Friday, June 21, 2013

The Secret Life of Plants (1979)

          For better or worse, the ’70s was the heyday of documentaries, nonfiction books, and TV specials based on pseudoscience, that hippy-dippy confluence of factoids, metaphysical musings, outright speculation, and sensationalistic bullshit. Think ancient astronauts, Bigfoot, the Bermuda Triangle, ESP, Stonehenge, and so on. It was a good time to be an open-minded searcher, and it was also a good time to be a pandering huckster; for every well-intentioned project grounded in sincere belief, it seems, there were a dozen snowjobs that sprang from sucker-born-every-minute cynicism. Where The Secret Life of Plants falls in that spectrum is, of course, a matter for individual viewers to decide, though one gets the strong impression that the filmmakers bought what they were selling—The Secret Life of Plants is lovingly crafted, even if the scientific principles underlying the piece are dubious at best. (The documentary was based on a 1973 nonfiction book by Peter Tomkins and Christopher Bird.)
          Although it features other concepts, the movie primarily focuses on the notion that plants have previously unknown levels of emotional, intellectual, and spiritual sensitivity. Some phenomena offered as evidence are commonly held beliefs, such as the idea that plants respond to soothing tones of music and speech. Other ideas stretch credibility quite a bit further, such as the bold assertion from one documentary participant that plants are capable of receiving messages from outer space. About half of the film is devoted to straight reportage (with a smidgen of staging for dramatic effect), so these sequences feature scientists performing various experiments. In one bit, a lab worker chops a head of lettuce to see if an “emotional” reaction can be detected in a nearby houseplant that’s wired to electrodes; later, another scientist drops several living brine shrimp to their deaths in boiling water to see if a nearby plant responds to the loss of life. Unsurprisingly, in both cases, the experiments “prove” the sensitivity of plants thanks to computer readouts—after all, failed experiments wouldn’t validate the picture’s thesis.
          The documentary’s remaining screen time is devoted to impressionistic and lyrical passages, most of which are set to music by Stevie Wonder, who scored the film and wrote a handful of original songs for the project, including the hit ballad “Send One Your Love.” (In the final scene, Wonder appears onscreen to wander through fields of flowers, dense forests, and vibrant jungles as he lip-syncs the title track.) The most impressive passages in The Secret Life of Plants are the simplest, from the ominous creation-of-the-world montage that opens the picture to a lovely compilation of time-lapse flower-opening shots set to the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.” In these gorgeously filmed and edited vignettes, the natural wonders of plants are placed in the forefront, so the musical sequences feel harmless and trippy. The straight-documentary bits are interesting, too, but it’s hard to go with the flow while stopping every few seconds for a skeptical eye-roll.
          FYI, the director of The Secret Life of Plants is the versatile Walon Green, best known as the screenwriter of The Wild Bunch (1969). Living up to his surname, Green has directed numerous nature-themed documentaries, providing an unexpected complement to his screenwriting work in features and episodic television.

The Secret Life of Plants: FUNKY

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