First Run Features // 1996 // 129 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jeff Andreasen (Retired) // October 6th, 2005
Sweating the small stuff.
Ever wonder why you develop in the womb with webbed appendages but pop into the world with free-swinging fingers and toes? Me either, but the scientists spotlighted and interviewed for Death by Design/The Life and Times of Life and Times give us the answer to that as well as many other questions you never thought to ask.
Death By Design, the documentary that leads off this collection of two films by independent filmmaker Peter Friedman and molecular neurobiologist Jean-Francois Brunet, is a look into the interaction of cells, and how communication between cells leads to apoptosis, or what is constantly referred to in this film as programmed cell death.
"The only reason," University College of London professor Martin Raff tells us, "that any cell in your body is alive is because other cells are constantly telling it, 'Don't kill yourself.'" I feel the same way at work these days. Raff, and other luminaries in the field, expound upon, first, the method and reasons for the contact of cells with each other, communications that range from instructions on what activities to perform, when to reproduce, where to go and what to do when they get there, and when to die; and second, how cell death affects us. It is important, these scientists tell us, that cells die.
The example given that stands out the most for me is the webbed limb analogy. In the womb, human fingers and toes are webbed appendages, like a duck's. During gestation, messages are sent to the cells that form the webbing instructing them to kill themselves. As Raff tells it, "Cell death sculpts them [the digits]."
Throughout the program, various scenes from normal life and from cartoons and movies are used to illustrate the points being made. A shot of various works of art follow the duck example, emphasizing the sculpture aspect of the metaphor. When Klaus-Michael Debatin of the Ruprecht-Karls-Universitat, Heidelberg says, "An organism is made of many cells, which are a bit like people," his narration is followed by sped-up, 1930s-vintage film of traffic patterns in New York City. This segues into cellular activity, and the similarities are amazing and thought-provoking, especially considering the philosophy of the program, which is not necessarily death, but the coexistence of microscopic organisms working in unison for the betterment of the whole.
The program goes on to explain how programmed cell death is essential to our health, as when our immune system decides to attack healthy cells or organs with cells that can't die, creating tumors. Or when too many immune cells die, which may result in AIDS.
It's fascinating to listen to these scientists, to watch them very enthusiastically portray the microscopic world and its wonders, and to learn of an aspect of biology few people, I think, have ever considered. When one thinks of the causes of cancer, too few cells dying is rarely a reason conjectured. Death By Design is an illuminating primer on the whys and wherefores of biological processes most people have never heard about, let alone pondered.
The Life and Times of Life and Times looks at an entirely different aspect of biology: aging. Again, we look at the process through the words and wisdom of the few, the proud, the brainy, and with the help of film clips and images of familiar, real world sights and sounds, this time mostly involving trees.
The Life and Times of Life and Times poses some interesting questions even as it ruminates on the nature of evolution. Why does aging seem to contradict the most basic tenant of Natural Selection, which is getting rid of what doesn't work in favor of what does work? Clearly, getting old, infirm, and enfeebled doesn't work. Why does aging persist? The answer is gloomy: we're here to reproduce. Once we do, nature doesn't have much use for us (and no, abstinence won't help prolong life...so reproduce!).
Genetic and reproductive tests with fruit flies and microscopic worms, wherein cells are bombarded with x-rays, or eggs of young fruit flies are transplanted with eggs of older fruit flies, produced organisms that lived up to four times as long as the normal life span. In one test, a single cell in a worm was genetically altered, and that worm lived for eighty days...long enough to travel around the world! Unchanged, the same worm would have lived for twenty days. To me, that's an amazing result.
Another study, conducted in France, examined a group of utterly healthy centenarians, hoping to find some cause for their longevity. It seemed, according to the study, that these people lived longer because they aged more slowly than normal people, and not because they were peculiarly resistant to disease or other illness. Sounds like science fiction, but watching these scientists explain the process made me a believer, and made me want to learn more...which might possibly stagger my high school science teachers.
The photography of the microscopic world is incredible, and looks brilliant on both big screen and small. Had this aspect of the films been lacking, the documentaries might have fallen apart, even though the narrative is not dependent on the cinematography. But when you listen to eggheads jabber about cells and molecules and genomes, you expect the footage of the cells and molecules to deliver bang for the buck. And boy do they.
The DVD is a nice, though sparse, package, consisting of the two documentaries, filmmaker biographies, a trailer for a film titled MANA, which discusses the various belief systems across the world, some trailers for more First Run Features features, and a .pdf file format version copy of a review for Death By Design from Nature magazine. The video is crisp, sharp, and clear, though you'll find that, in most cases, the microcinematography is actually clearer and sharper than the interview footage.
Both Death By Design and The Life and Times of Life and Times are engaging and educational films. True, they, at times, show their independent filmmaker origins with artsy tangents, but the examples are always eye-opening, the insights are always provocative, and the subject itself should be of interest to anyone interested in why we live and die.
Review content copyright © 2005 Jeff Andreasen; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 129 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Filmmaker Biographies
* MANA: Beyond Belief Trailer
* First Run Features Trailers
* Reprinted from Nature Magazine: Suicides without Sadness
* IMDb, Death by Design
* First Run Icarus Films