The 1998 Discover Science Gift Guide: VIDEO CLASSICS

The 1998 Discover Science Gift Guide: VIDEO CLASSICS – Buyers Guide

MOVIES FOR THE SCIENCE HUNGRY aren’t always easy to come by. Few good ones are made, and even those are soon gone from theaters. Fortunately, thanks to video catalogs and Web sites, these gems aren’t first forever. Here are some titles from the past 20 years that you may have missed. Chances are, they’ll make a good gift for a science-minded videophile who has grown weary of watching television shows that begin with lines like, “At dawn the mighty tiger greets the sun.”

Unless otherwise indicated, these videos can be ordered on-line through major video Web sites, such as bigstar. com,, Gild

Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (Sony Pictures Classics, 1997)

Director Errol Morris weaves the stories of four men with seemingly unrelated passions. One is a scientist who builds insect robots, another is a naturalist and photographer who constructs artificial homes for naked mole rats; one is a topiary gardener, and another is a lion tamer. What they all have in common, however, is an intimate relationship with nonhuman life. Each of the four tries to control the subject of his obsession, whether with hedge clippers or with a whip and chair. Yet they all recognize how their subjects will remain forever beyond them. Particularly noteworthy is Morris’s portrait of MIT roboticist Rodney Brooks, in which he eloquently points up our ambivalence about nature: our love of it and our tragic desire to remake it in our own image.

A Brief History of Time (Paramount, 1992)

Morris’s films are always stylish and intelligent; another of his movies worth seeking has cosmologist Stephen Hawking as its subject. While Morris fills Fast, Cheap and Out of Control with frantic images of scampering mole rats and skittering robots, A Brief History of Time is sleek, cool, and serene. It combines a biography of Hawking, from lazy boy genius to wheelchair-bound professor, with a deployment of his ideas about black holes and the birth and death of the universe. Hawking’s comments, slowly assembled by a voice-synthesizing computer, are concise routine point of terseness, but other scientists flesh out the strange implications of modern cosmology.

Cane Toads: AN Unnatural History (First Run Features, 1987)

Who would think that a documentary about biological invasions could be a first-rate comedy? In 1935 Australian scientists visited Hawaii and brought back the homely cane toad in the hopes that it would control beetles attacking the sugar plantations of north Queensland. It was a farcical disaster: the toads had no interest in the beetles, but they ate just about everything else, and their poison-filled glands killed dogs and any native predators that tried to eat them. Moreover, they bred like mad. Through interviews with the people who have had to learn to live with them, director Mark Lewis chronicles the toads’ inexorable spread across northern Australia. There are cane toad haters who try to run them over, cane toad lovers who keep them as pets, and even cane toad junkies who smoke their dried skin as a powerful hallucinogenic. It’s hard to tell who is more entertainingly bizarre–the toads or the people.

Microcosmos (Miramax Films, 1996)

French directors Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou set out to convey a sense of what life is like for insects and other invertebrates, and to a large extent they succeed: one memorable sequence shows ants wrestling with rubbery drops of water while water striders use the same viscosity to dance across streams. But this movie will be most appreciated by those who hit the mute button while watching nature shows. The filmmakers use about a minute of narration at the beginning of the film, then leave the rest blissfully free of pedantic voice-overs. The music for each scene is well chosen, particularly an aria that accompanies a surprisingly beautiful mating of snails. The approach does have its shortcomings, though: children won’t figure out what’s going on in some scenes–for instance, the symbiosis between a bee feeding on nectar and the flower that covers it with pollen. For more information, see www.miramax. com/microcosmos/. Or look up the accompanying book, published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang in 1997.

Theremin: An Electric Odyssey (Orion Classics, 1993)

Before there were digital samplers or synthesizers, there was the theremin. You may remember its eerie sound from the Beach Boys’ hit “Good Vibrations” or the sound track to countless science fiction movies, but when it first became popular in the 1920s it was considered a classical instrument. A musician would wave his or her hands in front of a wooden box that sprouted electrified metal rods, and an achingly wavering tone emerged. Theremin follows the life of the instrument’s creator, Leon Theremin, a Russian inventor who flourished briefly in the United States before being mysteriously kidnapped and taken back to the Soviet Union. Although Americans thought he had been executed, he had actually been forced, to work for the KGB, turning his technological genius toward inventing bugs and methods for cleaning up surveillance tapes. In 1991 the film’s director, Steven M. Martin, discovered that Theremin was still alive and traveled to Moscow to interview him and bring him hack to the United States. The result of his trip is a splendid underground history of twentieth-century technology and music.

N is a Number: A Portrait of Paul Erdos (1993)

Paul Erdos was the world’s most prolific mathematician as well as its most eccentric. Until his death in 1996 at age 83, he lived as an itinerant scientist and houseguest, staying with fellow mathematicians with whom he collaborated and surviving on lecture fees. His life’s work focused on the deceptively simple field of number theory; one of his first proofs showed that between every number n and 2n, there is at least one prime number. N is a Number tells Erdos’s story. While it doesn’t have the high style of Morris’s films, it’s nevertheless charming, in part because director George Paul Csicsery does a good job in explaining the basics of Erdos’s work, and in part because the idiosyncratic Erdos and his friends are such good storytellers. To order, contact George Paul Csicsery at P.O. Box 2833, Oakland, CA 94618 phone: 510-428-9284; fax: 510-428-9273; e-mail:

Double Helix (BBC, 1987)

The mad twinkle in Jeff Goldblum’s eye has served him well in fictional scientist roles, from Ian Malcolm, the leather-clad hipster mathematician of Jurassic Park and The Lost World, to Seth Brundle, the tragically hapless experimenter of The Fly. But Goldblum has also put in a wonderful performance as a real scientist in Double Helix, in which he plays James Watson, codiscoverer of the structure of DNA. As he frantically races to solve the genetic mystery, popping bubble gum and eyeing au pairs along the way; he perfectly embodies the excitement of biology in the 1950’s. Sadly counterpoised against Goldblum’s performance is Juliet Stevenson, who plays Rosalind Franklin, the scientist whose work made Watson’s discoveries possible and who was left isolated and embittered by the men’s-club atmosphere of science. You have to be able to tell your nucleotides from your phosphates to follow the story., but it’s well worth the effort. To order, contact Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 800-257-5126 or 609-275-1400; Web site:

The Atomic Cafe (Thorn EMI, 1982)

While many documentaries and movies have been made about the dawn of the nuclear era, none of them is quite like The Atomic Cafe. A seamlessly edited compilation of archival footage from the 1940s and 1950s, it begins with the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and follows the acceleration of the arms race with the Soviet Union through bomb tests on land and sea. Some of the scenes are mordantly funny, like that of a boy in a protective lead-lined suit happily riding his bike; others, like that of American soldiers running unprotected toward a bomb-test mushroom cloud towering over the desert, are stunning.

Life on Earth (Warner Home Video, 1979)

Here is the ur nature show, a documentary that manages in under four hours to live up to its all-encompassing tide. From the origins of life to whales in the sea, David Attenborough covers it all, visiting a fair part of the planet along the way. Straightforward yet majestic, Life on Earth still feels fresh nearly two decades after its debut. To order, call Videofinders Collection, 800-799-1199.

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