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February 17, 1980 - Image 5

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Text
Publication:
The Michigan Daily, 1980-02-17

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The Michigan Daily-Sunday, February 17, 1980-Page 5

Meanwhile, back in the jungle

i

0 0 .

By DENNIS HARVEY
The Secret Life of Plants may be the
least commercial attempt at a com-
-ercial movie of all time. Paramount
is giving it a major release, but the ad-
vertising is carefully vague and doesn't
reveal much about the film. That's good
advertising-because they wouldn't
make a dime off it if audiences knew
beforehand what this film is about.
Secret Life is not a musical, not a fan-
tasy, and none of it is animated. In-
stead, is's a wierdly jumbled-together
treatise on the possibility that plants
day actually have feelings of their
iown, responses to outside stimuli that
can be empirically measured.
Stevie's Wonders new album of the
same name was clearly a serious

opening up blossoms and growing
leaves with a speed that is beautiful,
comic, and even (if you are high
enough) emotionally expressive. It's
highly reminiscent of those old Disney
documentaries in which weeds
spiralled and buds opened at frantic
rates to the accompaniment of a
Wagner synphony and folksy narration
all too dismally determined to stay at a
level understandable to six-year-olds.
At first, Secret Life spares us this
aural clash with the visuals, but later
Wonder's lyrics (on songs with names
like "I Wish I Could Come Back as a
Flower") do their own verbal damage.
FROM THIS high point the film takes
a dive into complete structural chaos.

along with the plants) about their
achievements.
Also thrown in are a virtually com-
plete short subject intelligently titled
"Do Plants Think?", including: a
sequence of, plants doing time-lapsed
jigs again to the strains of George
Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun;" a
report on a convention of plant-loving
organizations such as (no kidding) the
National Onion Society of East Lansing,
Michigan; an interpretive number in
which dancer Eartha Robinson por-
trays a black orchid and goes frolicking
about the woods rather nonsensically;
and a straight musical interlude in
which Stevie Wonder himself is en-
shrined against various pisturesque
backgrounds like some kind of
decorative statue-Stevie-by-
waterfalls, Stevie-amidst-sunflowers,
etc.-while singing the title song.
SCATTERED THROUGHOUT this
muddle of information, beauty, and
banality is a lot of greeting-card
philosophizing about "eternal truth,"
and folks who can "see the many
teeming fullness of the universe." This
sort of psychobabble may not make
much sense to the viewer, but it's easy
to see how it could be convincing to the
many plant-lovers who are interviewed
throughout the movie and whose com-
ments are sometimes hilarious.
One garden-keeper talks about his
plants as if they were similar to family
dog or cat: "I'm never cruel to 'em. I
never beat 'em, like some people." One
guy who looks as though he's had his
quopta of fun chemicals for the day
says, "You can communicate with
rocks," although he admits that "they
call people (who think) like that
crazy." One lady talkshto her plants but
says, "I don't think they understand
English;" another woman without that
hard edge of synicism is seen to "look
forward to conversation with her cac-
tus" and is "determined to teach her
cactus the Japanese alphabet."
The wildest sequences in the film are
documentary footage of actual ex-
periments in which plants were hooked
up to machines that registered their
electrical responses to outside hap-
penings. One plant registers electrical
panic when the thought occurs to a lab
worker that he should burn one of the
plant's leaves; the scientist then
arrives at the conclusion that the flora
"apparently read his mind."
Even more bizzarrely funny is a
scene is which a plant witnesses "an ac-
tivity ordinary in every kitchen"-the
slicing of a head of lettuce. The plant's
electrical signals run rampant during
this "murder' while the narrator
solemnly informshusthat theplanttis
reacting to "the mutilation of its
comrade." The mind reels-are the
filmmakers serious, or is this all an
enormous inside joke? If you take The
Secret Life of Plants seriously, you may
never be able to mow the lawn or peel
an orange again without feeling guilty.
At this point in the movie, few viewers
no longer accept the vision of plants as
"static and unmovable objects" but
rather, "observers of infinite patien-
ce. . . locked into their own time and
space." In one of the movie's few
genuinely imaginative scenes, we get a
view of our mellowed-out green friends'
perception of "our own chaotic world"
in a speeded-up voyage through an ur-
ban jungle; the rush of the visuals is
nearly overwhelming.
THOSE EXPECTING a rock film
centering around Stevie Wonder's

music will be drastically disappointed.
The music not only is subordinated to
the message, but it may also be the
composer's least interesting work to
date-bland instrumentals and trite
pop tunes with asinine lyrics that could
have been written by any hack.
Perhaps Stevie and the filmmakers
dreamed up this bizarre project at the
onset of a drug-induced stupor. Certainly
ly both the music and the movie are full
of the kind of vague revelations about
the universe and life that generally rely
on the chemicals that inspire them to
make sense.
A wierd yet tremendously boring mix
of visual beauty, ineptitude, fact and
fantasy, The Secret Life of Plants isn't
likely to prove satisfying to the general
movie audience, and its documentary
approach prevents it from winning the
kind of eccentricity that might win a
cult following. It's difficult to figure out
just what audience the filmmakers
were aiming toward, though the image
of a crowd of hanging ferns and
rhododendrons quietly viewing their
"comrades" on screen in a darkened
theater may be close to the mark.
Perhaps Stevie Wonder will next in-
dulge in the secret life of cars, so that
automobiles forced to face the screen at
drive-in theaters will have something to
watch that they can relate to.
A review of the soundtrack from
"The Secret Life of Plants" will ap-
pear on next Tuesday's arts page.
Tnts spaceconributeby epublisner
"Maybe
it will
away.,
The five most
dangerous'words
in the English
language.
0
American
Cancer
Society
We wvant
to cure cancer
in your lifetime.

Mj{IQVFIJITY cMUSICAL '8OCIETY presentsj
Cuban Folk Ensemble
1'uesdagFeb. 26, 8:30
Hill Auditorium

A couple of the stars of Stevie Wonder's recent attempt at filmmaking, "The
Secret LifeofPlants",'are shown here doing what they do best--hanging.out.
This filhi 'sdild rase some cgnsciousness among the unfeeling masses who
mercilessly sacrifice alfalfa sprouts to feed their selfish hunger.

project by a major artist, but the movie
vhas a cluttered, disorganized feel to it,
as if the project had been in the works.
for too many years and had changed
creative hands too'many times. It's like.
a Time-Life book on celluloid, all pic-
tures and facts, with the addition of
some prosey narrated Age of Aquarius
philosophy.
The move begins with a stunning
visualized look at the dawn of life,
achieved'" through speeded-up
photography of moving clouds and
such. More than ravishing looks at
nature continue for 20 minutes
throughout the world, with the usual
banal narration. This segment is
something of a head flick materpiece;
time-lapse photography allows the flora
of the planet to move with what resem-
bles a kind of rapturous abandon,

Three men (including the credited
"director," Walon Green) are listed as
collaborators on the "screenplay," but
there's no indication that the finished
product isn't a grab-bag of various
short subjects tossed together for
release by the stddio.
The rest of the movie goes something
like this: the opening nature tableaux is
followed by some footage about the
testing of plant reactions that is scien-
tifically fascinating but is filmed like
the drabbest classroom documentary,
complete with Mr. Scientist's ex-
plainations. Then we are shown some
boring sepia films and photos about
famous black inventors like George
Washington Carver while Stevie sings a
song with inanely literal lyrics (which
are cornily subtitled under the pic-
tures-maybe we're supposed to sing

Audiences on four continents have thrilled to the
fiery rhythms and spectacular dancing and costumes of
this vibrant company.
Tick'ets available: $4.50, 6, 7, 8
Tickets at Burton Tower, Ann Arbor, Mich. 48109
Weekdays 9-4:30, Sat. 9-12, Phone 665-3717.
Tickets also available at Hill Auditorium 1 hours
bfore performance time.

if) its J-11st -,ason

N1 VESITY 5MUSICA LS OCIETY present
IFounders Day Concert
Sunday, Feb. 24,8:00,
Hill Auditorium
ISRAEL IN EGYPT"
An oratorio by George Frederick Handel
The Festival Chorus, Donald Bryant, Conductor
Distinguished guest faculty soloists:

the
DAVE BRUBECK1
QUARTET

I

Carlotta Wilsen,
Soprano
Rosemary Russell,
Mezzo-soprano

John McCollum
Tenor
Willis Patterson,
Bass

special guest
Peter 'inaical' ruth

and student soloists:
Gail Mitchell, sopranoI

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