Friday, December 19, 2014

Yagtze Drift (2014) and Audience

Readings of John Rash's documentary Yangtze Drift (2014) depend on the audience viewing this non-narrative documentary. An audience familiar with the history and context of the river and the Three Gorges Dam will view the film differently than will an audience unfamiliar with that context or observing it only from the outside.

For us, this beautiful documentary short broaches issues explored in Up the Yangtze (2007), which showcases lives transformed by the Three Gorges Dam, the biggest hydroelectric dam in history. Yangtze Drift provides a seemingly objective view of the river environment and its people, but it also left us with multiple questions:
·      What does the audience think about the environmental consequences to the Yangtze now that the dam is complete?
·      Is this river now placid because of this result?
·      How would an outside audience understand the changes created by the dam?
·      Do local audiences who watch it accept these changes as natural? How does the rhetoric differ for this audinence?
·      Do they accept the new eco-system created by the dam as something that remains unquestioned?
·      What changes have occurred off screen?

From an outsider perspective, waving weeds open and close Yangtze Drift and serve as both an introduction to the drifting river and a frame for this direct cinema poem.

After an overhead shot of the river, we hear singing before the film fades to black and changes scenes to another overhead shot on shore of buildings, trees, and ruined skyscrapers.

The shot pans past this part of the city to a highway near the shore. Shots of cars seem to roll into images boats and the river. From above the Yangtze looks silent and flat, but as the camera moves closer, we see ripples. As if peering through tourists’ lenses, we see flowing shore grasses and a smaller boat passing by.

A man rows and sings. Other rippled surfaces reflect the water—an old woman’s face, shadows of waves on a wall where the river seems to have flooded up to a door.

Other scenes show people looking out windows at the river. One takes pictures. A boat floats by.

When rain begins, ripples in geometric shapes form in wash basins and large noodle pots. Shot in low angle, the flow of water seems to transform a street into a stream. The rain continues in the widening river, forming works of abstract art on the water.

Tourists on board a tour boat photograph the river and shore under umbrellas. Here the river is surrounded by cliffs. A small motorboat goes by the larger tour boat, revealing the lack of diegetic sound on board. We hear murmurings of voices, but the small boat’s loud engine stands out.

Back on shore at another spot on the river, people exercise on a beach. A fisherman drips his line in the water off some rocks.

Across the river, a city appears, and the camera shifts again to another overhead shot of skyscrapers lit for night. The pan of this city moves down to young people on steps beside the river listening to a band play “Let it Be” from the Beatles. A woman with a dog wades in the water. Vendors sell barbecue on sticks. Couples look out at lit skyscrapers. Cell phones are everywhere.

This pan transforms into part of what looks like a tourism film of the evolution of a mega city. On various screens, images of birds on the river appear. A poster advertises the Tribe of the Three Gorges, but includes pictures of women with machine guns, as well. A rapidly moving tour bus goes past, and then we are on board among the diverse tourists of various races and nationalities. The river is wide and deep. A tour guide points out various sites, including a dam under construction. Is it the Three Gorges Dam? The explanation of the huge mountains on both sides is in English.

But then it seems we are back to our opening setting. We hear thunder and watch the singing man row his boat. Shadows of water ripples replicate the river on the walls he passes. A note on a boat claims this is the number one water town in China. Pedestrians cross over a bridge. Crowds walk by the camera. Boats float on the water and birds float over grasses blowing in the breeze. The screen grows darker and the film ends.

When the title comes up, however, it shows a drawing of the bridge and the filmmaker’s name end the film, leaving us wondering if both the river environment and the human constructions around it are artificial. This view of the river is making a statement, but that statement differs according to the audience viewing it.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Noah (2014) and the Limits of Human Ecology

Whether you read Genesis for the story of the great flood or watch John Huston’s 1966 The Bible, Kevin Costner’s 1995 Waterworld  or Tom Shaydac’s 2007 Evan Almighty the idea of an earth cleansing flood is fodder for awesome and fearful spectacular visions. Directed by Darren Aronofsky, Noah (2014) reboots the Genesis story, but in this rewriting of the Biblical Genesis story, Noah (Russell Crowe) gains the trust of God and his “Watchers” by contesting the environmental disasters caused by Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), a descendent of Cain. According to the film’s opening, Cain and his offspring “build a great industrial civilization” that “devoured the world.” Instead of exploiting the earth’s resources, Noah teaches his family to live sustainably, protecting nature as a steward rather than a figurative rapist. As a descendent of Seth, he “defend[s] and protect[s] what is left of creation,” according to the opening narration. Despite its emphasis on environmental degradation, Noah also continues the human focus found in films such as the 1970 No Blade of Grass.

As part of this human focus, Noah serves as a super-masculine action hero protecting his family and the Earth at any cost. In this reboot of the Biblical story, Noah decisively revises God’s plan to rebuild all life, including humans, by eliminating wives and children from the Ark. In this version, Noah believes that because “everything that was beautiful, everything that was good we shattered, mankind must end.” After the flood ends, Noah tells his family, when his adopted infertile daughter Ila (Emma Watson) and the last of his sons Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll) die, so will humanity. In Noah’s mind, humans will only repeat their mistakes and destroy creation if given the chance.

Instead, Noah’s grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) has miraculously restored Ila’s fertility. When she gives birth to twins girls, Noah cannot kill his granddaughters, so human ecology prevails. In Noah as in the Bible, however, it is a higher power that intervenes to cleanse the world and provide the space for a new beginning after the great flood. As the narrator explains, Noah and his family must “be fruitful and multiply and replenish the Earth.” Most of humanity is destroyed, but the remaining extended family serves as a curious genesis for the rise of human populations around the world.

The focus on humanity in Noah parallels Congressman (and, perhaps, future House Energy Committee chair) John Shimkus’s recent reaction to climate change. For example, in November 2010, Shimkus insisted we “shouldn’t be concerned about the planet being destroyed because God promised Noah it wouldn’t happen again after the great flood” (MailOnline). This assertion reinforces his March 2009 address at an Energy and Environment hearing where he quoted Chapter 8, Verse 22 of Genesis and claimed, “As long as the earth endures, seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, will never cease.” Darren Aronofsky’s Noah takes the idea that earth will endure further by connecting earth’s replenishment only to human fertility. Ultimately, despite the film’s nod to Anthropocenic climate change, Noah leaves audiences wondering, with such a higher power protecting us, why bother cleaning up our own environmental mess?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Snowpiercer (2013) and the Cli-Fi Hero

The blatantly eco-horror cli-fi film Snowpiercer (2013) emphasizes both its climate change catalyst and its human focus through its steampunk sensibility. Although it begins with patriarchal heroes battling for control of the snow-piercing train that houses the last surviving humans, the rebellion ends not in capturing control but in initiating a new beginning without white male saviors. The parting shot of Yona (Ah-sung Ko) and Timmy watching a polar bear suggest the possibility of surviving humans becoming part of a larger biotic community rather than pioneers.

The film’s opening shows us the consequences of climate change and the negative repercussions of treating the warming atmosphere with an experimental chemical CW7 to cool the Earth. Instead of combatting climate change, the experiment froze the planet and killed all life, according to the opening narration. Only a few humans survive on a massive climate-controlled train and are relegated into carriages by class. Unsurprisingly, the third class masses like Tanya (Octavia Butler) and her children envy the first class passengers in the comfort of the opulent front. As’s Andrew O’Hehir explains, “In the filthy, overcrowded rear cars where Curtis (Chris Evans), Edgar (Jamie Bell) and the cryptic, prophetic elder statesman called Gilliam (John Hurt) are confined, anger is building toward another uprising.” Set 17 years after the freeze, Snowpiercer shows us the results of such exploitation: a rebellion led by young revolutionary Curtis (Chris Evans) with sometimes devious goals.

The bulk of Snowpiercer examines this rebellion while also revealing the intricacies of the train as biosphere with every new carriage Curtis and his crew penetrate. The ultimate goal is disrupting the hierarchy by seizing the means of production—the engine that runs the train and its climate. In one car they free a drug-addicted security specialist Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song) and his daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko). When Curtis offers him a month of the hallucinogen Kronole for every carriage door he opens, Minsoo agrees to join them. 

With Minsoo’s help, the rebels fight their way through a car where a sole worker cooks their insect protein blocks, a vegetable and flower garden carriage, an aquarium car where seafood is raised for the upper classes, and even an elite elementary school. The rebel group dwindles with each battle but, according to A. O. Scott, the sometimes slapstick violence “produc[es] a volatile blend of humor and horror that pays tribute to the source material while coloring its themes with the director’s distinctively perverse and humane sensibility.”

Ultimately Curtis reaches the engine at the front of the train, but the rebellion ends not in capturing control but in initiating a new beginning like that depicted in Noah (2014). As O’Hehir declares, “This may be the most ambitious and capacious dystopian critique since “The Matrix” 15 years ago, and it’s one that seeks to offer a hopeful and even transcendent vision.” The last scenes of Snowpiercer support this claim when Yona and Timmy climb outside the train and live to see a polar bear on a hill. In Noah, according the Noah’s vision, “water cleanses.” In Snowpiercer, that cleansing water is frozen.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Interstellar as Cli-Fi?

Like many dystopic visions, Interstellar (2014) has its antecedents. While many critics slavishly point out Christopher Nolan’s 2001 fixation, his need to return to the Kubrick vision of interplanetary travel from the late 1960s, two other films are just as prominently influential: Pare Lorentz’s 1936 The Plow that Broke the Plains and Cornell Wilde’s 1970 No Blade of Grass. The former short documentary produced for the Roosevelt administration highlights how humanity caused the catastrophe known as the Dust Bowl and how intelligent practices can eliminate such an eco-disaster in the future. No Blade of Grass posits the end of times due to a worldwide collapse of all sources of grain due to a mysterious virus that has left the planet vulnerable to extinction. With no wormhole to rescue our main characters, we follow them from London to deep into the backcountry of England where they search for a garden that will sustain them through this human-caused eco-catastrophe.

Forty-four years later, Interstellar mines the same territory as No Blade of Grass (as well as Soylent Green, The Omega Man, and the Road Warrior films). But by refusing to credit humanity for destroying the earth, conveniently blaming the disaster in Iowa on dirt that no longer wants to cooperate with human needs, Interstellar sets up an escape plan that completely avoids the need to explore the causes for their escape attempts. Instead, a tiny crew of scientists leaves earth to set up a new Iowa utopia that is exclusively white, middle class, and rural. The fact that the physics of space travel, of worm holes and the like, are realistic from a rocket scientist’s perspective conflicts with Nolan’s refusal to give us a realistic account of why the earth is facing extinction. The earth has failed humanity, and now it’s time to “shitcan” it and find a new set of orbs to obliterate with our presence.

Interstellar in some ways points back to The Day After Tomorrow (2004) by connecting the lone male hero Cooper (McConaughey) with his daughter Murph (Jessica Chastain) and an elite “family” of scientists, a reduced view of social networks. Because Cooper chooses to sacrifice himself for both his daughter and humanity, his father-hero role contrasts with that of Dr. Mann (Matt Damon) who seems to represent the tragic eco-hero, bent on his own survival no matter what the cost to either his “family” or humanity as a whole. Like The Day After Tomorrow, Interstellar relies on a different kind of hero, one that arguably combines both tragic and comic characteristics. 

For us, though, Interstellar’s lack of emphasis on biotic community is more of a problem than this reliance on a father hero. As astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Dyson declared on Twitter, we “can’t imagine a future where escaping Earth via [a] wormhole is a better plan than just fixing Earth.” Ultimately, the film becomes a post-apocalyptic journey rather than argument against CO2 emissions. Unlike The Day After Tomorrow or No Blade of Grass, Interstellar makes few (if any) explicit comments about Anthropocene climate change. Instead, multiple dustbowl survivors tell their stories without placing any blame on themselves for their plight. Only grandpa Don (John Lithgow) suggests that over-consumption may have contributed to the devastation around them. Instead the film fulfills Christopher Nolan’s vision by becoming (as he asserted) "an ode to human spaceflight." 

Ironically, with just a few dialogue changes, Interstellar could easily become a powerful visual expression of the consequences of Anthropocenic climate change. Accompanying the visually intense depictions of the destructive power of over-farming leading to blight and perpetual dustbowl conditions with explicit nods to human contributions to these disasters might make this a cli-fi worth heralding.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Fish Kill: The End of the Line

Fish Kill

Uncle Arnold got fat
that summer,

belly full
of potato candy

a sugar roll
with peanut butter

like pimples
Aunt Midge popped
on his back after work.

Uncle Arnold died 
at the bottom of an oil tank,

red, white, and blue
puffing him up,

painting his lungs

like fourth of July
beside the Ohio 

while Aunt Midge
drew fingers through
curly yellow locks,

knocked catfish off hooks
into bloody buckets

watching them
gasp and swell

under a rotting sun.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Embarras Valley Film Festival Student Short Film Contest Official Selections

EVFF 2014 Student Short Film Contest Official Selections
A Problem, Dir. Zoe Tether
Birthday Boy, Dir. Josef Lorenzo
The Thief, Dir. Ali Aschman
Into the Glass , Dir. Grant Czadzeck
Hell! Visa, Dir. Junjie "Jake" Zhang
Passenger, Dir. Brendan Kirschbaum
Tough Case, Dir. Stefan Perez
Run. , Dir. Kevin Bauer
Overflowing, Dir. Royal Day, Aurora Gonzales
Splintered Heart, Dir. Yu Tin Ko
Dark Mechanism, Dir. Ihab Mardini
Melon Head, Dir. Andy Fortenbacher
POOP, Dir. Mitchell O'Hearn
937 MILES APART , Dir. Justin Escalona
'Tis the Season, Dir. Kirsten Stuck
Pretty Penny, Dir. Ellen Willis
BEAT, Dir. Inhye Lee
Mr. Bear, Dir. Andres Rosende
Fan, Dir. Alex Zajicek
WIND, Dir. Hunter Hopewell
Road Trip, Dir. Stacy Jill Calvert
Girly, Dir. Kira Bursky
Home Cooking, Dir. Elizabeth Herrick
Alicia's Vengeance, Dir. Char Vereen, Yusuf Al-Rahman