Thursday, June 25, 2015

Practicing Green on and with Film

Filmic representations of everyday eco-disasters typically highlight the negative consequences (externalities) of fulfilling our basic needs. They also demonstrate that, more often than not, these eco-disasters also jeopardize those needs. Total Recall (1990), for example, illustrates the repercussions of oxygen deprivation, but it also emphasizes the cause of unequal distribution of air: turning resources into commodities. Quantum of Solace (2008), despite its James Bond action-adventure genre, demonstrates similar consequences, this time in relation to water as a necessary resource. But how green can Hollywood really become?

Both Total Recall and Quantum of Solace sometimes focus on how our acquisition of our needs sometimes causes an everyday eco-disaster. They also highlight how our drive to commodify those needs endangers both the resources and ourselves. And still others show how our consumption practices risk the resources that sustain us. Yet, because these are all products of the film industry, whether made independently or as a Hollywood blockbuster, they all also contribute to the environmental degradation that translates into an everyday eco-disaster when it affects our ability to meet our basic needs.

Total Recall, for example, was one of the last major blockbusters to make large-scale use of miniature effects rather than computer generated imagery, a carbon-heavy approach that draws on multiple resources, leaving behind waste that is typically disposed in landfills rather than recycled.  According to Eric Lichtenfeld, five different companies were brought in to handle the film’s effects. The only CGI sequence was a 42-second scene produced by MetroLight Studios that showed the x-rayed skeletons of commuters and their concealed weapons (258). In contrast only a year later, blockbusters such as James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) moved almost entirely to CGI. In spite of its message about the negative ramifications of turning oxygen into a commodity available to the privileged rather than the “commons,” Total Recall integrated production practices with a heavy carbon footprint.

More recent films rely more fully on CGI and digital production, but even when the films blatantly address the detrimental effects on our basic needs or the dire consequences of meeting them, they still struggle with maintaining the realism expected by both Hollywood and its audiences while encouraging environmentally friendly production practices. With a budget of $200 million and a gross profit of $586 million, Quantum of Solace, a blockbuster with a blatantly environmental message against commodifying water, serves as an apt example of the dilemma filmmakers face: How can a film company provide an effective and lucrative film product and limit negative environmental externalities?

In many ways this Bond film failed to achieve the “green” message of the story in its production practices. According to Randee Daniel of Hollywood Reporter, for example, Quantum of Solace was shot in six countries, and this on-location film is, according to RPS Group “among the most expensive and carbon-intense stages of film production. Large crews and quantities of equipment must be flown abroad, and diesel generators are used to power the lighting and heating of temporary sets.” In Bregenz, Austria during the scenes of the performance of Tosca and its aftermath, 1500 extras were used, and for a later scene, the Palio di Siena at the Piazza del Campo in Siena was recreated in Italy; for a scene where Bond emerges from the Fonte Gaia, 1000 extras were hired, according to the film’s production diary on the MI6 website. Bill Dawes of FX Guide also reveals that a full-scale replica of the hotel building’s exterior was used for the exploding segment in which Bond and Camille escape in South America. 

Yet efforts were made to “green” this film production, as well. Although six Aston Martins were destroyed during the making of Quantum of Solace, the film also featured environmentally friendly Ford Motor Company cars: A Ford Ka EV, which seems to be electrically powered, and a fleet of Ford Edge Fuel-Cell EVs. The film also relied heavily on CGI, with over 900 visual effects shots stirring up adventure, according to a VFX World interview recorded by Bill Desowitz.  Like other James Bond films, Quantum of Solace was produced at Pinewood Studios, whose carbon footprint was recently evaluated by RPS Group to support its plan to build a “1400 unit residential development – that also doubles as a giant 15-location film set for Pinewood Studios.” The assessment report suggests that between 60% and 90% reductions of greenhouse gas emissions may be possible if the development is approved, and using “streetscapes for filming will achieve a 44% annual reduction over business-as-usual location shooting abroad.”

These changes to the studio seemed to bode well for future James Bond productions until the carbon footprint-heavy Skyfall (2012), but other action adventure films have more successfully implemented “green” production practices. With a budget of $90 million, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011) for example, “exemplifies eco-friendly filmmaking,” according to Gerri Miller of the Mother Nature Network, and still has already grossed $543 million. According to Co-producer Lauren Meek, “Construction set waste and food waste were key issues for us” (quoted in Miller). As Meek explains, “We diverted 756 tons of film waste from landfill with a recovery rate of 98.6 percent which was a zero landfill achievement. We saved 2500 tons of CO2 form being emitted by using Greenshoot and adopting green practices throughout the production, and saved money through Greenshoot's services into the productions” (quoted in Miller).  Some of this was achieved by making the film digitally, but “visual effects enabled the production to cut down on travel and shoot everything in England, except for a few establishing shots” (Miller).  These practices highlight how action movies can embrace both green messages and production practices.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Evolutionary Narratives in Jurassic Park (1993)

Evolutionary Narratives in Jurassic Park 

Jurassic Park at first embraces a tragic evolutionary narrative in which human figures attempt to dominate nature as pioneer species. Jurassic Park, especially, draws on such a tragic narrative, but the decision its protagonist, Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), makes to build a nontraditional family transforms the tragic pattern begun by Jurassic Park’s owner, John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) and catalyzed by computer hacker and thief, Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight). Although CGI may have helped move stop-motion animation to possible extinction, Jurassic Park’s narrative demonstrates how community and, perhaps, family, might help us survive. Even though most critics see the film’s focus on family as diluting the ethical argument against genetic experimentation, we see this focus as moving the narrative beyond bio-ethics toward a comic view of evolution, an evolutionary narrative which might, as Leslie Paul Thiele suggests in “Evolutionary Narratives and Ecological Ethics,” “inform moral reasoning and facilitate the cultivation of certain moral sentiments [and] might legitimate an ecological ethic” (7-8). Thiele explains, “The point, as Daniel Dennett says of his own work, is not to deliver human behavior over to a ‘Darwinian science’ but to make sure of ‘merely philosophical realizations’ that can be gleaned from the ‘transfer’ of certain biological concepts to humanistic concerns. In the end, we do not so much discover values in nature as read values into nature” (8). 

For us Jurassic Park follows two evolutionary narrative patterns. The first is driven by a critique of genetic engineering and sees humans as only exploiters of the natural world, a theme many critics find diluted in the translation from novel to film. Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) and, to a certain extent, Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) initiate and push forward this narrative during the first act of the film. The second, however, which comes into play when John Hammond’s grandchildren visit the park, builds toward a comic view of evolution that sees family, accommodation, and adaptation as better responses to nonhuman nature. The last two acts of the film illustrate this narrative: In the second act Dr. Alan Grant transforms from child hater to father figure and protector. In the third act, the family unit is reunited, but nature’s life cycle, not human retaliation, ensures their survival.

They all succeed because of their community efforts. Sattler is able to turn on the power manually because Park Ranger Robert Muldoon (Bob Peck) fends off raptors on the hunt. Grandchild Tim is able to jump from the electrified fence because Granddaughter Lex and Grant cheer him on, and Grant catches Tim and revives him, so they can enter the park’s visitors’ center. Later Lex and Tim work together, as well, escaping from raptors hunting them in the park’s cafeteria. They escape into the kitchen and trap one raptor in a freezer before racing out to find Sattler and Grant. Once they are reunited, they all work together to survive. When Sattler cannot reboot the system to secure the doors and fences, Lex, a computer “hacker,” intervenes, rebooting the system and locking the raptors out of the control room. Lex’s hacking repairs the security system, and the phone rings to confirm her success. Ultimately, Sattler, Grant, Lex, and Tim become a family and, along with Malcolm and Hammond, escape the island by helicopter. The message of Jurassic Park is explicit here: By building community—adapting and accommodating—they have survived, so a comic evolutionary narrative can continue.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Western Films and Water in the Desert

Western Films and Water in the Desert

 The majority of Westerns take place in an arid landscape of the Southwest where irrigation and water rights provide life to cattle, farmer’s crops, and to settlers. The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), especially, illustrates the impact land and water rights issues had on the environment of the American Southwest. Earlier films, however, demonstrate the variety of approaches Westerns take when illustrating how settlers overcome drought in the desert.

A battle over water fuels a feud in The Painted Desert (1931), but it also is discussed as a necessary resource in a dry landscape—one that is more precious than grub. Because of its value, it allows Jeff and Cash’s feud to continue for twenty years, until something even more precious—their son and his discovery of tungsten—stops the feud and, presumably, allows Cash, Jeff, and their children to share both water and wealth as a family.

In Under Western Skies (1938), a Roy Rogers film, the big water and power company is thwarted by the federal government, and Sageville gets its water and power. With water, cattle survive, and ranchers make a living off the land. Water turns the dusty desert into a riparian oasis. But the argument in Under Western Skies is over the price of water, not whether or not it serves the environment best to use dams and canals to bring water to a dust bowl, and drought conditions are blamed not on overuse of land but on nature. The environmental bent of the film, then, is focused only on water as a necessary (and inherently free) resource. 

In The Angel and the Badman (1947), water serves as only one element in a romantic plot. Quirt (John Wayne) provides a Quaker family and other farmers with needed water now “owned” by a large farmer with dams and a reservoir, Frederick Carson (Paul Hurst). The film’s arguments about water rights also parallel those in Wayne’s earlier film, Riders of Destiny (1933), even nearly recreating the scenes between Wayne’s Singin’ Sandy and James Kincaid in the earlier film with that between Quirt and Carson. Ownership of water in The Angel and the Badman has been shifted from an individual, Carson, to a collective that includes Quaker families with a more communal view of nature. So this brief scene, juxtaposed with others that foreground community as a better goal than conflict and violent tyranny, demonstrates the power of water rights. When water rights become more equally distributed rather than an individually driven economic concern, farmers and their land are better served. Nature and humans here are shown as holding a reciprocal or even symbiotic relationship—the land and its people depend on water to sustain them. More water, more widely distributed, means more fertile land for farming and farmers. 

Gene Autry’s Mule Train (1950) highlights water rights in relation to both private ownership and government lands. Sheriff Gene Autry tells “Keg” Rollins (Gregg Barton) that he’s “all through making [anyone] pay for water,” an assertion Rollins argues against. But Autry explains, “It’s still government land and government water, and no one’s going to charge for it. Water’s free” and the conflict is established, all based on the question, can private companies own and control government lands and resources? But the opening scenes with Autry arguing for preservation of free water on government lands serve as the only clear reference to the positive consequences of discovering natural cement: better dams to store and distribute free water.

The Roy Rogers film, In Old Amarillo (1951), provides a different answer to questions related to turning a desert into a garden—cloud seeding. In In Old Amarillo technology from a period concurrent with the film’s production date ends up saving land from drought, but the conflict over water rights remains the same. As in Angel and the Badman and Mule Train, water is constructed as a right, as a resource that should be available to all rather than a commodity to be either horded or withheld for profit. In Old Amarillo simply offers lack of water as a way to acquire lands for profit and for bringing in another source of riches—a cannery.

The Big Country (1958) presents an epic battle over water rights that is masked by a feud between two ranchers, Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford) and Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives). When James McCay, a ship captain, comes to the West to marry the Major’s daughter, Pat (Carol Baker), he brings with him a worldview like that of Singin’ Sandy and the Quakers in Angel and the Badman and seeks to resolve conflict through negotiation rather than violence. More importantly, McCay buys the land that Terrill and Hannassey are fighting for, so he purchases the water rights for the region. Unlike the Terrills and Hannasseys, however, McCay offers the water freely to both families and, after a series of battles, the two family patriarchs kill one another and the feud, as well as the struggle over water, has been resolved. Only McCay’s purchase of the land owned by Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), the woman McCay learns to love, halts the blood feud and provides cooperative water rights for both ranches. Terrill’s and Hannassey’s deaths symbolize a changing West, but they also reinforce the end of the feud and the return of free water. These films reveal multiple ways water is exploited and preserved.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Two Views of The Little Mermaid: Rankin/Bass Versus Disney

Although both the Rankin/Bass version of The Little Mermaid fairy tale found in Daydreamer (1966) and that of Disney both bifurcate nature, Disney's The Little Mermaid (1989) goes further. By  perpetuating powerful gender stereotypes that tie the feminine to nature, it exploits them both.

The Rankin/Bass version of the story is one segment of a made for television movie, The Daydreamer that highlights the trials shoemaker son Chris (Paul O’Keefe) must endure to see the Garden of Paradise. When Chris wakes up for his first trial, he is an animated (stop action) figure floating in a boat in an animated world. The river where he floats becomes wide and dangerous with tall waves that look like shining colored cellophane in a storm. When he falls out of the boat and into the sea, a little mermaid (Hayley Mills) saves him and takes him to her family’s castle under the ocean. Neptune (Burl Ives), her father, says the boy has drowned. He only has an immortal soul, so the little mermaid wants to help save his body. When she learns about the sea witch (Tallulah Bankhead) from her sisters, she visits her and agrees to live as an outcast if the boy does not love her after taking a potion that revives him.

With unselfish devotion, she sacrifices herself for Chris, but he reveals to her sisters that he is going to the Garden of Paradise and can’t stay. Instead of feeling any bitterness, the mermaid sacrifices herself again and shows him the way to Paradise. She hopes to go with him, but he says she will be in the way. She cries when he leaves, but Chris wakes up in his boat and selfishly continues his quest for knowledge, unwilling to share it with the little mermaid who must now live as an exile from her family. There is no happy ending in this Rankin/Bass version of the fairy tale, but nature and the feminine are both clearly superior to the selfish boy willing to exploit both.

While perpetuating anti-feminist gender roles, Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989) bifurcates land from sea and humans from nature from its opening forward. The addition of Ursula, a sea witch, demonstrates the power of the supernatural over both settings, but nature is valorized over both human culture and the supernatural, in spite of Ariel’s and her father’s sacrifices, when natural attraction between Ariel and Prince Eric entices him to kiss Ariel and fight for her and her father’s souls.

Although David Whitley suggests that “The Little Mermaid could be read as playing out a longing for some form of resolution to the nature-culture divide,” we see that divide maintained and reversed, with nature providing the superior pole in the binary. Ariel loans Ursula her voice in exchange for legs, so she can woo the prince and earn his love and regain her voice. Ultimately Ariel fails because Ursula intervenes with her magic, but once Ariel’s sea friends free Ariel’s voice and break Ursula’s spell, the prince fights and kills Ursula and returns sea and land to their original dichotomy. Although the supernatural witch has been destroyed, it is nature—the natural affection Prince Eric feels for Ariel—that saves them all. Ariel does marry the prince, but the marriage is based on irrational wild nature instead of the logic of human culture. Nature and culture remain divided, this time with nature gaining an edge and stereotypical gender roles safely in place.