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'Death by Design': Exploring the Dance of Death Inside the Body

New York Times
March 25, 1997

To describe "Death by Design" as an elaborately illustrated lecture on the body's cells is to do small justice to this intelligent and imaginative work. The inventively choreographed images are essential complements to what the on-camera scientists from several countries are telling us about the endless sacrifice of individual cells for the good of the larger organism.

Through not yet wholly understood signals, cells are commanded to grow or to stop growing, to flourish or to die. The body's killers do their jobs like professional hit men. It is all, we are told, part of the evolutionary process that has created humankind. Speaking of the sacrificed cells, one of the scientists says they "died like soldiers in war."

Peter Friedman, a co-producer and co-director, brings the silently murderous cellular interplay to the screen in ever-changing patterns. There are the cells themselves, under a microscope, forming lovely mosaics and doing complicated dances to ballet music as one cell is seen absorbing another in a moment of death nurturing life.

They segue into movie dances from the Busby Berkeley era, with a chorus of floating violins that transform themselves into flowers or insects. Suddenly but aptly, there is the flow of traffic in a big city; the frenzy of the stock exchange; athletes in training; buildings being blown up and growing tall again. Through the camera's magic, a sliced-up worm turns into a highly decorative artifact.

In one clever sequence, the workings of biology are compared to the workings of the program's editor. An interview that we have just heard is shown in the process of being cut and spliced, the redundant and the awkward eliminated to produce a coherent statement.

There is even humor here. Accompanying a discussion of suicide is a silent-film clip of Harold Lloyd doing his unsuccessful darnedest to kill himself. The cells are more efficient, but they don't always work the way doctors would like: sometimes, as in leukemia, there's too little cell death; sometimes, as in AIDS, there's too much.

The hour, presented by the Independent Television Service, ends on a conventional note of last-services uplift about death being part of the cycle of life and so forth, to an atypically banal picture of dying leaves. But forgive the brief resort to platitudes.

What lingers are the surprising, revealing visual metaphors for an astoundingly orchestrated process featuring what the program rightly boasts is "a cast of billions."

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