This weekend we saw these two movies (“March” on DVD ,“Pride” in a movie theatre) and at first sight they couldn’t be more dissimilar. But with a little reflection I began to see connections.
Long lines of emperor penguins, looking exactly alike, walking to their breeding ground in desolate Antarctica. Not-so-long lines of eighteenth century British men and women, each dressed to the nines, dancing in a lavishly decorated country home with the same underlying intention: breeding.
It’s always about breeding, isn’t it? Darwin tells us that it is. And both of these movies testify to the power that sexual attraction has over us, whether we be a penguin or a person.
Roger Ebert’s review of March of the Penguins includes a cogent discussion of how evolution has fine-tuned these creatures to survive in one of Earth’s harshest environments.
Laurel and I were captivated by the marvelously photographed scenes of the penguins walking seventy miles from the sea to the breeding grounds, finding just the right mate through a mysterious selection process that you’ve have to be a penguin to fathom, getting down to mating, and laying a single egg per each breeding female.
The males then take care of the eggs for two months through complete darkness and powerful blizzards, all without eating, while the females walk back to the sea to rejuvenate themselves after the rigors of egg-laying, after which they make the seventy mile trek again, just in time to cough up some food for the newborn penguins. Whence, the males get to take off on their own walk to the sea.
It looks like an astounding amount of work just to keep a species going. But what’s been called “the selfish gene” doesn’t give a rip about the comfort of the male and female bodies carrying the sperm and eggs needed to keep DNA replicating.
Mate selection, breeding, giving birth, and protecting the newborn until it can start this cycle over again. Those are life’s basic marching orders. Every living entity is hard-wired to obey them, though humans have evolved to the point that the orders can be overridden with enough steely will (witness monastic monks and nuns).
No such will is evident in Pride & Prejudice, thank heavens (it would be an affront against nature to leave a beauty like Keira Nightley un-bred). The central motivation of each of the central characters in this movie is precisely the same as that of the penguins. Being human, they just go about their mating rituals in a different fashion.
I’m sure that when emperor penguin females are walking around the breeding grounds, sizing up potential mates, on some instinctive level they’re thinking “Got to find a guy with big enough cojones to stand without food in the super-freezing dark with an egg on his feet for a couple of months without breaking my baby’s shell.”
Mr. and Mrs. Bennett’s five daughters, including Elizabeth (played by Nightley), are engaged in almost exactly the same exercise. Except, what they’re looking for is a man with a big annual income and house, the Homo sapiens equivalent of sturdy penguin feet and a nicely-formed protective fur pouch (the eggs can only last for a few seconds unprotected from the Antarctic cold).
Laurel and I enjoyed both of these movies a lot. My wife is a stickler for realism, her frequent criticism of flicks being “That wasn’t realistic!”
I incessantly argue with her that movies are supposed to be escapes from, and representations of, the “real” world. If they were exactly the same as the reality we experience every day, what would be the point of paying $8.50 to go see them?
Pride and Prejudice, however, passed her reality smell test. Indeed, I’ve never seen any other period piece that made me feel to such an extent, “This must have been how life really was like back then.”
About the only time I said “Huh?” to myself was when Elizabeth’s eventual love interest, Darcy, says about her at a dance, “tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.” He turned out to be wrong, of course.
Keira Nightley is a woman that you’d walk seventy miles over frozen ground to breed with, for sure. Maybe even a hundred miles. So long as you didn’t have to balance her egg on your feet for a couple of months afterward.