Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Hellstrom Chronicle: Turning Insects into Monsters

The Hellstrom Chronicle: Turning Insects into Monsters

            With the 1971 Academy Award for Best Documentary, The Hellstrom Chronicle connects amazing micro-documentary footage with a cautionary voiceover from Dr. Hellstrom. The film’s faux documentary stance, however, is complicated by its confusing rhetorical message that warns of mass elimination due to destructive environmentally disastrous practices performed by insects at the micro-level, without threatening their own survival. Although The Hellstrom Chronicle begins by contrasting the human world with that of insects and approaches its subject for varied purposes, it ultimately contends through its narrative and visual rhetoric, "Is it possible that these creatures are us?” 

Perhaps in an attempt to warn humanity about the negative consequences of their own exploitation of the natural world, the film constructs insects as monsters first by highlighting characteristics that Stephen R. Kellert suggests promote fear in humans, but those traits may also draw on the qualities shared by the most horrific versions of ourselves. By emphasizing these fear-inducing characteristics, the film seems not only to warn humanity about insects seeming invulnerability, but also to attribute their possible dominance in the world to humanity’s own mistreatment of the natural world. If we continue to destroy our environment, the film suggests, our species will be usurped by the insect world. Despite the film’s attempts to separate humans and insects, however, its narrative and film footage suggest insects will inherit the earth not because they are superior to humans but because they are just like us. Drawing on all levels of anthropomorphism proposed by Persson, Laaksolahti, and Lonnquist, the film constructs insects as monsters by highlighting their primitive psychological qualities, their connection to human folk-psychology, their traits and “dispositions,” the social roles they play, and the emotions they both display and produce.

The film first applies the primitive psychology level of anthropomorphism, highlighting insects’ drive to fulfill their basic needs aligns with that of humans. Hellstrom claims, “In fighting the insect we have killed ourselves, polluted our water, poisoned our wildlife, permeated our own flesh with deadly toxins. The insect becomes immune, and we are poisoned. In fighting with superior intellect, we have outsmarted ourselves.” Yet that so-called immunity is based on one element humans and insects share: “only humans and insects as species are on the increase.” Man radically changes the earth, and insects adapt to any changes man can make, Hellstrom declares, yet his attempts to separate humans from the insect world fall flat because he bases his arguments that insects will inherit the earth on their similarity to humans.

Even when making claims about differences between these two worlds, Hellstrom grounds his arguments in demonstrations of their similarities. For example, Hellstrom discusses insect traits in relation to those of humans, maintaining that the society of bees is perfect because it is based on cooperation rather than competition and “individual need,” so that “in [this] cooperative society, the fate of each is the destiny of all.”  Since both individuality and cooperation are human traits and dispositions, connecting them to insects anthropomorphizes them on the level of traits, a higher level than that of primitive psychology.

Hellstrom also draws on the folk-psychology level of anthropomorphism when describing cooperative behavior of insects. At the same time Hellstrom separates bees from humans because of their perfect cooperative culture, he connects the cooperative harvest ants to human farmers when he suggests they are “the first to take steps toward agriculture,” a parallel that aligns with folk-psychology. Hellstrom draws on both traits and folk-psychology anthropomorphism when he maintains that these insects’ “instinct to harvest is an instinct of greed,” just as in the human world. He makes similar comparisons with a termite mound society, “one of the first experiments in social order” that he visually compares to a computer at the California Institute of Technology.

Near the end of the film, however, footage and voiceover commentary contradict this claim, implementing images and commentary that illustrate folk-psychology and traits levels of anthropomorphism. While showing images of insect violence, including those from the Naked Jungle (1954) of ants with the “need to kill and plunder” using their bodies as bridges, building trenches to prepare for war, and acting as sentries and guards to launch attacks and bring back their kill, Hellstrom proclaims that these driver ants are a “mindless unstoppable killing machine, dedicated to the destruction of everything that stands in its way. Each of them is completely blind, driven forward through the darkness by a single demanding need within – the need to kill and plunder.”  Through pillaging their young are fed, Hellstrom tells us, and an ant-covered lizard is shown being dragged back into their fortress as an illustration. Other animals and insects are brought back to share with the rest of the colony: a snake, a caterpillar, a scorpion, and a butterfly.

Hellstrom ends the film with the diatribe, “The true winner is the last to finish the race,” but his narrative and film footage suggest insects will inherit the earth not because they are superior to humans but because they are us. By integrating multiple levels of anthropomorphism, The Hellstrom Chronicle turns insects into monsters possessing the worst human traits and exploiting them for the most destructive reasons. What is missing from The Hellstrom Chronicle is at least a partial nod towards the interdependence and biotic community of organismic approaches to ecology. As Canby suggest, “Anyone who as ever lived more than a week in a New York apartment already knows, for example, that an entente with insects must be reached if the world is to survive.”  By constructing insects as monsters, the film connects them to the human world without inducing the sympathy that might save both.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Give me shelter: the ecology of the home in Blue Vinyl and Libby, Montana

Although many documentaries explore the devastating sense of loss residents feel when their homes are lost or destroyed by everyday eco-disasters, few examine the environmental consequences of the building materials used to construct the home. Blue Vinyl (2002) and Libby, Montana (2004) move beyond lamenting eco-driven loss of the home place found in environmental documentaries from mountaintop removal films such as B. J. Gudmundsson’s Rise Up! West Virginia (2007) and Mountain Mourning(2008)[1] [open endnotes in new window] to Josh Fox’s anti-fracking expose, Gasland (2010), and unmask some of the environmental hazards of the home itself. Although their documentary approaches differ, both Blue Vinyl and Libby, Montana reveal the toxic environmental hazards faced by workers constructing housing materials and the homeowners themselves, with Blue Vinyl focusing on the dangers of Polyvinyl Chloride, and Libby, Montana highlighting asbestos and its mineral source, vermiculite.

In the personal narrative-driven Blue Vinyl: The World’s First Toxic Comedy (2002), co-director and writer Judith Helfand and co-director/cinematographer Daniel B. Gold become comic detectives in their attempt to find a viable solution to Helfand’s parents’ home repair dilemma:  Is it possible to replace rotting wood siding with “products that never hurt anyone at any point in their life cycle” but still provide the economy, endurance, and good looks of cheap but toxic blue vinyl? After attempting to convince her parents to forego their new vinyl siding choice for a more environmentally friendly alternative (as long as it’s cheap and looks good), Helfand and Gold embark on an investigative journey that reveals both the dangers underpinning vinyl use and the challenge to find a viable, affordable, and environmentally friendly alternative.

In Libby, Montana, directors Drury Gunn Carr and Doug Hawes-Davis take a more traditional documentary approach to expose the health hazards asbestos has caused in Libby’s mines and factories from 1919 until their closure in 1990. Also structured like a mystery, this social documentary combines talking head and direct cinema approaches to illuminate the biggest case of community-wide exposure to a toxic substance in U.S. history, resulting at last count in an estimated 1,500 cases of lung abnormalities. The film carefully documents the history of a town that moved from logging to mining vermiculite. Ninety-two percent of  people who worked for the mine more than twenty years died from lung disease. Most condemning is evidence that W. R. Grace & Company knew the danger of asbestos and did nothing. According to the film, despite overwhelming health problems and clear signs of criminal negligence, the EPA’s arrival in 1999 leads only to more wrangling, this time over whether or not Libby should be labeled a Superfund site.

Blue Vinyl provides a narrative of discovery in which Helfand and Gold reveal what the dangers PVC mean for not only her parents and other suburbanites keen on siding their homes with vinyl, but also for PVC chemical plant workers and home dwellers nearby.  Libby, Montana documents a mystery now solved but unresolved due to bureaucratic battles by EPA officials and corporate leaders over designating the town a Superfund site. In these eco-documentaries, multiple issues of home and homelessness are explored, revealing a plethora of environmental problems that, according to Blue Vinyl and Libby, Montana,  especially, should be addressed no matter how difficult the task. The repercussions of doing nothing are too toxic for both human and nonhuman nature. Overlooking these eco-disasters may turn the everyday into catastrophe, these films assert, reinforcing the power of an environmental justice movement grounded in an equitable and humane vision of home.

Although the documentary strategies applied in Blue Vinyl are more compelling than those in Libby, Montana these films both effectively illustrate the complexity of environmental justice issues. Environmental injustice, lack of human rights, and, to a certain extent, environmental racism intersect in the literal study of homes in Blue Vinyland Libby, Montana. For these films’ directors, it’s not just how you live and how you build your home, it’s where you live and what’s around you that contribute to the everyday eco-disasters associated with constructing and sustaining shelter.  

Monday, August 25, 2014

Reading The Day After Tomorrow as Cli-Fi and Evolutionary Narrative

As both a climate fiction and a disaster film, The Day After Tomorrow (2004) highlights a different way to envision evolutionary narratives and the heroes that drive them. In cli-fi films from the 1970s and eco-comic disaster films from the 1980s forward (such as Eight Legged Freaks [2002] and Warm Bodies [2013]), disaster plots are driven by two different kinds of heroes: tragic pioneers and comic community builders. The Day After Tomorrow, on the other hand, relies on a different kind of hero, one that arguably combines both tragic and comic characteristics. Our reading of The Day After Tomorrow attempts to make the idea of the new ecological (eco)-hero more transparent rather than rearticulating the obvious ecological messages on display in the film. In The Day After Tomorrow, heroic roles are filled not by tragic pioneers or even bumbling comic heroes, but by a father seeking to save his own child from an environment that humanity has made toxic in multiple ways. In The Day After Tomorrow eco-hero and father Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) attempts not only to save the world from global warming but also to save his son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) from a flooded and frozen New York City.

This new breed of eco-hero fails to fit in categories of tragic or comic heroes as defined by either Aristotle or Joseph W. Meeker. Meeker expands Aristotle’s categories to include the natural world in his eco-critical approach to Classic literature. Meeker’s tragic heroes in the natural world are the ecological pioneers, “the loners of the natural world, the tragic heroes who sacrifice themselves in satisfaction of mysterious inner commands which they alone can hear” (“The Comic Mode” 161). His comic heroes build community. Meeker argues that once ecosystems mature, heroic solitary pioneers become not only unnecessary but also subordinate to the group. In a mature or climax ecosystem, “it is the community itself that really matters, and it is likely to be an extremely durable community so long as balance is maintained among its many elements” (Meeker “The Comic Mode” 163). Comic heroes emerge from these climax ecosystems. 

Jack Hall serves the community while maintaining a solitary quest, however. This new eco-hero combines the best qualities of the tragic and comic heroes to build a better world community while also saving children who are closest to them. As an intellectually driven hero seeking to save the world from the consequences of climate change he endured at the North Pole, Jack looks like Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth when he explains global warming to a world delegation but like Thorn when he saves himself from a glacial collapse. In spite of these two daring acts—one physical and the other intellectual—Jack’s many weaknesses are also on display in the film. When he returns from his latest Arctic trip, his house plants have nearly died, his son has failed calculus, and his ex-wife has lost faith in his ability even to pick up his son in time to get him to the airport for a scholastic bowl tournament. 

These everyday events, however, are juxtaposed with images of worldwide eco-disaster. Professor Terry Rapson (Ian Holm), an oceanographer, discusses the possibility of a new Ice Age, and reports of its oncoming effects soon come in from all over the world. Pieces of ice fall from the sky in Tokyo, destroying cars and killing any people they strike. Snowstorms drift into New Delhi. Storms hit Jack’s son Sam’s flight, on its way to New York. And when Sam and his friend Laura (Emmy Rossum) reach the city, they watch from their taxi as flocks of birds migrate away from the city, seemingly disturbed by climate change. When Jack enters Professor Rapson’s data into his climate model, the results are devastating. According to their conclusions, the Earth will be in a full-scale ice age in six to eight weeks. More disastrous events point to this upcoming ice age: frozen helicopter pilots in Scotland, and massive flooding in New York City with tidal waves catapulting down its broad avenues. Sam and the rest of his scholastic bowl friends make their way into the New York Public Library, and the father/son narrative takes center stage. Sam finds a water-logged pay phone in the library, calls his father, and hears his father’s promise: “wait it out and burn what you can. I will come for you. I will come for you.” The rest of the film revolves around Jack’s quest to save his son, and his son’s and ex-wife’s evolution into new eco-heroes like Jack.

The family melodrama becomes the main focus until the film’s end, even though it is occasionally broken with more global concerns, like the death of the President and the fate of American refugees in Mexico. Jack’s ex-wife Lucy’s (Sela Ward) heroism is highlighted when an ambulance arrives to save her and a young patient, Peter, whom she has refused to leave alone. And when Sam gathers penicillin and food from a iced-in Russian ship, he too demonstrates his potential as an eco-hero. Jack serves as the most daring eco-hero, when he saves his son and the remaining New York survivors from the library. As Jack explains, “I made my son a promise. I’m going to keep it.”

This eco-drama ends with father and son reunited (and possibly husband and wife). The cli fi-disaster looks like most disaster films in every way other than the way the image of the hero is constructed. In The Day After Tomorrow, the hero is a true eco-hero, attempting to save the world from environmental disaster, but his most heroic act is localized and less than self-sacrificial. Jack makes his heroic journey not to save the world—as we might expect an eco-hero and a climatologist to do—but to save his son. And both Lucy and Sam act heroically for similar reasons—to save the individuals they love, not the world, the nation, or even the community. Despite its limitations, The Day After Tomorrow succeeds as a cli-fi film because it moves beyond its eco-disaster roots and infuses its narrative with a new kind of eco-hero.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Frogs (1972) and Cli-Fi Cinema

Although a  seemingly new genre, we believe climate Fiction (cli-fi) films continue some of the same trends occurring in monstrous nature cinema, including drawing on anthropomorphism to both humanize and vilify nonhuman nature. Dan Bloom asserts, “In order to be a cli-fi short story or novel, the book will have a climate theme, of course. It can be set in the past, the present or the future, and it can be dystopian or utopian.” The same definition applies to filmic cli-fi, which, like short stories and novels, explores climate change and global warming explicitly. Bloom also differentiates cli-fi from environmental literature and film, declaring, “But if the book is just about the environment, such as protecting rivers or stopping air pollution, then it wouldn’t really be a cli-fi novel [or film]. There are other categories such as eco-fiction or calling a book an eco-thriller if it is about the environment.” Earlier cli-fi films that anthropomorphize monstrous nature explicitly fit Bloom’s criteria.

Considered one of the earliest eco-horror films, Frogs (1972) confronts environmental destruction with a vengeful bevvy of psychic frogs. During an annual Jason Crockett (Ray Milland) birthday celebration on the fourth of July, these frogs telepathically communicate with other animal species, enticing them to attack Crockett’s family and guests one by one. The film highlights how almost every family member despises nature so much they spread harmful chemicals to eradicate all nonhuman animal life. The film suggests the frogs recognize the source of these animal deaths—humans, especially the spoiled rich Crockett patriarch and his family. On the night of Jason Crockett’s birthday frogs, snakes, alligators, lizards, birds, and spiders begin to pay Crockett back, and in Frogs nature wins. Like humans, frogs and other animals in the Florida swamp surrounding Crocket’s mansion sense the source of their oppression and fight back.

Despite the deaths of family and houseguests, millionaire Crockett still maintains his superiority to nonhuman nature, exclaiming, “I still believe man is master of the world.” Nature photographer and environmentalist Pickett Smith (Sam Elliot) offers an alternative view, asking, “Does that mean he can't live in harmony with the rest of it?” Like humans, frogs and other animals in the Florida swamp surrounding Crocket’s mansion sense the source of their oppression and fight back. In Frogs, anthropomorphizing these swamp creatures provides an environmental message, but it also humanizes nature and provides a means to punish the real monster—Jason Crocket and the human oppressors he represents.

Monday, August 11, 2014

*Strigoi* and the Blood of War

Like other vampire movies, Strigoi connects vampirism and its desire for blood with humanity’s mistreatment of the natural world, but this time war and its violent repercussions initiate a monstrous response. In Strigoi, young medical school dropout, Vlad (Catalin Paraschiv), returns to Romania from Italy, and after discovering Florin the town drunk’s mysterious death, he investigates secret post-Communism land deals, forgery and corruption—a conspiracy of silence that has led to the presence of Strigoi. According to The Vampire Book, the Strigoi of the film is closely related to the Romanian word striga (a witch), which in turn was derived from the Latin strix, the word for screech owl that was extended to refer to “a demon that attacked children at night” (586) and drank their blood. In Strigoi, vampirism has its origin in blood. But it is the blood of war over land rather than romantic or sexual desire that transforms some citizens into strigoi mort.

Although Dracula typically survives only in his native soil, Strigoi amplifies this connection between the earth and humanity, demonstrating powerfully the ecological roots of home. With a comic tone that comes close to satire, Strigoi draws parallels between literal vampirism and struggles for land, struggles that comment on the greed of dictators such as Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu who destroy both human and nonhuman nature. As Andrew Dowler of Now Magazine suggests, “This is a serious and seriously black comedy about land, heritage in the blood and the rape of the country and people from the Nazis onward.”

Strigoi both sets its comic tone and establishes its critique of such greed from its opening title card humorously declaring the film’s setting: “Podoleoi Village, Romania—last Wednesday.” As punishment for crimes against the village, local leaders murder the owners of a large estate, Constantin Tirescu (Constantin Barbelesku) and his wife Ileana (Roxana Gutman), thinly disguised representatives of the Ceausescu family. The scene also initiates the connection between the earth, their disrupted home, and vampirism when the blood of a violent death meets the village soil. Blood remains after the Tirescus are buried, as if it has drained into the soil, ultimately transforming them into the strigoi of the film’s title.

The Tirescus’ change into a strigoi mort, or dead vampire, further connects to an earth flowing with blood because the scene also parallels the end of the 1989 Romanian Revolution, a conflict between rich and poor that culminated with the overthrow and execution of long-term dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Ileana. As director Faye Jackson explains, “The initial concept of the film was inspired by the Romanian revolution of 1989 and the [overthrow and execution of Nicolae Ceausescu]. The idea in Strigoi was that this village would kill their leader because he was corrupt, but by doing so, they become complicit in his corruption” (quoted in Savlov).

The greed associated with this era connects explicitly with the strigoi of the film, vampires driven by an insatiable hunger. As if to illustrate this transfer of greed, the villagers celebrate the symbolic overthrow of power in the Tirescu manor house. Instead of the violent deaths forced on Florin and, in retaliation, on the Tirescus, these villagers hope for an end for themselves that ensures their rise “to the spirit of the sky,” echoing the song accompanying their plundering of the Tirescus’ consumer goods, an end that will leave the earth unbruised and their homes reclaimed. The looting of the Tirescu manor also corresponds with vampirism in the film, as well as the multiple repercussions for greed that it represents. Multiple metaphorical images illustrate this greed, including the feast Vlad’s neighbor Mara Tomsa (Camelia Maxim) prepares for him. This representation of gluttony is amplified by Vlad’s explanation for his decision to quit work at an Italian fastfood restaurant called The Chicken Hut: “All I did was fry chicken,” he tells her, as she piles food in front of him.

The blood of war is manifested in several ways in the film. Most obviously, the violent murders of the Tirescus transform them into strigoi, a transformation that further connects them with Ceausescu. The villagers watching Florin’s body offer a different perspective on stolen land and home when Vlad asks them about the deed to Florin’s land, reasserting the battle between rich and poor on which the 1989 Revolution was built. As one of the villagers explains, “One day you were working on your own farm. Then you were working on it, but it wasn’t yours any more. After the revolution, everyone was supposed to get their land back, but they didn’t have the papers.”

In this post-Communist village, community members must fight to keep their homes, even hiding the deeds to their property to counter corrupt government officials and avaricious capitalists like the Tirescus, a point made concrete by Florin’s murder. Octav (Vlad Jipa), the town cop, connects that evidence with earth more explicitly: “I can’t make a case with dirt under fingernails. Everyone has dirt under their nails, and it’s all the same dirt.” The fights over land produce strigoi in a variety of ways, the film suggests. As Mara explains, “Some people are born strigoi, and some become strigoi after death. We created [the Tirescu strigoi]. We knew they murdered Florin. We gave them a violent death.”

This fight over property even extends to blood relatives, including Vlad’s relationship with his grandfather Nicolae (Rudy Rosefeld). Nicolae shows Vlad the papers he has hidden, saying, “It’s my land. Mine!” Ultimately Vlad discovers that Constantin and Tudor, the priest, have been working together to acquire deeds to the villagers’ property. Constantin wants the land for money and power. Tudor wants a new tower for his church. They both demonstrate greed and gluttony like that of the strigoi mort, vampires born out of the bloodied Earth around them.

The desecrated home has also transformed Vlad’s grandfather into strigoi, as Vlad discovers when he awakens from a nightmare to find his grandfather drinking his blood. “It’s my blood. I gave it to you,” Nicolae explains ominously. His grandfather’s struggles through multiple wars and across war-torn lands have transformed him into a vampire. He is a living strigoi. “I went to Russia, to Stalingrad. I had to fight for the Germans. When the Russians won, I had to walk all the way home. Then the Russians occupied Romania. They were even worse than the Germans. And there was a terrible famine. I lost my son… Then the Communists took my land. I still had to work on it. I still had to work on the same land with the same horses, but it wasn’t mine anymore. I was born on this land. My father was born here. My children were born here. I died here.”

The battle for Florin’s deed serves as the film’s climax as it connects the mythical strigoi with its earthly manifestations—the Tirescus, Stefan, and the village priest. As Vlad explains to Constantine, “Strigoi hate the living. You were always strigoi.” In Strigoi, the battle for land and home turns violent, with the blood of what Constantine calls “peasants” transforming villagers into vengeful living strigoi who fight back, reclaiming their land and their heritage from dead strigoi like the Tirescus. Strigoi offers a different take on the vampire, a horrific version of humanity’s response to a war-ravaged land.