By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 17, 2012)
We’re down in the Poles: Chasing Ice
This is not a put down: Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Ice is glacially paced. Because “glacial pacing” ain’t what it used to be. These days, glaciers are moving along (”retreating”, technically) at a pretty good clip. Unfortunately, this phenomenon does not portend well for the planet; as this ancient ice continues to dissipate at an alarmingly accelerating rate, leaving naught but barren rock in its wake, it is a red flag alert akin to Mother Earth experiencing a health-threatening hardening of the arteries. To put it in a less flowery way…we’re fucked. According to renowned nature photographer (and film subject) James Balog, “The story…is in the ice.”
Of course, there are those who continue to dismiss the concept of man-made global warming, despite the tangible evidence (and nearly unanimous scientific consensus). Orlowski opens his film with a montage of the usual braying deniers (Hannity, Beck, & co.) including one that surprised me (Weather Channel creator John Coleman…really?) interspersed with news footage of some of the freakish and catastrophic weather events that have become an all too frequent occurrence (gosh, it almost seems like last week…I seem to recall a “Hurricane Sandy” making a bit of a splash). Luckily, their appearances are brief, because the story centers on Balog’s eye-opening “Extreme Ice Survey” project.
His journey began in 2005, while on assignment for National Geographic to document the effect of climate change on the Arctic. Previous to that trip, Balog had counted himself among the skeptics, candidly admitting that he “…didn’t think humans were capable” of affecting the Earth’s weather patterns in such a profound manner.
His epiphany gave birth to a multi-year project that he pursued with missionary fervor. His goal was to utilize specially modified time-lapse cameras to capture irrefutable proof that affective global warming had transcended academic speculation. After strategically placing the cameras next to sizable glaciers like Solheim in Iceland, Store in Greenland and several more in Alaska and Montana, Balog and his team began their painstaking waiting game.
The resulting images are beautiful and mesmerizing, yet troubling. Orlowski’s film itself mirrors the dichotomy, being equal parts cautionary eco-doc and art installation. Balog’s stills and time-lapsed sequences are fantastical ice-wrought dioramas that look like they were imagined by Roger Dean and rendered by Dale Chihuly.
Finding these diamonds in the rough of pending ecological disaster reminded me of Jennifer Baichwal’s 2007 documentary about photojournalist Edward Burtynsky, Manufactured Landscapes. The film also demonstrates the blood, sweat and tears that goes into professional photography (particularly in some hair-raising moments where Balog and a member of his team make a risky foray into a seemingly bottomless crevasse, just to grab a couple of shots).
While Balog makes a number of impassioned statements about the urgent need to get everyone on the same page regarding this issue, Orlowski stops just shy of taking a strident polemical stance. This is wise, because he doesn’t need to hit us over the head to make his point about the profound effects of global warming.
This is best illustrated in a scene where one of Balog’s teams captures the largest “calving” event ever so documented. The jaw-dropping sequence, depicting an ice peninsula equivalent in size to lower Manhattan (and twice the height of its tallest skyscrapers) sluicing off of Greenland’s massive Hulissat Glacier, handily trumps any amount of squawking that emits from the bloviating gasbag deniers featured in the opening montage, and proves that the old adage will forever ring true: a picture is worth a thousand words.