Inspirations: How do artists get ideas? This is the question and premise underlying "Inspirations," a documentary exploring the creative force of seven very different artists. The artists profiled -- musician David Bowie, painter Roy Lichtenstein, glass artist Dale Chihuly, choreographer Édouard Lock, dancer Louise LeCavalier, architect Tadao Ando and sculptor Nora Naranjo-Morse -- reveal a fascinating similarity of experience when it comes to their muse. The artists discuss their solitary and collaborative methods, fears of failure, and the excitement that comes with pioneering new work.
Me & Isaac Newton: This documentary delves into the hearts and minds of seven scientists who have solved old scientific mysteries in creative ways. Ranging in age, each reveals their personal histories and commitment to positively affecting the world. From primatologist Patricia Wright, a former housewife and schoolteacher whose fascination with lemurs led to saving a rainforest, to cognitive scientist and author Steven Pinker, whose studies of the human mind examine its use of language and sensory input, all view life through their own unique lens, with groundbreaking results. The five other individuals profiled include pharmaceutical chemist Gertrude Elion, environmental physicist Ashok Gadgil, author and theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, roboticist Maja Matariæ and geneticist Karol Sikora.
Probably best known for directing 'Coal Miner's Daughter,' 'Gorillas in the Mist,' 'Nell' and 'The World Is Not Enough,' long-time filmmaker Michael Apted is also known as a highly-regarded documentarian with a terrific eye for the most unique and interesting subject material. His most recent feature, '56 Up,' is the latest installment to a decades-long project where he revisits the same group of people every seven years. Just as fascinating as his documentaries are the questions of where he takes inspiration from and from where do his motivations originate? In 1997, he posited that very same question for the aptly titled 'Inspirations' and asked a small group of artists from different mediums to participate.
Of the seven artists that participated, David Bowie is likely the most famous and recognizable whose work and music needs little introduction. Pop-culture artist Roy Lichtenstein and architect Tadao Ando are also familiar leading names in the world of modern art. American glass sculptor Dale Chihuly is not a name often mentioned of late, but his stunning, wildly absurdist works in the medium remain on display all around the world. Native American potter Nora Naranjo-Morse is another sculptor whose distinctive pieces can be found in several museum collections. The final two, choreographer Édouard Lock and dancer Louise LeCavalier, are leading figures, almost iconic, in contemporary interpretive dance.
The documentary never probes too deep into the lives of each participant, placing more attention and focus on their efforts at the time they were being interviewed. Asking to explain the source of their inspirations or their desires for making art is a rather loaded question, far too difficult and abstract to ever answer to any degree of satisfaction. Apted, instead, uses the camera to simply observe their creative process, to stand back and witness their method of creation. The will which motivates them is left to the mysteries of the universe, as something we could only dream of ever answering. But it is seen here as that intangible reality that makes each artist feel alive and drives them to share it with the world. (Movie Rating: 3.5/5)
Me & Isaac Newton (1999)
Two years later, documentary filmmaker Michael Apted returned to the subject of what motivates and drives certain, rather extraordinary people, but this time looked at the world of science and its contributions to human progress. At the forefront is American biochemist Gertrude B. Elion, whose research and discoveries led to the treatment of a variety of fatal diseases, and theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, who today is a familiar face thanks to his efforts of popularizing science. Also in attendance are primatologist Patricia Wright, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, computer scientist Maja Mataric, environmental physicist Ashok Gadgil and Professor of Cancer Medicine Karol Sikora. And each have influenced and pushed science further in their respective area of study.
Unlike the previous film, Apted is a bit more willing to ponder on the question of what inspired these individuals, what keeps them driven and what aspirations do they have for their discoveries. The answer is arguably unsurprising, but it bears repeating for future generations because these scientists, more than most, readily admit intelligence is not a talent for a select few but innate in all of us. The only difference is they never stopped asking that one fundamental question we're all naturally inclined to ask: Why? At the start, each participant shares a little from their childhood to show when they first asked that question and how that drove them to their chosen career paths, tirelessly in pursuit for the answer.
Equally fascinating is the inescapable and unassailable problem of science's darkside — the power of discovery and progress is also the same power for destruction and annihilation. It's wonderfully stimulating to hear each person's take on the subject with frank, unflinching honesty because it's a sad fact that scientific advancement comes with consideration to business and a need for money. Unfortunately, scientists function at the behest of producing a profit for those who invest in them, but amazingly, the seven participants are very optimistic and prefer to side the positive. The potential to progress, evolve and serve all of humanity for the better is still there, and it's this side of the coin which prompts and inspire. It's the impetus behind science and continues the pursuit for the ever elusive answer to our most fundamental question. (Movie Rating: 4/5)
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
PBS and Vulcan Productions bring Michael Apted's two documentary films on scientific and artistic brilliance to Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack dubbed 'The Nature of Genius.' The Region A locked, BD50 disc contains both films and sits comfortably opposite a DVD-9 copy inside a blue, eco-elite keepcase. Viewers are directly taken an animated menu screen with options along the left side and music.
In spite of a few fairly strong moments, both docs are not quite as inspiring on Blu-ray. It's pretty clear from the onset that the AVC-encoded transfers (1.78:1) as "as-is" with minimal, if any at all, effort at cleaning or remastering the original source. Black levels are mostly accurate with some crush in several scenes, and contrast is less than average, flattening and dulling the image. Colors seem to benefit somewhat, but they're not very attractive and ever appear bold. Definition and resolution is rather disappointing, on par with what you expect from standard definition. A noticeable grain structure is always present and consistent, giving it a nice film-like appeal. The first movie is also littered with a variety of scratches, lines, dirt, white specks and even cigarette burns in the top right corner while the second is far more stable and slightly cleaner.
The uncompressed PCM soundtrack offered on both docs is pretty much as one would expect from a film of this nature, but it's presented cleanly and accurately nonetheless. The focus is, of course, on the interviews and conversations with the artists, so dialogue is delivered precisely in the center with excellent intonation in the voices of people. Some mild background activity has been captured during the interviews, and accompanies the video here discretely and with good clarity. Dynamic range is understandably limited, but it's well-balanced with a good, throaty low-end for the music. Altogether, they're passable mixes suitable for both films.
In the late 1990s, documentary filmmaker Michael Apted made a pair of movies that explored the nature of brilliance in the fields of art and science. With interviews of various artists and scientists, the films are not only insightful and perceptive looks at the creative process and what inspires certain individuals, but they are also quite inspiring for those with similar pursuits. The Blu-ray arrives with an audio and video presentation that are slightly less than satisfying but still watchable. With a nice set of recent interviews of each participant, this documentary series is worth a look.