TV

'Big History' Takes a New Look at the Past and How It Shapes the Future

Michael Ward

Big History the show, and big history, the discipline, may be just what we need to help solve the many problems facing us today.


Big History

Airtime: Saturdays, 10pm ET
Cast: Bryan Cranston (narrator)
Network: H2
Director: Sam Dolan
Air date: 2013-11-2
Website
Trailer
Amazon

Did you take particular note of recent studies linking leaded gasoline with violent crime? Have you ever seen an accidental footpath worn in the grass to cut a corner and pondered the human obsession with finding the shortest route between two points? Was Guns, Germs, and Steel one of your favorite books (or TV shows)? Then Big History might be the show for you.

An ambitious (and likely to be controversial) ten-hour documentary series premiering 2 November, Big History takes as its driving principle the idea that sweeping historical events and trends can have humble, hidden causes. Hence a big historian sees the industrial juggernaut of Manhattan as the byproduct not of some ill-defined American can-do spirit, but of a simple effort to move salt from the Great Lakes region onto the world market. The European conquest of the New World, according to big history, came about not because of manifest destiny, but simply because the European conquerors had horses, and the Native Americans did not.

I say Big History is likely to be controversial because its founding principle -- and that of the big history movement of which the show is an adjunct -- leaves very little room for coddling myths like national identity and meritocracy. Jared Diamond treads the same dangerous territory as well, in Guns, Germs, and Steel and its ominous follow-up, Collapse.

Successful societies enjoy their plenitude due less to superior character than to the happy accident of temperate climate; unsuccessful ones fall not due to the weight of freeloaders and sodomites in their midst, but because some essential resource, previously abundant, is suddenly in short supply. Big history -- the peculiarly named discipline, not the show -- is a heartening attempt to revise the practice of traditional historical study to winnow out the ideological agendas and shortcomings inherent in its practice.

For example, historians are regularly human-centric, whereas big history tries to see humans in relation to earth and their environment. Historians usually concentrate on the relatively recent (consider the odd term “prehistoric”, which insinuates that there’s only so far into the past the study of the past itself can be bothered to go). A big historian, on the other hand, might theoretically touch on the universal singularity in a discussion of the advent of running shoes.

Traditional history likes conventional wisdom and single causes, like the nuclear bombing of Japan ended World War II, Vietnam was fought to stem the spread of communism. Big history, by contrast, is (at least ideally) interdisciplinary, unafraid to challenge assumptions, comfortable with metaphor and speculation, and indifferent to sacred cows.

“Salt”, the first episode in Big History, describes the mineral's roles in modern civilization, in meat preservation and mummification, in the way salt’s taxation contributed to such social upheavals as the French Revolution. (Though here one suspects the claim that a salt tax was the primary reason for revolt glosses over more complex, overdetermined causes.)

“Horse” does something similar for our four-legged equestrian fellows, and looks nicer doing it, as it turns out that elegant mammals make for better visuals than crumbly white powders. Future episodes look likely to be eclectic, as narrator Bryan Cranston promises forthcoming half-hour examinations of the vital roles of “Megastructures”, “Caffeine”, and “Ice” in shaping life as we know it.

Big History the show, and big history, the discipline, would seem to be just what we need right now, at a time when traditional assumptions -- about economics, morality, the nature of progress -- are proving less and less useful in solving the many stubborn and worsening problems afflicting the human species. Big history might be a genuine evolution in human thought. Hostile to dogma and organized religion, aligned with rationality at the expense of comforting but illogical narratives, it's also not at all sanguine about humanity’s prospect for survival should we fail to get our act together, and soon.

All of which leads me to my only complaint about Big History, the show, which is that it feels less weighty than the discipline it chronicles. This is partly due to its half-hour format, barely time enough to summarize its chosen subjects. Also incongruous are its ADD editing style, bombastic music, and wall-to-wall special effects. These make the series seem more like a documentary about the world’s biggest battleships than a cerebral exploration of innovative ideas.

I found myself yearning for a more BBC 4-like frame, with classical music, long periods of ponderous silence, an onscreen Cranston in crisp shirt and tie, hands folded thoughtfully as he pontificates in front of a backdrop timeline laying out the entire 13-billion-year history of the universe. Instead, we get cheesy reenactments, bad CGI dinosaurs, spastic, sweeping camera movements, blaring trumpet music straight out of Die Hard. In a documentary about salt!

The show’s garish style could be seen as a strategy just as easily as a shortcoming, though. Consider an alternative miniseries sandwiched on PBS between MacNeil/Lehrer and Charlie Rose, and similar in temperament to both. Such a show, while maybe more pleasing in the sound-echoes-sense department, would surely preach to the secular-humanist choir. It’s probably more useful to have the show bear a closer resemblance to Ice Truckers or Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. It means it will reach the eyeballs it needs to, the minds to whom its insights will come as a revelation.

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Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

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1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

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​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

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(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

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(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

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Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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