Acorn Media // 2007 // 192 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // June 2nd, 2012
A globe-trotting tour of art and culture.
The only real way that we can look at our history as a species is to look at the art that has survived the millennia. From prehistoric cave art to the pretentious big city gallery, it is in these that we can track how our cultural, religious, and moral views have changed and get an idea of where we are today. It isn't always easy, though, especially when looking at modern abstract work, to glean much meaning from a single painting or sculpture, but that's where art critic and author Matthew Collins comes in handy.
Accompanying his own book of the same name, This Is Civilisation (using the British spelling, which is the way the film states it, though the box uses the American variant) is a four-part documentary that takes viewers through time and place to look at what some of the large artistic movements throughout history meant to the people of its time and how it influenced future generations of art and culture.
The box purports that This Is Civilisation is an update of the 1969 BBC production Civilisation, with an added emphasis on modern and non-western art. If that is what I must base this series on, then the modern version doesn't stand up, but that isn't exactly fair to judge it that way. It does a perfectly good job of exposing audiences to art history without getting bogged down in deep analysis. Instead of trying to build a timeline, Collins focuses on a different aspect of culture in each of the four episodes and relates art from different eras to society's evolution.
Episode 1 tackles religious art from the Greeks to Christian and Muslim art. Episode 2 focuses on revolutionary art and propaganda from the French revolution to fascist uprisings. Episode 3 is narrower, dealing with the Industrial revolution and how the changing landscapes from pollution and expansion brought new focus on nature, all based on the ideas of critic John Ruskin, a spiritual ancestor of Collins. The final episode brings us to the present and covers abstract art, along with a segment on China and how the Mao iconography shaped their modern world.
Each segment runs approximately 45 minutes and the subjects are self-contained, making the series a very good high school level educational tool. Collins walks and talks through the streets and galleries of the world, presenting his case and then bringing in details. The camera lovingly scans over great paintings and sculptures while he describes how art changed the views citizens had of themselves, whether that was placing a greater focus on spirituality or influencing the political debate. Because of its subject matter, it doesn't have to be a greatest hits of Western art and Collins can deal with some of the lesser known, but equally important artists; the biggest name in the set that gets more than a passing mention is Francisco Goya.
It's an excellent series that, for its scope, is as detailed as one could want. The one problem is its short-changing of multiculturalism. Beyond the ancients, the only culture besides Europe that gets any time is China, and it feels shoehorned into the end of the series just to say they did it. Collins never says this, but the omission of any female or ethnic artists from anywhere else in the world implies that civilization begins and ends in Western Europe. That's a problem with the humanities in general, whether it's the art, music, or philosophy canons. This attitude is certainly propagated in the series, but it's a symptom of the problem and, until the focus changes, anything like this will share in it.
From Acorn, This Is Civilisation is your standard bare-bones collection. The four episodes arrive on two discs, with decent sound but a below average transfer. When the image is bright, there aren't any noticeable issues, but when the camera gets in close to observe the paintings, any blacks or strong colors exhibit a lot of noise and compression problems. Normally for a documentary, image quality isn't the most important thing to me. When the idea is to appreciate the small details of a work, losing all sharpness basically defeats the purpose. The sound, again, is better, but only in that there are no discernible issues; it's not a dynamic mix by any means. The only extras are brief biographies of some of the highlighted artists and a booklet that distills some of the ideas from the series, both of which are useful.
For its length, This Is Civilisation is a well-done series that is as exhaustive as I could expect. My one complaint about it is really a larger issue with the stubborn patriarchy of the humanities that keeps the center of culture European and male, even while making gestures toward inclusiveness. Until there is a change, programming like this will reflect that attitude, but taking it on its own merits, this is a worthy series with a lot to teach.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 192 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Viewer's Guide