"Harvesters of the Chesapeake" may be the most beautifully, or at least prettily, photographed documentary ever made for local television. A labor of love this devoted is almost beyond criticism; besides, the film -- at 9 tonight on Channel 7 -- is another gem by Paul R. and Holly K. Fine, the ambitious and talented Washington filmmaking team whose praises it is difficult to sing too loudly.
For many Washingtonians, the Chesapeake Bay may be nothing more than a spot on the nightly weather map; Willard Scott told me all I ever previously knew about it. But the Fines, he the cinematographer-director and she the editor and co-producer, along with sound man Clyde L. Roller, paint a rich and detailed seascape of the region and the people who live there in intimate proximity to nature.
Among them are an 80-year-old salt who still sets out his 100 crab pots each summer, a man who visits the grave of the son he lost to a "freak storm" in 1977, a former teacher who gave up the indoor life to become a net fisherman, and a woman who has been a crab picker for more than 20 years and unassailably considers it "an honest livin'." Things don't change a lot around here except that, we are told, women are more likely than they were 20 years ago to join men in the hard work and that Smith Island is slowly but surely eroding.
The pictures lean toward the splendid, especially aerial shots with a special lens that exaggerates the curvature of the earth. Occasionally, though, Fine overdoes this trick or applies it to inappropriate subjects, like the interior of a church. Also, when it comes to witnessing the grisly sight of a crab being picked, once is enough.
And, as almost always happens in television, words get in the pictures' way -- not the words of the bay people and watermen, who come across as hearty and basic, but rather the narration written by co-producer Marianna Spicer, especially the loftier "I, a bay" segments spoken by Jackson Weaver, half of the incomparably popular Jackson-Weaver local disc jockey team. Other narration is nicely handled by feature reporter Ed Turney.
But if only the words would cease now and then so one could take in the scene without coaxing. The problem is, you can't do visual poetry for television when the boys in the front office have imaginations no bigger than their cash registers. The double wonder of shows like "Harvesters of the Chesapeake" is that they get made at all and that the Fines' record continues to be remarkably exemplary.