I've been on a documentary kick lately and my most recent viewing experience was the first episode of Jonathan Miller's Brief History of Disbelief
, "Shadows of Doubt". Before watching the show, I had no idea who Jonathan Miller was and I still don't know much about him other than he's ethnically Jewish, an atheist, and went into medicine while in college. Presumably he's a figure of some prominence in England as he was given a chance to do a three-part TV series. (Looking at a bio
, I see that he is a satirist, among other things, of some repute and has been knighted.)
Miller's first hour in front of the camera was quite excellent. It was part confessional and part expositional. The first part featured our host talking about his own background and what being an atheist means to him and his life. There is part with him sitting in a synagogue recollecting scenes from his childhood involving his father's attempt to get him to relate to the religious aspect of his ethnicity. It's a very intimate bit of television with Miller just sitting there recalling his youth and looking thoughtful. While the story itself really isn't remarkable, this scene serves as a great example of one reason I really enjoyed viewing the show: it is stylistically pensive and the complete opposite of the flashy MTV style which is so pervasive in television. All we see is Miller sitting in a pew (or whatever they may be called in synagogues) talking about and contemplating episodes from his childhood. The camera is static; there are no canted angles and no jump cuts; no flashy, glitzy anything. Plus there's no conflict brought into being so the viewer can voyeuristically take pleasure in two sides battling things out before their eyes. The show moves along at a leisurely pace with Miller's soliloquies interspersed with interview footage and scenes of Bernard Hill
in profile reciting quotes from various folks. (If you're not familiar with Hill, know that he played Theoden in the Lord of the Rings
films.) This lack of flash was the perfect way to let the substance take centerstage. So, not only was it refreshing to see a topic that is almost verboten
on television being discussed, but it was also a joy to watch a program which was not an all-out stylistic assault on my brain.
The show also afforded me the opportunity to watch an interview with Pascal Boyer
. Boyer is an anthropologist whose book, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought
, I read a couple years ago and had a tremendous influence on how I view religion. Therefore it was disappointing that there wasn't more footage of the interview included and this feeling is compounded by the fact that he does not appear in The Atheism Tapes
, a compilation of extended interviews with some of the participants in Brief History of Disbelief which I have also acquired. I would not be surprised to learn that this is the only TV show ever to feature Boyer, which is a great shame.
"Shadow of a Doubt" ended with Miller looking at the first rumblings of skepticism & materialism in ancient Greece by Epicurus, Democritus, and others. The next episode, "Noughts and Crosses", deals with disbelief in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance.