Thursday, July 17, 2014

Fall and Winter and How to Boil a Frog: Eco-Problem Docs with Viable Solutions

In How to Boil a Frog, documentarian (and comedian) Jon Cooksey sets up an effective way to address environmental issues: outline the problems first, but then offer viable solutions to them. He sets up five problems before suggesting we all can work together to solve them. He first highlights overpopulation as an environmental problem that isn’t addressed because of religion and sex. Secondly he highlights the war on nature, catastrophe that is destroying oceans (with gyres and plastic plankton) and fish, trees, animal species, land and air. The third problem is the conflict between rich and poor, an issue conservatives argue we can’t address because any action might hurt the economy. The fourth problem Cooksey addresses is peak oil. According to Cooksey, oil production has reached its peak, and now extracting oil takes as much energy as the energy the oil produces. The last of these problems is perhaps the overarching repercussion of each: global warming.

For Cooksey, individuals can address all of these problems by making a few lifestyle changes. He tells us to drive past Exxon/Mobile gas stations because they have produced more than three percent of global warming since 1982. He tells us to change our “life bulbs” instead of our light bulbs, as Al Gore suggests, cutting our own emissions in multiple ways (stop eating beef because they cause more than ten percent of global warming, have no more than one child, buy used, and live in smaller dwellings with locally grown produce. Most importantly, however, he tells us to make trouble by posting video of environmental disasters on YouTube (or making movies like his).

In Fall and Winter (2014), director Matt Anderson “makes trouble” like this by laying out the long history of environmental exploitation at the root of our current global eco-crises, including not only peak oil, but also peak soil and water that may result in world-wide starvation and drought. Like Cooksey, Anderson takes a human approach to environmental catastrophe that puts solutions in the hands of humanity rather than its institutions.

Monsanto phosphate plant and slag pour site near Soda Springs, Idaho.)

Fall and Winter presents a strong argument not only for the human causes for current eco-disasters, but also for their solutions. Most notably, the documentary elucidates how our farming practices have depleted our topsoil by drawing on the expertise of environmental journalist Richard Manning, whose book Against the Grain: How Agriculture has Hijacked Civilization offers strong evidence for the failure of our current emphasis on monoculture.

What sets Anderson’s documentary apart, however, is the recurring image of Hopi spiritual leader Thomas Banyacya’s address to the United Nations, a speech that like Anderson’s documentary, blames Westerners’ interpretation of civilization for the environmental disasters we now face. According to Banyacya’s own English translation,

Hopi in our language means a peaceful, kind, gentle, truthful people. The traditional Hopi follows the spiritual path that was given to us by Massau'u the Great Spirit. We made a sacred covenant to follow his life plan at all times, which includes the responsibility of taking care of this land and life for his divine purpose. We have never made treaties with any foreign nation, including the United States, but for many centuries we have honored this sacred agreement. Our goals are not to gain political control, monetary wealth nor military power, but rather to pray and to promote the welfare of all living beings and to preserve the world in a natural way. We still have our ancient sacred stone tablets and spiritual religious societies, which are the foundations of the Hopi way of life. Our history says our white brother should have retained those same sacred objects and spiritual foundations.

Near the end of his short presentation, Banyacya explains the choices world leaders should make for the survival of themselves and their planet:

Nature, the First People and the spirit of our ancestors are giving you loud warnings. Today, December 10, 1992, you see increasing floods, more damaging hurricanes, hail storms, climate changes and earthquakes as our prophesies said would come. Even animals and birds are warning us with strange change in their behavior such as the beaching of whales. Why do animals act like they know about the earth's problems and most humans act like they know nothing? If we humans do not wake up to the warnings, the great purification will come to destroy this world just as the previous worlds were destroyed.

Fall and Winter documents the “loud warnings” Banyacya  notes, but it also illustrates ways humans can “wake up” and change their worlds: sustainable housing, farming, and lives. Grace Lee Boggs, an activist, writer and speaker for labor, Civil Rights, and Environmental justice issues highlights the need for individual responsibility emphasized by both these films. Her work for Detroit's DETROIT SUMMER program for community gardens and youth education illustrates such an ideal. Fall and Winter and How to Boil a Frog suggest we follow her and Cooksey's examples and "make trouble" in a way that works for us.  

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Tweet Tweet Tweety, Hare Conditioned, and Austenland: Recreation and the Natural World

Watching the portrayal of Regency life in Austenland brought to mind earlier filmic critiques of our misguided relationship with the natural world. In Austenland, artificial animals are staked for shooting practice and arranged strategically to replicate the hunting experience. In at least two cartoons from the 1950s, similar artificial reenactments of natural phenomena are condemned: Tweet Tweet Tweety (1950, Warner Bros, Friz Freleng) and Hare Conditioned (1945, Warner Bros, Chuck Jones). 

After World War II, Americans gained enough economic stability to not only purchase cars in record numbers but also use them for traveling across the United States on cross-country highways like Route 40 and 66. According to Ivan R. Dee, Americans increasingly vacationed in national parks and forests after 1945. And, “as more of them vacationed, exemplified by record numbers of visitors at Grand Canyon National Park each month after August 1945, they had an impact on the natural world that soon caused them to take notice” (85-6). Dee claims that “what Americans found in many of their national parks and forests shocked them: decrepit and outdated campgrounds, garbage piled high and a lack of facilities and staff to manage them” (86). Americans took to the road, towing trailers behind them, so they could experience some of the nature they had left behind when they moved to the cities and concrete suburbs surrounding them.

Vacationing Americans noticed the devastation in national parks and forests, but the Wilderness Act that served to protect and preserve them was not passed until 1964, almost 20 years after the end of the war. Alexander Wilson claims that Americans in the late 1940s and 1950s saw “the open road [as] a metaphor for progress in the U.S. and for the cultural taming of the American Wilderness” (34). Wilson even suggests, “What we saw out the window of a speeding car… was the future itself” (34). These views of nature through the window of a car—or even the window of a camper in a national park—skewed Americans’ vision of the natural world. Such confusion between seeking pristine nature and embracing progress at any cost complicated ideological views of the environment and environmentalism. In “Conservation Esthetic,” a section of his Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold describes late 1940s’ views of nature and wildlife recreation well: “To him who seeks in the woods and mountains only those things obtainable from travel or golf, the present situation is tolerable. But to him who seeks something more, recreation has become a self-destructive process of seeking, but never quite finding, a major frustration of mechanized society. (165-6).

Tweet Tweet Tweety and Hare Conditioned illustrate Aldo Leopold’s view of recreation gone wrong. Tweet Tweet Tweety (1950 Warner Bros) opens in a National Forest overridden with Trailers. A sign commands, “Bird and Game Refuge—No Hunting or Fishing, by order of the Game Commissioner,” but, ironically, the object of the cartoon is Sylvester’s hunt for Tweety. The cartoon, however, does more than highlight Sylvester’s failure to capture his bird. Instead, as in Leopold’s explanation of recreation in a mechanized world, it juxtaposes natural wonders with signs of “progress” in a modern culture. In a National Forest, we see Acme Bridge Builders equipment. Redwood trees are cut down, too, their logs floating down a stream to a sawmill. A natural geyser erupts, but only when a clock (another sign of progress) urges it on. At the end, to save himself, Tweety shuts off dam water. Sylvester, as usual, fails, but dams, bridge building equipment and sawmills seem also to have won, mechanizing nature even in National Parks like Yellowstone.

Hare Conditioned (1945, Warner Bros, Chuck Jones), on the other hand, takes the artificiality of outdoor recreation to an extreme. The Bugs Bunny cartoon opens up in what looks like a campground in a national forest. Bugs hops beside a tent and a campfire, but then a whistle blows, the scene changes to a long shot that reveals an audience seated in front of Bugs and his camp, and the camp scene turns into a department store window display. Here outdoor recreation is not only mechanized (as Leopold argues). It’s an illusion.

As in other Bugs Bunny cartoons, in Hare Conditioned (1945 Warner Bros) Bugs ends up outsmarting his opponent—this time, the store manager—avoiding a more deadly artificial display of nature: the manager attempts (and fails) to add Bugs to his stuffed animal display in the Taxidermy department. Putting nature on display here highlights what Dana Phillips calls representation rather than presence. Hare Conditioned shows us nature—and outdoor recreation—in a showroom like the living room where Carl Hiaasen’s protagonist in Double Whammy, Dennis Gault, lays out his bass tackle. According to Phillips, the display window and the stuffed woods animals in Double Whammy act as “monuments to a disappearing natural world” (209), just like those on display in the taxidermy section of Bugs’s department store. These two cartoons seem to spring directly from Leopold’s esthetic philosophy. They also point to more contemporary critiques of artificial natural displays found in films such as Austenland (2013).

Monday, June 30, 2014

Genetic Testing and the Big Bug Movie in the 21st Century

Spiders 2

Set on a cargo ship, Spiders II: Breeding Ground (2001) brings back a mad scientist like that in other monster movies. This time he’s attempting to redefine genetic science and invest in the future by planting spider eggs in humans to create a disease free world. According to the doctor (Richard Moller), spiders are remarkable because they are immune to all human pathogens and could make all mankind disease free. When a couple, Jason (Greg Cromer) and Alexandra (Stephanie Niznik), are saved by the ship’s captain and crew, the doctor begins injecting Jason with pheromones to attract the huge spider laying eggs in human prey.

Although Alexandra refuses to believe Jason’s suspicions about the ship crew and doctor for most of the film, in the end, she saves Jason from the doctor’s lab and helps them escape from the spiders, now running amuck around the ship. She even returns to the lab for Jason’s antidote. They escape, and the ship explodes, killing most of the spiders. The explosion attracts the coast guard, and Jason and Alexandra are picked up by a helicopter. When a giant spider breaks out of a barrel and attacks them, the ending grows more suspenseful, but they ultimately break free and leave their dangerous life at sea behind. 

Killer Buzz

In Killer Buzz (2001), the U.S. military and State Department have paired up with an oil company to develop genetically altered bees that will chase off indigenous tribes in Brazil so they can build a highway across the rainforest instead of maintaining an agreement to hold to 100 miles of road. Ann (Gabrielle Anwar), a journalist, discovers the bees after tribe members attack the oil company site. One of the remaining tribesmen explains that the shadow people have warned them about demons from the sky.

She is shot when she and her photographer Raka (Mark Adair-Rios) finds the bees, but somehow recovers quickly. A corrupt doctor believes the bee stings have healed her and steals a box of the bees to take back to New York for research. Her husband, Martin (Craig Sheffer), comes to see her in the hospital, but she won’t go back to NYC with him because he’s not ready for a family.

Ann discovers the box has been taken on the plane and tries to stop the flight, but Scotty, whom she thought was her friend, is from the State Department and working to destroy the natives and find the shadow people who are resisting them. Martin is on board the plane with the bees and helps save the passengers. Ultimately, he finds a way to get the bees out of the plane and must land it with help from the now stung captain.

Unfortunately, Ann inadvertently leads Scotty and his men to the shadow people led by a white doctor. The doctor has discovered that the frog poison the natives use in their darts is an antidote to the bee venom. Scotty and his men are thwarted, and Ann, Rocca, and Savior the doctor (Duncan Regehr) get the serum to the plane, which Martin has landed safely in a field. Now that her husband is a hero willing to sacrifice himself for others, she wants him back.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Oil Wells of Baku: Close View and Everyday Eco-Disasters

When Bertrand Tavernier asserts that an 1896 Lumière Brothers’ film, Oil Wells of Baku: Close View, “may be the first ecological film ever made” (Lumière Brothers: First Films), he is, to a certain extent, reading the footage of burning oil wells from an eco-critical perspective. The film invites such a reading, one that centers on environmental concerns, because of what looks like devastating effects of drilling for oil. This thirty-six second “view,” shot by Kamill Serf with a stationary camera, shows huge flames and black smoke streaming from burning oil wells in Baku, Azerbaijan, seemingly sure signs of environmental disaster. But disaster looks more like spectacle in this closely shot scene, and both Serf and the film’s viewers serve as attentive spectators. Although the camera never moves during the film, the vibrant image it captures also captures its viewers.

The film appears to be strategically framed. The oil wells in the frame look like miniatures until the immensity of the oil derricks is emphasized by a human figure moving in the front of the center well. This figure looks minuscule as it walks away from the center derrick and out of the frame of the shot. The two tall derricks in the view behind the tiny striding male figure show us that the view was shot from a distance. This extreme long shot accentuates the power of both the tall derricks and the rising flames and smoke, smoke that darkens into the distance from the right side of the frame. We see enormous flames shoot up and clouds of heavy black smoke plume from the fire, but more smoke comes from similar oil well fires off screen. To the right of the center derrick, as far away as the horizon line, two blazes flame up from what look like vertical pipes. Gray and black smoke flows out of the fires in a plume that covers the sky. The enormity of these flaming plumes mesmerizes because their powerful blaze shocks us. But the raging flames also bring forth images of phoenixes rising from the flames and hearths stoked by Hestia, broaching the question, “Is this beautiful?” Within the context of our Western culture, such a scene looks fabulous because it is based in a mythology in which fire and its power are associated with beautiful rebirth.

The center derrick serves as the focus of the shot. This derrick is placed inside an enormous pit, as if to capture any excess oil flow. A platform connects the derrick to its outside enclosure and what looks like a pipeline to transport oil from these interconnected wells. A roofed building serves as the derrick’s foundation. In front of the derrick are what look like the frames of new derricks under construction. Vertical pipes that resemble bare trees pop up in every corner of the shot, usually in rows of four or five. A set of wooden stairs leads up to a scaffold on the left side of the center derrick. The second completed derrick sits on flat ground, with no scaffold—and only an enclosed building at its bottom. The center derrick, though, sets off the tall derrick to the left and the gray and black smoke to the right. The left derrick hides the source of the fire that bursts out from behind it. This fire is just one of three fires in the view: one to the left of center, the other two to the right and off screen. Smoke from the fires fills the background in the view.

All of this smoke and uncontrolled fire supports Tavernier’s assertion of this as an eco-disaster film. Such a disaster, from a current point of view, begs for an ecological reading. We have become committed to considering the consequences of uncontrolled oil well fires and gushers, and the fire and smoke look destructive to humans and their environment. More than just spectacle, these burning oil fields, these obfuscating clouds of smoke, this general conflagration of the natural world, signify humans’ rape of the landscape for personal gain—oil at any price to the natural world. But the figure walking in front of the derricks suggests another reading altogether. He moves without the urgency an ecological reading might spur. In fact, he walks in front of the derricks and the burning oil fields with quite a normal gait, as if he’s unconcerned about anything. But as the Lumières’ brief film offers no explanation for its fires, nor does its title: Oil Wells of Baku: Close View, it leaves today’s viewers wondering, is this a picture of business as usual or an account of eco-disaster? It is possible, then, to be caught in a conundrum with a film like this, forced to struggle in uncertainty as to whether the extremity of the screen depiction is meant to indicate about our environment and our way of living in it, or merely show with a certain casualness the world as received.

What the Lumière view “means” may be different now than it was in the late 1890s, but spectacular events continue to overpower environmental statements on film. So, what does the view tell us about what we would now call our “concerns about nature”? And what did the view tell its original viewers? This is an issue, to be sure, that has itself changed in meaning since the beginning of the twentieth century and that has come to have a principal focus for scholars, citizens, and viewers of entertainment today. When (if ever) does the destruction “wrought” by gushing oil wells—“monsters,” according to A. V. W. Jackson (40)—become seen as something other than a “spectacle” “surpassed only by the awful grandeur when fire adds terror to the scene” (40)?  When, in other words, does a burning oil well gain the status of ecological disaster? When does it come to be perceived that the costs of such flames include not only money and human lives but also nature?

Oil Wells of Baku: Close View highlights what looks like a horrific eco-disaster, but the view of oil fires spurting up in 1896 sparks immediate visual attention and blunts attention to the ecological impact of the fires. Oil Wells of Baku: Close View stands out as an ecological film, an environmental film, and a view highlighting a history of wealth garnered from resources around the world. It also foregrounds a history of spectacle, and the history of one of the most contentious modern currencies. Images of gushing oil in later films like Giant (1956) and Oklahoma Crude (1973) and in television series like The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971) demonstrate the pervasive power of oil. And contemporary images of oil well and pipeline fires on the covers of newspapers and magazines attest to our continuing appetite for the spectacle that burning oil may produce. Reading these images through an eco-critical lens, however, can make the workings of the spectacular events transparent.