Tuesday, April 20, 2010

This Rugged Coast: The Night Prowlers

It hardly seems possible, but this week's episode of This Rugged Coast was even more exciting and eye-opening than the last. It was all there: the bright orange wetsuits, the hilariously dated narration and a crew who approach the creatures of the ocean like kids in a teddy-bear store. In this week's episode 'The Night Prowlers', Ben Cropp's crew unnecessarily handle a sea-snake, a giant sea-slug, a carpet shark, a parrotfish, a sea-turtle and provoke pufferfish to defensively inflate themselves on no less than four occasions. There's also some pretty amazing film of the denizens of the Great Barrier Reef at night and some excellent vintage soundtrack music.
The mission for the crew this week was to film the nocturnal activities of the inhabitants of the reef community – relatively unknown territory during the late seventies when this was filmed. The dark, mysterious nature of the documentary's subject matter brought out the best in the soundtrack composer for the series, although he/she is never credited at any point during the show. The instrumentation consists of old synthesiser drum machines, a raft of flute melodies, some funky overdriven guitar more often than not fed through a wah pedal, plenty of exotic percussion and of course, a bunch of high-pitched sci-fi noises. When was it that the world-wide soundtrack composing community reached the consensus that nothing conveys otherworldliness like a kid with ADHD going to town on a theremin? Anyway, the music is excellent and certainly one of the main reasons I was drawn into this show. It's not as sophisticated or developed as the work of Sven Libaek, Felix Ookean or Edward Williams, but it has a low-fi, provincial charm - much like the show itself.
When I first saw the show last week, I was taken aback by the total lack of respect the Rugged Coast crew had for local marine life. This week was even worse. I know it was the seventies, but come on, grabbing onto struggling sea-turtles and trying to get them to tow you? I think even Steve Irwin would cringe (may he rest in peace). And sure, we've all thought about hugging a parrotfish, but I just don't think it's appropriate for scientists to disrupt marine life in this way. Then again, at least the parrotfish get hugs, the sea-slugs get nothing but disdain: "It looks a little like a UFO hovering over a lunar landscape, […] perhaps it will glide off like a magic carpet. But it's not a magic carpet or a UFO and it hits the ground with a thud like the slug it is". Fair go, the slug's just been manhandled by some joker in a day-glo wetsuit and has an industrial-grade light shining into whatever kind of optical receptors sea-slugs have, I imagine he's a little disoriented.
In fact, I think I blame most of my criticisms of this show on the voiceover guy (who I subsequently found out is Leonard Teale, best known for his role as Senior Detective David Mackay in Homicide). The audio from Cropp on the show generally sounds reasonable and informed, whereas most of the cheesy and/or anachronistic lines from this show come straight from Leonard. The most amusing aspect of his delivery is probably the candid sexism directed towards Cropp's bikini clad crew of blonde scientific experts. For example, Lynne is swimming in the water hand-feeding batfish and the fish appear to be getting friendly with her. Teale wryly asks, "Now where did the expression 'cold fish' come from, eh?". Nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more Leonard. It's just not the sort of thing I'm use to hearing in nature documentaries. And don't tell me it's just a product of it's time either because I don't recall Attenborough ever saying anything on Life On Earth like "we've seen a huge migration of song-birds into this area of late. I've definitely seen some Great Tits amongst our crew, let me tell you."
But back to irresponsible treatment of animals, the episode ends with a series of encounters by this week's expert, Wally. I thought Hal from last week had balls when he started grabbing sea-snakes by the tail, but this guy was something else. Wally assures us that if you know what you're doing, animals such as scorpionfish and butterfly cod (AKA some of the most venomous fish in the world) can be 'handled with impunity'. Wally goes on to show us he's serious by toying with a scorpionfish for a little while before getting bored and moving onto a unicornfish. The unicornfish is not venomous, but does possess a formidable spike protruding from its forehead. Wally attempts to restrain the unicornfish by grabbing it by the horn and in a totally unforeseeable turn of events, cuts his hand to buggery. Predictably, the blood causes sharks to turn up. Even more predictably, Teale's voiceover reaches a melodramatic crescendo. The crew evacuates as footage of the sharks is edited to make them appear closer than they actually are. Leonard laments: "In their studies of night prowlers, the crew never realised that they would be the victims." A truly unexpected conclusion. [Cut to pitch-bended synths and run credits].

Friday, April 16, 2010

This Rugged Coast: The Coral Labyrinth

My new favourite album, which I have mentioned previously on this blog (and to anyone who'll listen to me), is Inner Space by Sven Libaek. I found out a while ago that moves were afoot to release a DVD version of Inner Space - the Australian oceanic documentary series from the seventies for which Libaek's brilliant soundtrack was scored. But while we're waiting for that, there is currently a piece of vintage seventies marine documentary film-making brilliance being shown on free-to-air tv which is well worth seeing. Ben Cropp's This Rugged Coast can be seen on Channel Seven at 12:00am on Tuesday mornings (or 12:00am on Monday nights depending on how you want to look at it) and is an amazing glimpse into a world of high contrast oceanic cinematography, scantily-clad Aussie scientists (and that's just the blokes) and a beautiful undersea world framed by coral and inhabited by a myriad of sea creatures.

The crew is lead by Cropp perpetually standing alert at the helm in nothing but skimpy bathers and a beard, smoking a pipe and continually lifting his binoculars skyward and scanning the horizon for anything film-worthy. The watery, blue depths are his domain and he presides over them like a tanned Antipodean Neptune. He is joined by Hal the fearless sea-snake expert with a perplexing accent and thick-rimmed glasses, a crew that seems to consist mainly of beach-belles in bikinis (it wasn't clear at first what their capacity on-board was, but Lynn was credited with 'sound' so I can only assume the other girls are equally technically equipped), guys with beards who look like they know a thing or two about boats and of course the ship's cat, Skipper. In tonight's episode, our crew are venturing around a treacherous maze of coral reefs called 'The Coral Labyrinth' (the name is repeated at every opportunity by the voice-over guy who pronounces it 'Lab-ee-rinth' with a faintly rolled 'r'.)

The sequence where Ben and Hal are trying to tag sea-snakes was particularly illuminating. I don't know much about sea-snakes, but the one thing that I do know is that they are extremely venemous. Presumably this film was made in the dawn of sea-snake research before this fact was widely known because our intrepid scientists handle the snakes like they are kittens. In a shock twist, Hal has a bit of a scuffle with one of the sea-snakes and thinks he has been bitten. The quickest way to diagnose this, we are informed, is to mix a venom indicator with a urine sample which will turn red if venom is present. The next scene bizarrely features Hal proudly brandishing a jam-jar full of his own urine to the amazed crew for several minutes. Entertainment is surely scarce on these missions. "No colour. Looks like I didn't get bitten" explains Hal. Ben quips: "Looks like you could do with some new kidneys though!" Laughs all round. Oh, you scamps.

I feel almost naive to admit that I was a little shocked by the lack of conservation values amongst the Rugged Coast crew. At one point in their journey through the labyrinth, the anchor is stuck under a section of reef. The anchor is simply hauled up until it smashes through the coral. We are shown the underwater perspective and it's not insignificant damage. There's a constant juxtaposition between a genuine love for the ocean environment and an overarching carelessness. We see one of the girls shoot a spear right through a large reef fish for their dinner - practical certainly, but still enough to cause a child of the nineties to wince a little - to which the voice-over guy just chuckles and glibly states "They make it all look so easy". Later on Ben and the girls go on a field-trip to a colony of gannets located on a tiny, isolated island where they proceed to tease the young chicks and generally disrupt the nesting adults. Maybe I should just chuckle along and look nostalgically back at a golden era when you could hassle marine life for kicks and no one would think less of you. (Cropp has been hailed in recent years for his conservation efforts, so perhaps it was just a product of its time.)

If any of this sounds interesting, you'll be happy to know that even if you miss this show on its late-night broadcast, you can actually contact Ben Cropp through his website and get VHS tapes and DVDs of his many documentaries - and he'll even sign them! Unfortunately, he isn't offering this particular series for sale, but you'll be happy to know that I'm going to start taping them every week from know on and I'm more than happy to furnish you with a copy (signed, obviously).