piece of meat but a large pattie of chipped beef.

The meat packing industry, plagued by organised crime involvement, has 
always been of concern to socially conscious Americans. Freshly packed meat 
is sent to supermarkets in better off neighbourhoods on a sale or return 
basis.

Unsold meat is returned to be repacked and sent out to supermarkets and 
convenience stores in not-so-well-off neighbourhoods. Unsold meat from 
there is similarly returned, and now beginning to turn green, is repacked 
and sent out to shops in poor neighbourhoods.

But in Modern Meat in the Cutting Edge timeslot (SBS 8.30pm 
Tuesday), the subject is the way today's highly-industrialised meat 
business has fundamentally changed the composition of the typical American 
burger, causing some to fear the spread of serious  and even deadly  
bacteria.

With enormous numbers of cattle now being herded, fattened in "feed lots", 
slaughtered, and ground up together, it's virtually impossible to determine 
how many cows contribute to a single burger.

Modern Meat also explores the powerful US meat industry's attempts to 
resist US Government regulations aimed at preventing contaminated meat from 
ending up in supermarkets and fast food chains.

Despite the new US federal safety regulations, more than 100 million pounds 
of meat have been recalled since 1998 due to suspected bacterial 
contamination. And in mid-2002, America's largest meat processor had to 
recall 500,000 pounds of beef contaminated with e.-coli bacteria from 17 
States.

Bon appetit!

The latest offering from the BBC's acclaimed Natural History unit with 
David Attenborough is well up to their usual standard, a standard that has 
indeed set a new benchmark for nature programs.

The Life Of Mammals (ABC 8.30pm Wednesdays) examines the most 
diverse group of animals ever to live on earth. Hair, warm blood and the 
capacity to give birth to live young means mammals have been able to 
colonise every environment.

In episode one, A Winning Design, Attenborough visits Australia to 
look at the earliest mammalian forms, monotremes and marsupials. It is 
typical of the high quality of this series that the episode is instructive 
and revealing, even to Australians well versed in nature programs about our 
own country.

The footage of rock wallabies effortlessly hopping about on cliff-faces is 
equally as fascinating as the infra-red photography of the underwater-
feeding marsupial possum from South America, the yapok.

We also learn that since the introduction of high cranes allowing detailed 
study of the forest canopy in South America (once joined to Australia as 
part of Gondwanaland) scientists believe there may be more marsupials 
(mainly possum-like creatures) there than in Australia.

The South American marsupials have not diversified into as many ecological 
niches as in Australia, though, because of the competition for those niches 
from placental mammals moving in from the north.

This is quality viewing, highly recommended.

As It Happened: Mutiny: The True Story Of Red October (SBS 7.30pm 
Saturday) claims that on November 9, 1975, Valeri Sablin, the "senior 
Communist" on the Soviet destroyer Sentry, led a mutiny supported by all 
the crew and most of the officers.

They would sail the ship to Leningrad where the populace would welcome them 
and then join them in a popular uprising to oust the corrupt Brezhnev 
leadership and return the USSR to a true Bolshevik policy.

Assuming any of this is true (the program claims it was the basis for the 
US fictionalised movie The Hunt For Red October although they have 
little in common), as political officer on the Sentry Sablin would have to 
have known that this was not the way to bring about political reform (if 
that is indeed what he wanted).

He would have known too that without a revolutionary situation his mutiny 
would be at best a futile, doomed gesture. The mutiny was quickly put down 
and Sablin was shot, so the incident remains only a curious footnote in 
Soviet history.

How much of the account is true, who knows? How much is actually 
significant, you must judge for yourselves.

Computers have made special effects in movies so seamless and natural-
looking that we tend to take them for granted now. Indeed, where would the 
average Hollywood film be without computerised special effects?

But in the days before computers (remember them?) convincing special 
effects were an art that spanned many crafts. They required a full 
understanding of the possibilities of motion picture photography and 
lighting as well as painting, model-making and of course film editing.

Among many films that featured ingeniously creative "special effects", the 
greatest by far has always been Merian C Cooper and Ernest B Schoedsack's 
1933 classic King Kong (ABC 10.30pm Saturday).

A down-on-his-luck Hollywood producer sails to a mysterious South Sea 
island containing dinosaurs and a giant ape. Captured, the ape is taken 
back to New York to be exhibited as "the eighth wonder of the world", but 
breaks loose, wreaks havoc and is shot down on top of the Empire State 
Building.

Special FX genius Willis O'Brien created naturalistic effects that would 
not be equalled for 40 years or more. Wounded dinosaurs bleed, the 30-foot 
tall ape (in most scenes an 18-inch model) has more expression than most of 
the human performers, and ape and humans interact most convincingly.

Made before the Hays Code was introduced, the film includes shots of Kong 
chomping on natives as if they were carrots, and an extraordinary scene in 
which a bemused (and subsequently smitten) Kong investigates Fay Wray, 
clutched in his giant hand, using an equally giant finger, in the process 
removing most of her clothing.

Atmospheric from its foggy opening on studio-built New York docks to 
producer Carl Denham's final line "It was beauty killed the beast", King 
Kong single-handedly saved RKO from bankruptcy. It remains a treat.

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