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  Secret Life of Plants, The The Screaming Trees
Year: 1979
Director: Walon Green
Stars: Various plants, Stevie Wonder, Eartha Robinson, John Ashley Hamilton, Peter Tompkins, Ruby Crystal, Elizabeth Vreeland
Genre: Documentary, WeirdoBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: From the dawn of creation, the four elements of water from the sea, fire from volcanoes, air in the sky and earth from the ground combined to draw life into the planet. This life took the form of plants, first in the sea and later on the land, a whole panopoly of greenery in all its varieties, which shared the world with animals and finally humanity. Yet while people rely on them to live, from the air that they breathe to the food that they eat, how aware are plants really? Could it be that not only are they conscious, but are in touch with the infinite?

If The Secret Life of Plants is recalled today it's as the Stevie Wonder album, which was regarded as at best an odd diversion, at worst an outright folly that despite its creator is one of his lesser known, even lesser appreciated works. Well, it was the soundtrack to a barely released film too, which at least makes sense of Wonder's lyrics, but was no less strange. Devised by director Walon Green, it was a sort of follow up to his earlier The Hellstrom Chronicle, an apocalyptic work about how insects were on the brink of taking over the world.

As that previous film was seen widely as an example of tongue-in-cheek scaremongering, then you might think this would be in the same vein, but to all appearances this is a straight-faced documentary that just happens to be about a bizarre subject. As a celebration of flora, then it's undoubtedly sincere, but how are we supposed to take the experiments and conclusions conjured up from the basic idea that plants are perfectly sentient beings, as aware, if not more aware, as animals or even humans? And then to top that, they're in contact with outer space aliens?

The film was based on a book, and essentially from a series of experiments performed on plants to see if they reacted to danger if you hooked them up with electrodes to a machine that would tell whether there was any change in the energy levels pulsing throught them. According to this, and they recreate the experiments so we're in no doubt, a plant will panic if there's a person around who is intending violence to another person or, naturally, a plant. Therefore we are treated to outlandish sequences where a cabbage will be chopped up in front of one of the test subjects and we hear an electronic wail from the machine and the sensor line will wobble vigorously.

I don't know how scientific this is, but it doesn't half make for a strange sight, and there are points in the film that can be strangely unsettling, whether its the time lapse photography of hard to make out organisms, or the methods used to make the plants distressed (if, indeed that is what is happening). Yet it's not all mad science, as there are montages, one set to the Beatles "Here Comes the Sun" which is quite charming, and also a dance interlude where Eartha Robinson makes shapes around foliage to the music of Stevie. Eventually, Stevie himself appears, negotiating the countryside while lip-syncing to the title track, but before you get there there's an awful lot of padding - they even bring in the Dogon tribe's ancient star mapping skills at one bit, something that would fit into any number of weirdo doumentaries of the seventies. Curious, then, one for the gardeners, but perhaps not entirely convincing.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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