a seemingly random journey through cinema's heart of darkness. so to speak.

Monday, May 03, 2004


The "we are all tied together" concept is, of course, a flaccid mainstay of folks like P.T. Anderson, Michael Cunningham, and New Age-ists in general. But for James Burke, a bespeckled middle-aged Britisher who wouldn't look out of place in a high school science lab, it's an idea worth taking literally, and one which he trotted out over three seasons of the science show/school-room fave (I hope) Connections. Over each lightning fast episode, Burke focuses on the impact of scientific/psychological/generally historical discoveries on other discoveries, the social fabric and and large-scaled events. For instance: the grotesquely accidental discovery of pennicillin eventually led to the invention of soda. For another: the bottle cap has something very concrete to do with the Hubbell Telescope. And WWII artillery is simply the nth-timed-removed progeny of the garden hoe.

"And that's something you wouldn't expect," quips Burke at points in certain episodes, but Burke's schtick is no mere schtick. In fact, as a historian, he's in the same class as Altman and Lester; he's a revisionist, viewing major world events as the result not of Greatness or something worthy of a statue*, but of accident, even stupidity. "A very boring man" is a description he often employs to describe these geniuses, while his trace of the discovery of pennicillin is so comic as to be terrifying: it wouldn't have been found at all had one medic not left a slew of petri dishes lying open for months, in the direct sunlight, with the car's window open just a bit...and then, he happened to idly glance at the one petri dish...and then happened to give it more of a cursory glance, noticing that the seemingly ordinary mold had destroyed all the bacteria around it. Though Burke later heads out on its trail of far-flung effects, it's sequences like this when Connections is at its headiest; in other words, it's not simply about the leftfield ties he can make between presumably random subjects, but that he knows so much about them, and has a sense of humor to go with them to boot. Saying it's Bunuel's The Phantom of Liberty or Slacker as a science show may seem convenient, but neither of them can touch it's mind-melting qualities. Track down copies; study them; learn to adore the show's proudly geeky guide.

*At one point, he even treats one inventor's towering bronze statue to a visual gag.


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