Saturday, August 09, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Cane Toads: The Conquest (2011) ****

PG, 82 min.
Director/Writer: Mark Lewis
Featuring: Henry Richards, Neil Young (not that one)

“Nature finds a way.”
                                                —Dr. Ian Malcolm, “Jurassic Park”.

It’s amazing the amount of wisdom you can find about nature in the movie “Jurassic Park”. I would like to suggest to the residents of Northern Australia that they should heed Ian Malcolm’s words in their quest to squelch their problem of the advancement of the population of cane toads in the region. My guess is that the people featured in the movie “Cane Toads: The Conquest” are probably extreme cases and the reason their government hasn’t heeded their cries for control is because the problem isn’t quite as devastating as they’re making it out to be. I would also guess that the gifted documentarian Mark Lewis is aware of this fact, however he just can’t help but indulge them. It’s so much fun.

The problem of the cane toads is so “extreme” that this marks the second time Lewis has covered the subject in his filmmaking career. The first time was in the 1988 documentary “Cane Toads: An Unnatural History”. It was a movie that so struck me with its simple brilliance that I never forgot it and actively sought out seeing it again for decades after the first time I stumbled upon it when channel surfing one night with my college roommate. I bought a copy on DVD as soon as it became available, and I’ve been waiting with baited breath for its sequel to become available since its all too limited theatrical release more than three years ago. “The Conquest” is finally available on Blu-ray and through instant streaming on Netflix. It was well worth the wait.

Lewis’s filmmaking style is very similar to Errol Morris’s more comedic moments. He takes what seems like a fairly silly subject, confronts a very real problem, and then finds people to face it with such sincerity and conviction that the people themselves become the real subject of the piece. In the first “Cane Toads” film Lewis laid down the history that brought the cane toad to Australia, a monumental miscalculation of attempting to solve an agricultural problem with a biological solution. He goes over that history again here and then follows the problem another two decades past that first film, again finding a wide array of people who have vastly different and quite inadvertently humorous takes on the cane toad problem.

Two of the best subjects in the first film were a scientist who seemed to have a little too much love and appreciation for the species and a little girl who kept one as a pet. He revisits both of these people this time around, and neither has changed their opinion of the beasts. He also revisits one of the more profound shots of the first film, that of a vehicle swerving back and forth as it travels down the highway in an effort to run over as many of the toads as possible. Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

What’s truly fascinating, however, is how he finds even more new examples of cane toad vehemence in the new territories the toads have invaded since the first doc. He finds a voluntary brigade of people dedicated to stopping the onslaught of the toads—one toad at a time if they have to. These are the people that really need to reacquaint themselves with the teachings of Dr. Ian Malcolm. He also interviews a councilman of the city of Darwin, one of the northern most cities on the continent, who has quite an imagination when it comes to ways to dispose of the creatures. He also explores an interesting police case of a man who accidentally electrocuted himself while trying to kill them with a makeshift spear. He shows us these examples through direct to camera interviews and dramatic reenactments that capitalize on the ludicrous nature of it all.

Perhaps the most amusing sequence of this film though is the segment dedicated to the phenomenon of pets licking the toads to partake of the hallucinogenic effects caused by the toads’ deadly venom. A pet owner, a vet and a scientist all comment in this section and come to the conclusion that dogs across the continent are choosing to give themselves a mild dose of the poison because it gets them high. Lewis dramatizes this with a dog who starts hearing herself blink, seeing her owner as if through a funhouse mirror and spinning around on her back in an overhead shot. The sequence also makes obvious visual reference to the opening sequence of “Apocalypse Now”, even without the music cue of The Doors’ “The End” to send it home.

Lewis’s nature documentaries are like no others around. I think the best way to describe them would be to imagine if Errol Morris were a nature documentarian. As far as I can tell he’s not nearly as prolific as Morris, and that’s a shame. I’ve seen the two cane toad docs and his “The Natural History of the Chicken”, which has much less to do with the history of chickens and much more to do with the people who are obsessed with them. He has one out there on dogs and another about rats that I’ve yet to see. Of course, if time is what is necessary for him to make these masterpieces of humorous nature obsession, then I’m willing to wait.

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