occams hatchet has turned the reins over to me this week, so please be kind to this "substitute teacher". (Besides, the last month or so has been rough, just not in ways I want to be public about, so no WYFP post on my troubles.) That said: Movie’s aren’t generally classified as environmental (or not). But I’m green in philosophy and action, so I decided to do up a list of movies on environmental themes this week.
Lately, climate change has been in the headlines. (Thanks, Barbara Boxer. Congratulations on the Oscar, Al Gore.) So we’ll start with that Oscar winner:
- An Inconvenient Truth. It’s a little too didactic for my taste, but chock full of info that’s increased global awareness of global warming. So three cheers!
- Amongst dramatic films, The Day After Tomorrow is worth seeing just for the Americans fleeing south across the Rio Grande in droves - due to the sudden freeze brought on by atmospheric and oceanic cycles altered by changes in the planet’s heat budget.
A recurring villain in the movies is the real estate developer. Some examples:
- Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. If you do a list of "greatest" movies, you’ve gotta include at least a few that are really great. This one fits the bill: an almost instant classic about murder, corruption and perversion, all revolving around control and "development" of water in 1930s Los Angeles.
- On to Florida for John Sayles’ take on development issues, heavily spiced with race issues in Sunshine State. Sayles never makes the most elegant or artful movies, but always presents content worthy of consideration. This one’s no exception.
- Set in my corner of the world is The Milagro Beanfield War, based on John Nichols’ excellent novel and directed by Robert Redford. New Mexico’s unofficial motto is Mark Twain’s old witticism; Whiskey’s for drinking, and water’s for fighting, and as in Chinatown, this one has a water dispute at its core.
- One of the few historical pieces in the eco-category is The Serpent’s Kiss, set in 17th century Norfolk, England. In which we consider the relative merits of conquering nature or working with it in fashioning an estate’s landscape.
Not surprisingly, extractive industries have a recurring role in movies with environmental themes. Especially in Indian Country.
- Two of my favorite movies, both of which I’ve watched more times than I could count, involve on-reservation mining operations and federal government complicity and corruption. Those are Thunderheart with Val Kilmer, Sam Shepherd & Graham Greene, and Powwow Highway with Gary Farmer and A Martinez (and a memorable cameo that launched Canadian Graham Greene’s movie-acting career).
- I wouldn’t have ever watched Clearcut, except it stars Graham Greene. He’s fighting a clearcut, as indicated by the title, in British Columbia. And goes to bone-chillingly extreme measures by following through literally on someone’s offhand figurative comment. Disturbing and memorable.
Eco-movies in a way are those about various cultures, indigenous and otherwise, which step much more lightly on the earth than our modern industrial ways. Those include:
- Grey Owl: Once you get over the odd spectacle of Pierce Brosnan as a Scotsman with braids raised by Indians in traditional ways, it’s actually pretty good.
- John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest is about an English boy accidentally separated from his family, and raised in the Amazon.
- Keeping with the theme of Europeans adopted by the natives is Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves. (And yes, I really do like this one).
- Flipping the dramatic premise, Adam Beach as Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale finds himself adapting to 16th century England when he’s taken there against his will.
- A totally indigenous tale is The Fast Runner based on an Inuit traditional story. Gives one a good sense of why "Eskimos" have so many different words for snow as a side matter.
- Geographic variety brings us to the charming girl power entry set in New Zealand about a young girl who confounds everyone and puts a new twist in Maori traditions with an extraordinary experience as The Whale Rider.
- Kurosawa introduces us to an aging Siberian tracker whose days and ways are all becoming history in the long, slow-paced, visually sumptuous Dersu Uzala.
- More recently, a French production called Himalaya addresses traditional clan structures in a gorgeous epic about a salt-trading caravan through the mountains of its title. Another visual stunner.
- Lest we think all these tales must be solemnly serious, let us not forget The Gods Must Be Crazy, about the havoc wreaked by a single coke bottle dropped upon some traditional people in Africa’s Kalahari Desert.
- Australian Peter Weir’s Witness is set in Pennsylvania Amish country, and addresses an age old theme: How can a peaceful, low-technology culture defend itself against aggressive, malevolent, well-armed antagonists/
- The experimental documentary Koyaanisqatsi is built around Hopi prophecies. The name translates as "world out of balance". I saw it at the US premiere at Radio City Music Hall, part of the New York Film Festival. The after show was as good as the movie: the audience emerged into midtown Manhattan in an "altered state", wandering into the streets and tying up traffic. Cabbies leaned on their horns and cursed, but at least for a few moments did not penetrate. Memorable. A score by Phillip Glass sets the mood.
Back to extractive industries are a few more entries about the mining industry:
- Environmental devastation takes a backseat to the horrific destruction of humans in Blood Diamond. One of the better Africa-themed movies of recent years, all-in-all. Way more to offer than The Last King of Scotland, for example. And Leonardo DiCaprio reminds us that he’s a terrific actor, as well as outspoken environmental advocate.
- The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a classic, addressing the fevered madness that comes with the quest for gold. When all sense and reason is abandoned along the way.
- John Sayles has an entry here, too, in his Silver City. It's mainly about a ne’er-do-well "fortunate son" like Dubya running for Governor of Colorado. Toxic runoff from a mine figures prominently in the story, as do issues related to "illegal" Mexicans.
- One of the movies that ends up on many "all time favorite" lists is Local Hero. This one has an novel twist that the (charming) Scottish locals want to sell out to the oil processing facility, but are scheming to get the highest possible prices. Another twist: the local pastor is a black African missionary. The ending is happy, with the Northern Lights and the web-toed Marina winning out through seduction and a touch of magic.
And then, there’s the Nukes. There’s a number of landmark films on social issues from the late 70s/early 80s. The following are good review for those thinking that nuclear energy is the solution to our energy problems:
- The China Syndrome (1979) had a near catastrophic accident at a California nuclear plant, caused by corporate corner cutting (What else?) Jack Lemmon’s performance is worthy of special note on this one. This movie, released on 3/16/79 got a big box office bump from the coincidental partial meltdown of the reactor core at Three Mile Island during its second week of release (no 3/28/79).
- Silkwood (1983) is a biopic about the life and suspicious death of working class whistle-blower Karen Silkwood in Oklahoma. More corporate malfeasance, of course, this time Kerr-McGee. Cher made the transition from Bob Mackey-dressed TV variety show diva to legitimate actress in this one, nominated for an Oscar for supporting actress (and winning the Golden Globe).
- Amongst documentaries, The Atomic Cafe(1982) is one of my favorites. Not so abstract as Koyaanisqatsi, it is nevertheless interesting from a technical POV. It’s patched together entirely from 1940s and 1950s material, including sound. No talking heads from the present telling us what it means, nor any added titles or even music. Includes stuff like a declassified Army training film narrated by Hugh Beaumont (better known as dad on classic TV show Leave it to Beaver.) Highly recommended.
- More about the bomb than environmental consequences of nukes, Fat Man and Little Boy kills off one of the bomb-developing scientists (John Cusack) by gruesome radiation exposure, and so has earned mention here.
Endangered species have been central to the plot of several movies:
- Gorillas in the Mist starring Sigourney Weaver is a serviceable biopic of researcher/advocate Dian Fossey, who met an untimely end in Rwanda.
- The deeply flawed Medicine Man was Sean Connery’s effort to protect Amazon rainforest by concocting a story where some obscure unknown species held the key to curing cancer. Couldn’t figure out how he found so many cancer-riddled local indigenous natives to prove out his cures on. But the rope-rigging rides up to the forest canopy is terrific.
- John Grisham’s Supreme Court assassination thriller The Pelican Brief revolves around oil development & endangered species in Louisiana.
- The ever-imaginative Charlie Kaufman weaves narrative threads around an endangered Everglades orchid in Adaptation. Good fun, this one.
- Another Florida location for Hoot, based on the children’s book by one of my favorite novelists, Carl Hiaasen. Only one of his other novels was made into a move, the unsuccessful Striptease. It involves a corrupt Congressman (Burt Reynolds) involved with sugar growers. But the movie is mostly about Demi Moore learning to pole dance, which isn’t really enough for a substantial movie. The novel, complete with creamed-corn wrestling (which Hiaasen didn’t make up), is better in this case.
Unendangered wildlife is worth a look in our eco-movie review, too. So here’s a few:
- Rare Birds is a delightfully comedy set in Atlantic Canada, a vehicle for the little-known but very talented Andy Jones. He cooks up a plan to rescue his friend’s (William Hurt) floundering coastal restaurant by inventing a sighting of a species of duck long thought extinct. Lots of side plots and plenty of laughs.
- Russell Crowe & Paul Bettany team up again (after A Beautiful Mind) in Peter Weir's Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World with exploratory stops reminiscent of Darwin, as they discover island endemic species previously unknown to science.
- Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf has been ably adapted for the screen. Gives you a whole new take on the concept of a pissing contest, too.
- There’s a couple of French documentary entries in locations as exotic and challenging as those in Himalaya. Both Winged Migration and March of the Penguins are well enough known not to need further description.
- Another on migratory birds is Fly Away Home, even if it’s only about that most common of migratory Anatids, the Canada Goose. With Jeff Daniels and Anna Paquin while still a child.
- Mixing sci-fi and environmentalism is Star Trek IV: The Journey Home, where the crew of the enterprise must travel back in time to save humanity by saving the humpback whales.d
More sci-fi brings us futuristic dystopias after something’s gone terribly wrong:
- Bruce Willis is a time traveller to stop a bio-terrorist pestilence in Twelve Monkeys. Features one of Brad Pitt’s more memorable performances.
- Frankenstein (various versions, but we’ll go with the classic 1931 Boris Karloff one) is Mary Shelley’s classic tale about the assured doom if mere mortals strive to be gods.
- Long lauded as an eco-tale is Frank Herbert’s Dune. Pick from David Lynch’s 1984 version or the longer 2004 miniseries starring William Hurt.
- Flawed but interesting in what it teaches us about emerging viruses is Outbreak. The ending is dreadful, scientifically speaking, so be warned.
- Children of Men skips the explanation of why people quit producing children en masse, instead choosing to focus on the social consequences. Michael Caine is quite good, but Clive Owen (one of my perennial favorite actors) carries the story apparently effortlessly.
- Society has devised imaginative and draconian means to deal with burgeoning population in Logan’s Run and Soylent Green.
- Another genetic experiment goes awry when a couple of clones (Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson) escape from the farm.
Last but not least, a couple of entries about good old fashioned pollution:
- Julia Roberts showed more spunk than in most of her roles, and brought home an Oscar for Erin Brockovich, a film that reminds us (tangentially) of the dangers of tort reform.
- Judith Helfand got cancer as a young woman because her mother took the drug DES while pregnant. She used her "uterus money" to make a very informative, and sometimes funny documentary called Blue Vinyl. In it, she chronicles her efforts to convince her parents not to put vinyl siding on their suburban house. She visits cancer alley in Louisiana (and other locations) to expose not just how consumers are affected by the product, but also everyone involved in the manufacture thereof.
I’ve made a long list here, but have surely forgotten at least a few titles. So now it’s your turn. Maybe something on the healing power of nature? Have at it.