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Today, on a Vicious Blue Planet

Generally, I only get up early enough to watch morning TV when the World Trade Center collapses, and the fourth of February was no exception. But thanks to the miracle of digital recording, I was able to turn on the Today show at noon. By then, if you factored in the East Coast time difference, the program was eight hours old and the coffee in Katie Couric’s mug had already been swallowed, eliminated and ushered toward the icy vastness of the Atlantic Ocean.

It was the day after the Super Bowl, and co-presenter Matt Lauer dutifully pointed out how appropriate it was that a team called the Patriots should have won at a time when America was at war. But the war itself is now an almost exhausted topic. Super Bowl aside, the main items on Today’s menu were the Enron scandal, the 33rd season of Sesame Street, Britney Spears, kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, Super Bowl ads (starring Britney Spears) and the weather. Everything, to quote an old Lawrence Durrell poem, was about “America America/Terra un peu hysterica



...and a fish

In the back of my mind I was still thinking about the halftime show during the Super Bowl. U2’s performance had stirred me but its mix of strutting bombast and 9/11 piety left me depressed and somewhat revolted. If any al Qaeda members were watching, they must have been in despair: What does it take to get this country to stop celebrating itself?

I switched over to live TV and found Britney and Britney’s mother on Oprah. They were all watching a filmed interview with Britney’s 10-year-old sister, Jaime-Lynn. Jaime-Lynn, it turns out, has a much better voice than Britney, and a sibling rivalry of major proportions is brewing. “Step aside, Britney, I’m coming through,” she squealed, a notion that Britney strained visibly to find amusing. Then there was a commercial break in which Angie Everhart hawked a new diet pill and a local newscaster previewed upcoming stories about Britney’s influence on teenagers and the man who claims to be Meg Ryan’s husband. If any further confirmation were needed, this was it: America was back to normal.

Punching in the numbers 9407 into my DISH remote, I moved on to a mysterious channel called Colours. The program being shown was Africa This Week, and the footage was of Freetown in Sierra Leone, a country that is no longer really a country, just a bleak landscape of bombed-out buildings and overturned cars. “It is known that the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front had adopted a strategy of cutting off the limbs of government supporters for several years,” a reporter stated as the camera revealed a woman suckling a mutilated baby.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but there were moments when I found the combination of the reporter’s soft, womanly voice and the bleached footage of a devastated city almost soothing. Perhaps it was simply because it felt consequential — civilians peering nervously around corners, adolescent soldiers brandishing guns — and after a diet of Super Bowl commercials, Today and Oprah, anything of consequence was a relief. Or maybe I’m just a heartless bastard.

In the dim corner of a dusty memory, I recall a 12-year-old kid called Fothergill. Alastair Fothergill. Widow’s peak, furrowed brow, determined mouth. If I’m not mistaken, we were in school together. And now, dammit, this Fothergill turns out to be not only some big shot at the BBC but the producer of Blue Planet, an amazing eight-part documentary about the ocean that still has four parts to go. How do I know it’s him? Because I saw his picture in The New York Times: Widow’s peak, furrowed brow, determined mouth, 30 years later.

Blue Planet, which is a BBC/Discovery production, is narrated by Sir David Attenborough, who often sounds like a man dictating a telegram in the middle of a hurricane. “A manta ray, immense,” he intones as the sea world’s version of the Stealth bomber swims silently into view. “Fifteen feet across from the tip of one winglike fin to the tip of the other.” Whether it’s whales killing whales or penguins shooting through the water like torpedoes (each with its own contrail), this documentary has more action scenes than a Bruce Willis movie, and more weird creatures on view than science fiction can dream of. One unspeakably strange jellyfish, lit up like an interplanetary shopping mall designed by Rem Koolhaas, was in fact an early inspiration for Alien.

Eat, procreate and watch your back: That’s life underwater. If we were able to interview some of the fish, perhaps they’d insist that life in the sea is more law-
abiding and peaceable than we think. “It’s your depraved Hollywood values,” some wily aquatic politico might protest, fins bristling with righteous indignation. “You never show us just happily swimming about. What if we made a documentary about you and showed nothing but Rwanda and Bosnia and Afghanistan, simply to pump up the ratings?”

If he existed, the leader of the Delegation of Fish Against Interspecies Stereotyping might have a point (though not a very strong one). The filmmakers do fetishize the kill. Their preferred action sequence (there have been three instances so far) comes when a school of terrified tasties (sardines, mackerel) menaced by predators (striped marlin, sailfish, tuna) frenziedly whirls itself into a “bait ball” (imagine a vast, tightly packed, spinning beehive under water) in the mistaken belief that it will repel the enemy, which promptly gobbles up every last fish in a gigantic one-course meal that can last for hours. In one particularly jaw-dropping sequence, a group of sheer-water birds joins in, plunging as deep as 50 feet into the sea, so that you have fish and fowl feasting underwater together. There were times when I couldn’t believe what I was seeing on my TV. Blue Planet continues in May.

Lou Reed, who once wrote a little-known gem called “Ocean,” was the first guest on the opening installment of Musicians, a new series on Bravo hosted by journalist David Wild (Mondays, 10 p.m.). Lou was in good form: fit, interesting and, as always, draped in downtown black. Wild asked him to show the studio audience the riff to “Vicious,” and dapper Lou obliged. Then he played the opening chords of “Sweet Jane,” which turned out to be the identical riff played backward. A balding, pudgy figure nailed to an easy chair, Wild expressed amazement at how a simple riff could be so powerful, and followed up with such patchouli-scented questions as “How do you find the profound in the simple?”

“Take a lot of drugs” would have been the true answer, but I forget what Lou said. Last month I saw Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, author of the best-selling The No Spin Zone, interview a journalist who had written a new biography of the Rolling Stones. Unlike most interviewers, O’Reilly had not only read the book, he’d worked himself up into a high dudgeon about it as well. Glaring into the camera, he ticked the Stones’ sins off on his fingers like an angry dad circa 1969. “Children out of wedlock, hard-drug use, intoxication, using other people, betrayal, adultery, violence against women, on and on and on and on,” he thundered. “These are evil guys, are they not?”

It would have been fun to see O’Reilly chat with Reed about the Velvet Underground. In fact, someone should give O’Reilly a program devoted entirely to interrogating the heroes of the counterculture. I can see it now.

O’Reilly: Warhol’s dead, Nico’s dead, Sterling Morrison’s dead, you broke up the band and became a drug addict and a transvestite, you turned thousands of kids on to heroin, you only knew three chords, what do you have to say?

Reed: Uh . . .

Call it The No Sin Zone.


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