Rob Edelman: The Penguin Counters

May 8, 2017

So far in 2017, the vast majority of new films I’ve seen have been disappointing and instantly forgettable, if not downright awful. I’ll skip citing the truly dreadful titles. However, even those that have some value are deeply flawed.

Despite its good intentions and the heartfelt nature of its storyline, A UNITED KINGDOM is oh so predictable. Despite its fine cast, THE SENSE OF AN ENDING is oh so slow and boring. Despite the always-welcome presence of Shirley MacLaine, THE LAST WORD is oh so by-the-numbers. While sitting through THE LAST WORD, I found myself wishing that I was watching instead THE APARTMENT, which dates from 1960, in which MacLaine costars opposite the late, great Jack Lemmon. (With Jack Lemmon in mind, I regularly screen SOME LIKE IT HOT in one of my film classes. Indeed, it is a pleasure to savor the manner in which the students take to this comedy classic, this despite the fact that it is almost six decades old and was shot in the dreaded black-and-white.)

On the other hand, I have seen some attention-grabbing new films. One is a documentary that has just opened theatrically. It is titled THE PENGUIN COUNTERS, and it charts an annual exhibition way up north to Antarctica, where a dedicated group of individuals records the lives of these aquatic, flightless birds. The issues with which those on the journey deal include the manner in which the penguins are responding to environmental change, why and how their population has been decreasing, and what might be learned from this. Plus, the trip is not without its danger, for at one point one of the travelers casually notes: “It’s very easy to kill yourself in the Antarctic.”

What makes this beautifully photographed documentary so intriguing is that it offers a look at a part of the world that few will ever visit. Also, the film will not be a favorite among those who, for whatever reason, are dismissive of the reality of climate change. That is because one of the purposes of the trip is to chart how the penguins are dealing with the effects of climate change.

But most impressively, THE PENGUIN COUNTERS offers a portrait of Ron Naveen, a former lawyer who abandoned the profession upon acknowledging his fascination with penguins. Each year for almost three decades, he has trekked to the Antarctic to chart the lives of penguins.

Now I must admit that I am no bird lover, and I never would think of following Ron Naveen and heading off to Antarctica. Still, I have great respect for him and, in this regard, THE PENGUIN COUNTERS offers a life lesson that extends way beyond penguins. The bottom line is that he and his crew have collectively come to acknowledge what they love. And they are devoting their time, and their lives, to what they love.

At one point, Ron Naveen describes Antarctica as “a very special place... (It’s) the Seventh Continent. So few people get here, and I’m privileged to be doing this for so long.... I want to keep doing this. It’s my life.”

Rob Edelman has authored or edited several dozen books on film, television, and baseball. He has taught film history courses at several universities and his writing has appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and journals. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.

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