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Case Number 26699: Small Claims Court

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The Nature of Genius (Blu-ray)

PBS // 1997 // 207 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // December 15th, 2013

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All Rise...

Judge Clark Douglas prefers to seek inspiration in the work of Tony the Tiger.

The Charge

See the world through the eyes of geniuses.

The Case

Though Michael Apted has helmed many notable features over the course of his long career (Gorillas in the Mist, The World is Not Enough, Coal Miner's Daughter), his defining legacy will almost certainly be the documentary series that began with 7 Up. Those films (which offer a new installment every seven years and have made it all the way to 56 Up as of the writing of this review) represent one of the great filmmaking achievements of all time, a literal lifelong journey that offers enormous insight into this consistently surprising, mysterious journey we call life. Apted has generally shown himself to be much more ambitious as a documentarian than as a feature filmmaker, so I was looking forward to checking out these two documentaries from the 1990s (collected together in a set dubbed The Nature of Genius). While they certainly are ambitious, I'm sorry to report that they're not particularly compelling.

The first of the two features is titled Inspirations, and it simply offers a handful of casual interviews with well-regarded artists from various fields: Pueblo sculptor Nora Norango-Morse, musician David Bowie, dancer Louise Lecavalier, architect Tadao Ando, choreographer Edouard Lock, glass artist Dale Chihuly and pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. Over the course of the 100-minute documentary, each individual talks a bit about their artistic process, what inspires them, why they do what they do and what they think their work really means. It feels like an attempt at a rather grand endeavor, as Apted compares and contrasts what drives these remarkable people. Unfortunately, the disappointing truth of the matter is that the words of insight these folks have to offer are generally less compelling than their assorted works of art.

While most of the subjects are relatively free of pretension, there are still quite a few declarations that are bound to raise some eyebrows. In one scene, David Bowie suggests that the only difference between artists and regular people is that regular people aren't burdened with attempting to figure out what they might do with the universe if they had their way. An odd and somewhat condescending assertion, to be sure. My favorite participant was Chihuly; an extraordinarily down-to-earth fellow who insists that the most reliable approach to creating great art is just to keep working until inspiration strikes you. "It doesn't matter whether you're rested or exhausted; you never know when it's going to happen," he sighs.

Apted adopts a very similar structure for Me and Isaac Newton, which shifts from the artistic to the scientific and places the spotlight on seven notable scientists from different fields: biochemist Gertrude Elion, environmental physicist Ashok Gadgil, theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, computer scientist Maja Mataric, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, professor Karol Sicora and primatologist Patricia Wright. This one is slightly more successful than its predecessor, as the shift from art to science essentially means a shift from the intangible to the tangible. The information provided is more fact-driven and less vaguely philosophical, which is a plus in this case, but the documentary still left me feeling somewhat unsatisfied. The problem here is that most of the information being covered has been handled in much greater depth by other science-themed documentaries and programs, leaving this one to feel more like a shallow overview of impossibly deep subjects.

The Nature of Genius (Blu-ray) disappoints in the looks department, though things aren't quite as bad as they seem initially. The early moments of Inspirations are loaded with scratches and flecks—it's pretty rough. These remain throughout, though they become much less prominent after the first reel or so. Scratches and flecks can also be found throughout Me and Isaac Newton, and softness is a major issue in both cases. Frankly, the films look older than they really are—only David Bowie's hairstyle gives us an solid indication that we're in the late '90s. The LPCM 2.0 Stereo tracks are fine, though there's a bit of distortion that creeps in now and then. Supplements include a half-hour of brand-new interviews with a handful of participants from both films, which do a nice job of filling us in on what some of these folks have been up to over the course of the past decade or so. You also get a DVD copy of both films.

While both of these documentaries are ambitious endeavors, I can't help but feel they're biting off more than they can chew. For some, that may be an acceptable problem, but I found it a bit too frustrating.

The Verdict

Case dismissed.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 73

Perp Profile

Studio: PBS
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
Audio Formats:
• PCM 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English (SDH)
Running Time: 207 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Blu-ray
• Documentary
• Science and Nature
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• Interviews
• DVD Copy

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