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Saturday Night at the Movies by Dennis Hartley review archive

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Hullabaloo


Saturday, April 25, 2009

 
Saturday Night At The Movies

Mercy Mercy Me: Top 10 Eco-flicks

By Dennis Hartley
















Goddammit they just changed the recycling bin rules in Seattle again, just when I finally had it down. It used to be that paper and cardboard went in one bin, and glass in another. Aluminum cans were OK in either one (THAT really challenged my cognitive sorting skills for the first 6 months or so). “Yard waste” was defined as…well, yard-ey things like pulled weeds, trimmed branches and dead leaves. It was OK to put fruit and veggie scraps in with the yard waste. Greasy pizza boxes were OK too. But chicken bones and meat scraps were verboten. Those were “garbage”. Now they just changed it all around again. Meat scraps are now “yard waste”. You can even throw your glass bottles into the bin that was previously restricted to paper, cardboard and the occasional bi-curious aluminum can. This begs a question: WTF goes in my “garbage” can now? And who is this Seattle “trash czar” who makes these arbitrary changes, I wanna know? Who is this Recycling Bin Laden who makes taking out the garbage such a dreaded terror in my life?

But hey…enough about my trashy issues. In honor of Earth Day (week), I’ve cobbled together my picks for the Top 10 Eco-flicks. As per usual, my list is presented in no particular ranking order. Note: this week’s post is 100% biodegradable (it’s a com-post!).

Baraka -This 1992 film is frequently mentioned in the same breath as Koyannisqatsi; while it does utilize similarly expansive, bird’s-eye view cinematography, supervised by the same DP (Ron Fricke, who also directed here) Baraka succeeds in standing on its own, with its own unique vision. The title is a Sufi term that roughly translates to “a blessing”, and indeed, this global cultural/anthropological travelogue (sans narration) is ultimately a journey that seems more spiritual in nature than the earlier film. Some of the imagery recalls the eco-political themes explored in Koyaanisqatsi (particularly in a striking sequence depicting the environmentally devastating Kuwaiti oil well fires that occurred during the first Gulf War) but it is still left up to the viewer to connect all the dots. Breathtaking, mesmerizing, and best enjoyed on the largest screen you can find.

The Emerald Forest- Although it may give an initial impression as a heavy-handed (if well-intentioned) “save the rainforest” polemic, John Boorman’s underrated 1985 adventure (a cross between The Searchers and Greystoke - The Legend of Tarzan) goes much deeper. Powers Boothe portrays an American construction engineer working on a dam project in Brazil. One day, while his wife and young son are visiting him at his job site on the edge of the rainforest, the boy is abducted and adopted by an indigenous tribe who call themselves “The Invisible People”, touching off an obsessive decade-long search by the father. By the time he is finally (and serendipitously) reunited with his barely recognizable, now-teenaged son (Charley Boorman), the challenge becomes a matter of how he and his heartbroken wife (Meg Foster) are going to coax the reluctant young man back into “civilization”. Tautly directed, lushly photographed and well-acted.

Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster -Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: there’s no accounting for some people’s tastes. But who ever said an environmental “message” movie couldn’t also provide us with some mindless, guilty fun? Let’s have a little action. Knock over a few buildings. Wreak havoc. Crash a wild party on the rim of a volcano with some Japanese flower children. Besides, Godzilla is on our side for a change. Watch him valiantly battle Hedora, a sludge-oozing toxic avenger out to make mankind collectively suck on his grody tailpipe. And you haven’t lived until you’ve heard “Save the Earth”-my vote for “best worst” song ever from a film (much less a monster movie!)

An Inconvenient Truth- It’s the end of the world as we know it. Apocalyptic sci-fi has become scientific fact-now that’s scary. Former VP/Nobel winner Al Gore is a Power Point-packing Rod Serling, submitting a gallery of nightmare nature scenarios for our disapproval. I’m tempted to say that this chilling look at the results of unchecked global warming is only showing us the tip of the proverbial iceberg…but it’s melting too fast.

Koyaanisqatsi-Released in 1982, this is a profound, mesmerizing tone poem for all the senses, and one of those films that nearly defies description. I think I have watched it almost as many times as I have seen 2001 - A Space Odyssey (its nearest kin). It’s the first (and best) of a film trilogy. The title is taken from the ancient Hopi language, and describes a state of “life out of balance”. There are likely as many interpretations of what the film is “about” as there are people who have viewed it; if I had to make a broad generalization, I would say it’s about technology vs. nature. But you’ll have to experience it for yourself (if you haven’t already!). Director Godfrey Reggio, cinematographer Ron Fricke and composer Philip Glass were born to work together on this project; the result of their creative trifecta is sheer artistic perfection. Reggio followed up in 1988 with Powaqqatsi (well worth watching, but comes off a bit like a coffee table book variation of its predecessor) and the well-produced yet curiously uninvolving Naqoyqatsi in 2002.

Manufactured Landscapes-A unique eco-documentary from Jennifer Baichwal about photographer Edward Burtynsky, who is an “earth diarist” of sorts. While his photographs are striking, they don’t paint a pretty picture of our fragile planet. Burtynsky’s eye discerns a terrible beauty in the wake of the profound and irreversible human imprint incurred by accelerated modernization. As captured by Burtynsky’s camera, strip-mined vistas recall the stark desolation of NASA photos sent from the Martian surface; mountains of “e-waste” dumped in a vast Chinese landfill take on an almost gothic, cyber-punk dreamscape. The photographs play like a scroll through Google Earth images, as reinterpreted by Jackson Pollock. This one is a real eye-opener!

Never Cry Wolf-A precursor to recent fare like Grizzly Man and Into the Wild, this 1983 gem from director Carroll Ballard (The Black Stallion) is an intelligent and atypically uninhibited entry in the Disney “true-life adventure” oeuvre. Based on the book by Canadian naturalist Farley Mowat, it weaves an exhilarating Jack London-style tale of a wildlife biologist (Charles Martin Smith in his best role) roughing it alone on the Alaskan tundra to conduct a long-term study of wolves and their impact on the ecosystem. There has been some controversy over the years challenging Mowat’s grasp of animal science and the validity of some of his claimed escapades in the wild; but whether or not he took creative license in the source book does not diminish the tremendous entertainment value of this wonderful film adaptation. I lived in Alaska for many a moon, and I must say that Hiro Narita’s cinematography captures the almost spiritual beauty of the region perfectly.

Princess Mononoke-I think it’s fair to say that anime master Hayao Miyazaki and his cohorts at Studio Ghibli have consistently raised the bar on the possibilities of the art form with each successive project. Respect for nature has been an abiding theme throughout much of Miyazaki’s work, so it’s tough to pick a favorite from his catalog; but for the sake of our eco theme this week, I’m going to recommend Princess Mononoke (trust me, once you’ve watched one Miyazaki, you’ll want to see ‘em all-unless you’ve got a heart of stone). Most of the patented Miyazaki themes are present here: humanism, white magic, beneficent forest gods, female empowerment, and (especially in this film) pacifist angst in a ubiquitously violent world. I should note for neophytes that while this film does have a fair amount of violence, that particular element is atypical of Miyazaki; if you prefer to start with one of his kinder, gentler offerings, try My Neighbor Totoro or Kiki's Delivery Service (my all around favorite of his). For another Miyazaki film with a strong environmental theme, you might want to check out Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.

Silent Running-In space, no one can hear you trimming the verge! Bruce Dern stars as an agrarian antihero in this 1972 sci-fi adventure, directed by legendary special effects ace Douglas Trumbull. Produced around the time that “ecology” was just becoming a hot new buzzword, its “message” may seem heavy-handed to contemporary audiences, but it remains a cult favorite to genre fans. Dern is the resident gardener on a commercial space freighter that houses several bio-domes, each one dedicated to preserving various species of vegetation (in this bleak future, the Earth has become completely barren of all forms of organic growth). While it’s just a 9 to 5 drudge gig to his blue collar shipmates, Dern’s character views his cultivating duties as an almost sacred mission (much to the eye-rolling bemusement of his cohorts). When the interests of commerce demand that the crew jettison the domes to make room for a more lucrative cargo, Dern goes homicidally off his nut (all in the interest of ecology, of course), eventually ending up alone with two salvaged bio-domes and a trio of droids (Huey, Dewey and Louie!) who collectively play Man Friday to his space-stranded Robinson Crusoe. Again, some of the political allegory feels terribly dated (Dern’s loutish crewmates represent the corporate lackeys who toe the line for The Man, and he is the DFH who wants to save the greenhouses at any cost) but this is still one of my favorite sci-fi films. Joan Baez sings two songs on the soundtrack.

Soylent Green-“It’s people!” The late Phil Hartman got lots of mileage recycling this 1973 film’s most oft-quoted line on SNL, and as a result, even those who have never watched this cautionary science fiction yarn know what kind of critters go into the Soylent Corporation’s little green fritters (wafers, actually). The year is 2022, and traditional culinary fare is but a dim memory, thanks to extreme overpopulation and severe environmental depletion. Only the wealthy can afford the odd priceless tomato or stalk of celery; most of the U.S. population lives on highly processed Soylent “product” (wait a minute-this is sci-fi?) The government encourages the sick and the elderly to politely move out of the way by providing handy suicide assistance centers (considering the current state of our Social Security system, that doesn’t sound like much of a stretch anymore either, does it?). Oh-there is some ham being served up onscreen, courtesy of Charlton Heston’s scenery-chewing turn as a NYC cop, investigating the murder of a Soylent Corporation exec. Edward G. Robinson (in his final role) steals all his scenes as Heston’s partner. His moving death scene carries the added poignancy of preceding his real-life passing (from cancer) less than two weeks after the production was completed.

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