Category Archives: The Environment

Life after people: The Road **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 5, 2009)

Sadly, this is pretty close to how I envision my retirement.

You know what they say-“Misery loves company”. The dark shadow of apocalyptic doom looming over every other Hollywood release recently would seem to bear this out. “Hey, half my friends and relatives might be out of work, no one can afford health coverage, food bank cupboards are bare and we may be headed into a Hundred Year’s War in Afghanistan…but at least I’m not as bad off as that poor random bastard getting swallowed up by a huge molten crack in the earth on the screen-woo hoo!”

And now The Road (based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel) has trudged into theaters, close on the heels of 9 and 2012. This one makes the latter two films look like a carefree romp in the fields.

Unlike 2012, which is the equivalent of disaster movie porn (utilizing just enough perfunctory bits of narrative to justify stringing together all the “money shots” involving volcanic eruptions, violent temblors, tidal surges and other assorted earth-shattering ka-booms), The Road is more concerned with the post-coital conversation, as it were. The earth moved, a few of us survived…now what? How do we live? How do we eat? How do we get from “A” to “B”? How do we treat each other? Will civilization eventually rise from the ashes and right itself, or is it back to flint arrows and re-discovering the wheel?

The nature of the World Changing Event that put them in their predicament is not quite specified, but the latter film’s two protagonists, notated in the credits simply as Man (Viggo Mortensen) and Boy (Kody Smit-McPhee) are wandering about in a cold, ashen environment resembling a nuclear winter. Curiously, we see stands of brush or trees spontaneously combusting on occasion, although there is no obvious scientific explanation offered or inferred as to the cause.

This is not a post-apocalyptic milieu a la Beyond Thunderdome, with relatively well-scrubbed characters sporting pearly whites, fashionable post-punk wardrobes and colorful personalities. The people in this hard scrabble landscape actually look like people would look without access to a hot shower, a bar of soap, toothpaste or a change of clothes for months (possibly years) at a time. We are talking grime. Serious grime. Let’s not even discuss the teeth (dental hygienists are warned: The Road will give you nightmares).

Nearly everybody appears malnourished, as well. It’s survival of the fittest, but hardly anyone is fit. Have I mentioned that this is a pretty bleak and depressing scenario? The story (such as it is) is pretty simple, really. The Man and the Boy are slowly, painfully making tracks to the coast, where they hope that the environment is more palatable (one would assume; the reasons are not made quite clear).

Along the way, they scrounge for food and shelter, ever on the lookout for roving bands of post-apocalyptic highwaymen, who would just as soon blow you away first and then search your corpse for whatever meager provisions you might have squirreled away in your clothing. The pair’s desperate walkabout becomes progressively more nightmarish; they barely escape the clutches of a motley crew not unlike the mountain men in Deliverance, only to then run into the family from The Hills Have Eyes.

The only respite from the relentlessly grim proceedings is provided by sporadic flashbacks in the form of the Man’s uneasy dreams about his long-dead wife (Charlize Theron)-although those memories are not necessarily all pleasant ones, either.

I have not read the book; I will take the word of my friend who I saw it with that it is a pretty faithful adaptation (by Joe Penhall). Perhaps it is too faithful, as the film is a somewhat static and stagy affair. Director John Hillcoat (who helmed the 2005 sleeper The Proposition, which I really liked) sustains a dark and foreboding atmosphere; thanks to  DP Javier Aguirresarobe (quite a contrast to his sunny photography for Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona).

Still, something was missing for me, although it is tough to pinpoint. It certainly was not the fault of the cast. Mortensen and Theron are always interesting to watch, and I thought young Smit-McPhee was very good. Robert Duvall is barely recognizable for most of his brief appearance, and if you blink you’ll miss Guy Pearce’s cameo (everyone’s well-disguised by those stunt teeth). I wasn’t bored, but I wasn’t on the edge of my seat, either. This may not be the road you want to take. Then again, misery loves…oh, never mind.

Fissure & sun: 2012 **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 14, 2009)

Prime beachfront property! Low, low prices! Going fast!

Day after day, more people come to L.A.

Ssh! Don’t you tell anybody-the whole place is slipping away.

Where can we go-when there’s no San Francisco?

Ssh! Better get ready to tie up the boat in Idaho.

from Day After Day (It’s Slippin’ Away) by Shango

Depending on who you talk to, the numbers 12/21/12 signify either a) The Day the Earth Gets Hosed, or b) A day in 2012 that will be preceded by December 20th and immediately followed by December 22nd, in the course of which we will all go about our daily business as per usual. According to 2012 director Roland Emmerich, when Winter Solstice, 2012 rolls around, we better get ready to not only tie up the boat in Idaho, but to hang ten in the Himalayas as well. It’s gonna be a doozy (best get your affairs in order).

Taking full advantage of all the ballyhoo surrounding the upcoming terminus of the ancient Mayan calendar, the Master of Disaster has once again assembled a critic-proof, populist spectacle, unencumbered by complex narrative or character development (then again, one doesn’t board a roller coaster for the express purpose of engaging one’s mind).

So…it’s been, gosh, what…at least 12,012 years since his last film (10,000 B.C.) Let’s see if we can catch up. For one thing, in the Future, loincloths and spears are no longer de rigueur. However, I have some good news, and some bad news.

Good News first? Humans are now much less likely to suffer getting crushed by mammoths and/or mauled by saber-toothed tigers, since both of those species are now extinct (yay!). The Bad News is, humans are now in imminent danger of becoming extinct themselves, because the sun is bombarding the planet with neutrinos, seriously compromising the stability of the Earth’s crust-or some kind of pseudo-scientific gobbledygook to that effect.

At any rate, any and all pending natural disasters you could envision are now likely to all come at once. And that can’t be good. An international consortium of scientists and world leaders are in the loop, but in compliance with Rules and Regulations Regarding Mandatory Plot Points for End of the World Movies (rev. 2007), it’s kept strictly off the record, on the Q.T., and very hush-hush.

After the obligatory prologue set in a remote corner of the world, where we are given an inkling that a global threat might be brewing and/or a cosmic mystery is afoot (a requisite since Close Encounters of the Third Kind) the scene shifts to the good ol’ USA, where the Concerned Preznit (Danny Glover) receives grim counsel and furrows his brow (just like Concerned Preznits Bill Pullman and Perry King did in Emmerich’s two previous end of the world epics, Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, respectively).

And no such doomsday narrative is quite complete without its rumpled Everyman protagonist, embodied here by John Cusack, divorced father of two who still sorta has a thing for his ex-wife (even though she’s now married to a smarmy yuppie), and who happens to have custody of the kids on the very weekend that the Apocalypse is scheduled for kickoff (see: Tom Cruise in The War of the Worlds). And guess where Dad is taking us all camping this weekend, kids? Why, Yellowstone Park…Ground Zero for the caldera of one of the largest super-volcanoes in the world (I don’t want to spoil anything for you…but I think Yogi and Boo-Boo are fucked).

What ensues is a mash-up of Dante’s Peak, The Poseidon Adventure and When Worlds Collide, peppered with every disaster movie cliché extant. The special effects are quite spectacular, and there is a pulse-pounding, show-stopping (if highly improbable) escape sequence early on (as L.A. experiences the mother of all earthquakes).

However, by the time the third, fourth, or fifth pulse-pounding, show-stopping, highly improbable escape sequence rolls around, with no substantive narrative sandwiched in to give you a breather in its two and a half hour running time, it becomes a case of mind-numbing overkill. Maybe a mystery angle involving the Mayan prophecies would have added something?

The cast slogs through as best they can, considering that most are relegated to cardboard caricatures taking a back seat to the CGI wizardry. Cusack has his moments, but you definitely get the sense that this is only a paycheck gig. Woody Harrelson briefly livens up things a bit, as a conspiracy nut talk show host (most likely modeled after Art Bell), but talented players like Oliver Platt, Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor are wasted.

If you enjoyed the director’s previous films, I suppose this one is no better or no worse; you will  want to see it no matter what critics say. If you are intrigued by the premise, but not about parting with your ten bucks, I’d say wait for the DVD. Or- just hold out until 12/21/12.

Who knows? It could be more entertaining than the film.

Tip-toe through the P-path: No Impact Man ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 26, 2009)

“Yeah, but I mean, I would never give up my electric blanket, Andre. I mean, because New York is cold in the winter. I mean, our apartment is cold! It’s a difficult environment. I mean, our life is tough enough as it is. I’m not looking for ways to get rid of a few things that provide relief and comfort.” –Wallace Shawn, from My Dinner with Andre.

I don’t know about you, but I’m with Wally. And Kermit the Frog. Because, dammit, it ain’t easy being green. Oh, I suppose I feel pretty good about myself when I toss the empty cereal box (made from post-consumer fibers and printed in soy ink) into the recycling bin, bring my reusable bag to the farmer’s market, or screw in a low-wattage compact fluorescent bulb, but does that mean I’m doing my part to reduce mankind’s carbon footprint? After watching the new eco-doc, No Impact Man, it would seem that my crimes against Mother Gaia are running a close 2nd to those of Capt. Hazelwood.

Filmmakers Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein document the efforts of blogger/author Colin Beavan to spend an entire year making as little environmental impact as possible. Operating under the supposition that there are more than a few self proclaimed “environmentally conscious” wags out there who don’t  practice what they preach (and humbly considering himself to be among them) Beavan set out to put his mulch where his mouth is.

Beavan decided that if he was really going to go for it, he would have to convince his dazzling urbanite wife, Business Week writer Michelle Conlin (a classic New York neurotic) and their toddler to join in as well. So how does a family of Manhattanites pull this off without leaving their metropolitan cocoon? This paradox provides plenty of rich narrative compost for the filmmakers, and they cultivate it well.

Any food that the vegetarian family were to consume in the course of the experiment would have to come from local growers (although, dwelling in the heart of New York City, they had to fudge the definition of “local” a tad). Much to Michelle’s chagrin, this meant no more Starbucks (the inevitable scenes dealing with her caffeine withdrawal angst, while initially amusing, begin to feel a little stagy).

Electricity was right out, so they dutifully shut down the breakers in their apartment. Automated transportation was also nixed, only walking and biking allowed (elevators were also verboten). And lastly, they make what is arguably the ultimate sacrifice: no material consumption (during a thrift store visit, Michelle gazes wistfully at a used Marc Jacobs bag; the look on her face speaks volumes about the twisted pathos of consumer culture). When Beavan announces that toilet paper is off the list, the, erm, shit really hits the fan.

Despite the obvious “Dah-link I love you, but give me Park Avenue!” parallels, it’s not exactly Green Acres; after all, this is a serious-minded documentary, not just going for the quick yuck. In fact, one of the more fascinating aspects of the film is its exploration of the outright hatred that Beavan receives from some quarters.

In one scene, he mopes at his laptop, so befuddled and browbeaten by all the negative comments on his blog that he’s ready to just throw in the towel on the whole project. Ironically, some of his detractors accuse him of being the very creature that he set out to prove to himself that he wasn’t-one of the hypocritical “green fakers”.

Even one of his consultants, an urban gardening expert, questions his sincerity. He proffers that Beavan’s wife writes for Business Week, “…for which millions of trees are cut down on a regular basis in order to promote the thoroughly fallacious propaganda that American corporate capitalism is good for the people.” He’s only getting warmed up. He concludes: “If it’s your contention that it evens out because she doesn’t take the elevator in your 5th Avenue co-op…I have to say you’re either dishonest, or delusional.”  Ouch!

For me, the most pragmatic takeaway from the film stems from one of Beavan’s more thoughtful observations. Perhaps the point is “…not about using as little as we can possibly use…but to find a way to get what you need, in a sustainable way.” The major question that looms is: why are some people so threatened by the very idea of “thinking green”? Beavan offers that perhaps it is “…the idea of deprivation that scares people the most” – which of course brings us back full circle to Wally’s lament from My Dinner with Andre that I quoted at the top of the post.

Short of chucking it all and joining an Amish enclave, I think it’s possible to be “green” and enjoy some comforts of modern technology without feeling guilty about being alive in the 21st Century. For Wally, it’s the idea of losing the use of his electric blanket. For me, it would be my DVD player. And my DVD collection. OK, and my cable service, and my DVR. I will happily sort out all my garbage, buy locally (when feasible) and avoid using my vehicle whenever practical, but you’ll only get my Universal Remote…when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

Sea my friends: Ponyo, on a Cliff by the Sea ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 15, 2009)

If you are not particularly in the mood to watch summer movie viscera exploding across the screen in a sea of gore, I do have an alternative suggestion. The newest film from anime master Hayao Miyazaki has finally reached U.S. theatres (in limited release right now).Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea is a slight but lovely tale in the Hans Christian Andersen vein, infused with the lush visual magic we’ve come to expect from Studio Ghibli.

A young boy named Sosuke, who lives (wait for it)…on a cliff by the sea discovers an amorphous ocean creature with vaguely humanoid features floundering on the beach one.  Naming “her” Ponyo, he lovingly nurses it back to health. Imagine his surprise when the little fish begins to mimic human speech (at the point where she says, “Ponyo loves Sosuke!” I couldn’t help but wonder if Miyazaki was homage to the classic “Fa loves Pa!” line from Day of the Dolphin).

Sosuke’s affinity and kindness toward his “pet” is soon reciprocated via a  wondrous transmogrification; it’s sort of a puppy-love take on Wings of Desire. Complications ensue when Ponyo’s dad (a Neptune-type sea  god) registers disapproval by unleashing the power of the ocean.

Although many of Miyazaki’s recurring themes are on display, they are less strident than usual; still, I think this is the director’s most accessible and straightforward storytelling since My Neighbor Totoro. I’ll admit, in the opening scenes I was initially a bit dismayed that the animation seemed more simplistic than usual (at least by Studio Ghibli’s own standards); but as the film unfolded I came to realize that the use of soft lines and muted pastels is a stylistic choice that meshes perfectly with the gentle rhythms of its narrative.

My review is based on a screening of the Japanese PAL DVD that is already available. I still anticipate catching it on the big screen (always preferable), especially for some gorgeous and amazingly detailed underwater milieus, and a powerful sequence of an ocean tempest that features the most breathtaking animation I’ve seen in quite a while. Overall, it may pale when compared to, say, Spirited Away, but in my experience, there is no such thing as “mediocre” Miyazaki. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

SIFF 2007: The Planet ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 30, 2007)

https://i0.wp.com/images.boomsbeat.com/data/images/full/7330/earth_2-jpg.jpg?resize=474%2C276

This week we’re looking at The Planet, a powerful new Scandinavian documentary. The “planet” in question would be the Earth. The issue would be how we are methodically destroying it. Now, I know what you’re flashing on (and it has something to do with a former VP, PowerPoint presentations and a Melissa Etheridge song, right?).

Yes, directors Johan Soderberg and Michael Stenberg do trod upon much of the same ground that was covered in An Inconvenient Truth, but speaking from a purely cinematic viewpoint, I would have to say they execute their message in a less prosaic, more attention-grabbing manner. (Before I get jumped in an alley, let me say that I would recommend An Inconvenient Truth to strangers on the street, it is an important film, and Al Gore is a sincere and passionate crusader, but there is something about the man’s languid drawl that lulls me into a drowsy state of alpha. But that’s my personal problem.)

“The Planet” appears to take some visual inspiration from Godfrey Reggio’s classic observation on the global environmental zeitgeist, Koyaanisqatsi and mixes it up with sobering commentary from environmentalists, scientists and academics. The visuals are stunning, yet also distressing. Zebras and gazelles graze against the backdrop of a modern urban skyline, whilst a renowned wildlife photographer reminds us in voice-over that all those documentaries depicting boundless expanses of habitat untouched by human encroachment are just so much puerile fantasy. Kind of takes all the joy out of watching Planet Earth on Discovery HD Theater, doesn’t it?

One of the more chilling observations comes from geography professor Jared Diamond, who makes a convincing case citing Easter Island’s man-made and irretrievable ecological devastation as a microcosm of what is now occurring to the planet as a whole.

And it gets even better (er-don’t ask me about what could be happening as early as 2010).

The interviewees are all insightful, and they certainly pull no punches (viewing this film may be traumatic for depressives and those who have empathetic tendencies). In a nutshell? If we don’t change our present course, we’re fucked. And it will not be cinematic.

The scouring of the shire: Manufactured Landscapes ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 28, 2007)

https://zeitgeistfilms.com/image/film-photo/id/153/photo/1045/class/full

After viewing Canadian documentary filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes, you may not be able to ever look at a “Made in China” product label again without envisioning the film’s unforgettable opening scene.

In a tracking shot that would make Orson Welles proud, Baichwal’s camera dollies along the factory floor of a surrealistically huge Chinese manufacturing plant, passing endless rows of work benches, manned by thousands of employees. The shot dissolves into a striking, beautifully composed photograph of the entire milieu. The spectacle of myriad factory drones in their bright yellow uniforms, as captured in the photo, resembles a “human beehive” in every sense of the word. This is how we are introduced to the photography of Edward Burtynsky, the subject of Baichwal’s documentary.

Baichwal follows Burtynsky as he travels through China photographing the devastating impact of that country’s industrial revolution upon its environment. Under Mao, China was transformed into a nation 90% agrarian and 10% urban; in a relatively short period of time, the current regime has facilitated a near flip-flop of that ratio. Through Burtynsky’s lens, it quickly becomes apparent that there is a substantial price to pay for such frenetically paced “progress” (especially after a visit to the Three Gorges Dam project, which has required the dismantlement and obliteration of 13 cities, brick by brick).

Burtynsky’s eye discerns a kind of terrible beauty in the wake of the profound and irreversible human imprint incurred by accelerated “modernization”. As captured by Burtynsky’s camera, strip-mined vistas recall the stark desolation of NASA photos sent from the Martian surface; mountains of “e-waste” dumped in a vast Chinese landfill take on a kind of almost gothic, cyber-punk dreamscape. The photographs begin to play like a scroll through Google Earth images as reinterpreted by Jackson Pollock or M.C. Escher.

Burtynsky states in the film that his work is “apolitical”. Despite her subject’s disclaimer, however, director Baichwal sneaks in a point of view here and there. In one scene, Burtynsky comes up against some reticent company officials, who attempt to convince him that the “light is bad” for photos. When that fails to sway, they ask the filmmakers to turn their equipment off. They pretend to comply, surreptitiously keeping the camera going anyway as the officials then admit that they are afraid that any photos depicting an environmental impact might give anyone who would view them the “wrong impression”.

This is a worthwhile film, with a unique, slightly more artistic bent than the most of the recent spate of environmentally-themed, “sky is falling” docs (I am quite cognizant that the sky, indeed, is falling, but enough with the lecturing already.)