Hellstrom Chronicle, The (Blu-ray Review)16 Jan, 2012 By: Mike Clark
$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Producer David Wolper’s rather astonishing documentary Oscar-winner — as in astonishing that it beat Marcel Ophuls’ more or less nonpareil The Sorrow and the Pity — comes close to being what you’d expect from a screen portrait of the insect world that happened to be directed by the co-screenwriter of The Wild Bunch. You’ll recall that that Sam Peckinpah masterpiece opens with a ga-zillion devouring ants having more fun with a wrong place/wrong time scorpion than a mob of kiddies throwing pizza at each other inside a Chuck E Cheese. This virtually guarantees that any of that feel-good, Walt Disney wonder-of-nature stuff is going to be a no-go here for Chronicle director Walon Green, whose worldview seems to be that insects almost certainly have man’s number in any survivalist battle of the fittest. Apparently, it was one shared with Chronicle scripter David Seltzer, who later penned The Omen.
There’s nothing wrong with taking such a defeatist attitude when the premise is more than credible, yet the film’s frequent scenes involving humans are so transparently staged (these Green did not direct) that I’ve never felt that the film should have even qualified as a documentary. As the fully fabricated Dr. Nils Hellstrom, who handles the on-camera narration, actor Lawrence Pressman is so over the top that the effect is not only risible but wall-to-wall risible. In Chronicle’s setup, the doc even claims that the intensity of his insect fears have recently cost him some fellowships and faculty positions, and one’s reaction here can only be, “Well … yeah!!!” (Even his haircut is kind of out there.) If Hellstrom had been dating your daughter in 1971, you’d have likely said to her, “Honey, I know he has his Ph.D., but don’t you kind of miss that beau you used to date who works at the car wash?”
Still, intimate close-ups of the insect world have their foolproof fascinations, even if 1996’s all-out amazing Microcosmos refined what the filmmakers did here and turned it into an art form. Both movies, in fact, are like a “real” version of what Woody Allen and the gang more benignly gave us in Antz — though given Chronicle’s premise that these buggers may be out to “get us” as part of Nature’s Plan, we’re almost always seeing them play rough. An insect walks into a Venus Flytrap without having been given the opportunity to get his affairs in order, and he’s gone. Red ants invade a colony of black ants, and the result looks something like an ickier version of a two-color licorice mix. The sexual partner of a black widow spider works his behind off trying to give her as many orgasms as she wants and is rewarded with death instead of afterglow gratitude. And just so we get the point, there are aptly representative clips from those two definitive 1954 ant movies: Them! (big ants) and The Naked Jungle (little ones) — which, by the way, I once ran both together in a heavily attended Fri-Sat double bill when I was programming the AFI Theater in Washington, D.C.
Shaky as art but not bad as entertainment, Chronicle was so brilliantly marketed by Cinema V that it turned into a kind of hit in the summer of ’71. (The following summer, Hollywood found sheer box office gold with marauding rats in Ben, which spurred even a less resonantly romantic Michael Jackson tune than "Rockin’ Robin"). This was an era when the documentary Oscar winner tended to be the nominee that actually got shown: think, in a three-year run, Woodstock (unquestionably deserving), Marjoe and Chronicle. This Olive release of the last is welcome, and the print is fairly sturdy. But I do think the failure of Marcel Ophuls’ Pity to win the Oscar that year is the all-time Academy travesty from any category or era. As the definitive screen portrait of French wartime collaboration with Nazis, the 4-hour epic did not just make screen history but — history.