TV specials see the big picture

NBC tackles evolution of Earth; HBO the 20th century

There are a lot of them around, these last days of the 1900s. "Big picture" documentaries on television that try to make contexts by which we may appreciate where we are and where we're going.

Two involving new examples move from the specifics of the 20th century to an overview of all life on earth since the beginning of time. HBO's upbeat "A Century of Living" (Dec. 22, 8-9 p.m. with repeats through December and January) offers eyewitness accounts of the changing times by 17 centenarians.

And "Adventures in Time: The National Geographic Millennium Special" (NBC, Dec. 22, 8-10 p.m.) begins with the big bang 13 billion years ago and projects future possibilities.

The evolution of planet Earth, illustrated with spectacular images of volcanic action, animal behavior footage, and a variety of computer effects, may seem a bit cursory (making huge leaps of time and space), but then Adventures in Time is tremendously ambitious. It tries to show how all life is linked.

Evolution of culture is part of the evolving spectacle, we learn from narrator John Lithgow.

The Hagahai people of New Guinea have maintained their culture for thousands of years - a culture now threatened by encroaching civilization.

A 2,500-year-old tomb is opened in Abusir, Egypt, revealing secrets of ancient Egyptian court life.

Robert Ballard, who led the expedition that found the Titanic in 1985, explores ancient Roman and Arab shipwrecks under the Mediterranean.

The ancient Mayan culture of Central America rises and falls long before European contact, the victim of warfare - a primitive activity shared by cultures high and low around the world.

Diversity of life on earth is as important as its continuity. At one point, the film looks at human labor and Mr. Lithgow intones, "The sheer diversity of labor reflects the scale and scope of human experience." It is concepts like these that helps us grasp how really big the "big picture" is.

The most surprising and touching moment of the film concerns the conservation efforts of an ex-gang member in Los Angeles who has dedicated his life to saving a rare butterfly, the Palos Verdes Blue. But the film doesn't tell us how Arthur Bonner, who once served jail time, came to care for and learn about these creatures - creatures he says saved him as much as he has saved them.

There are plenty of stories in the film that make us want to know more. We may have more questions after watching than answers, but maybe that's the point.

The film looks at scientific creativity and the production of such exciting innovations as artificial intelligence including wonderful robots that actually "learn" by experience.

Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist, predicts that by 2020 computers and videos will be downloaded into eyeglasses, all of the information available to humankind will be accessed through one's wristwatch, and clothes will be wired to monitor health.

Observing that there are dangers in genetic engineering, yet taking the optimistic view that it will be used to improve the human condition, the film ends on an odd note. We are shown a "dream team" of "biotechnically engineered" swimmers as they may appear around 2050.

"Our perspective from National Geographic ... is to examine time in the context of the world and everything in it," writes producer Nicholas Stein.

It's a fine ambition, but too big a task for one movie.

A more modest, yet utterly engaging film is A Century of Living, in which people who have lived through the 20th century tell it like it was.

Labor was hard for the majority of people in the early 1900s.

One of the 17 interviewees describes surviving the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. The workers had been locked in when the fire broke out because management was afraid that they would steal. Another recalls farm work and ceaseless toil.

Sexual mores were very different, but falling in love and getting married seemed somehow easier. Child-rearing practices were stricter.

The Great Depression took many men away from their families to look for work, and women helped each other by caring for one another's children as the need arose. Two world wars changed the culture as much as science and technology.

As one woman puts it, "We went from sweeping with a broom to walking on the moon."

Every one of the speakers is articulate, insightful, and dignified. One of them writes letters on her computer, another still works full time as a copy editor for a Missouri newspaper, delighting in finding journalists' mistakes.

"I'm a natural," jokes Audrey Stubbart. It's the natural integrity and intelligence of these ladies and gentlemen that grips us in the end.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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