Saturday, April 25, 2009

"Earth" for the Happy Victim of False Advertising

I'm walking a thin line here. By writing so many blogs about Disney, one might think I have some obsession. Maybe it's true, though it so happens that Disney makes quite an example of itself lately and they've just done it again.

Disney missed an important memo - Recycling is for plastic, not wildly popular nature footage already premiered as part of one of the most successful series on TV. For those of you fans of the BBC's great achievement, Planet Earth, DON'T SEE "EARTH", BECAUSE YOU ALREADY HAVE. In a previous post I mentioned that Disney's press releases shamelessly ignored environmental sensitivity. I talked about how Disney prides themselves on a standard of morals accessible to people of all ages, and that, as a family company, Disney is liable to represent themselves with that standard of morals, putting money where its mouth is. Disney has proven even further that the main concern is money... Only a few shots of "Earth" were original shots - shots not taken from the already drooled over Planet Earth series. They took another film, changed the narration, and dropped the word "Planet" from the title. Wow.

Disney had the opportunity to do something huge. They had the chance to follow Planet Earth and really "imagineer" something historical. Well, they didn't, and they still managed to take an amazing amount of credit for another company's success. They even had the nerve to play a tribute before the film, explaining how natural footage is a heritage of theirs (which is a reference to their childhood days of parading lemmings off cliffs). No, Disney deserves no credit for re-gifting. They do, however, deserve a HUGE round of applause for one of the only original shots in the entire film...

Disney murders Bambi in slow motion. I felt: nauseous, shocked, fearful, tranquil, uproarious, rejuvenated - at the site of a cheetah chomping the neck of a small deer. When the shot begins, one would presume that the deer, despite being chased by the fastest land animal, will escape. In that moment, one might think to themselves, "Disney won't show an animal being eaten, and so the deer must escape somehow. Maybe the cheetah will trip?" As the shot continues, ever so slowly so that every detail is impactful, it becomes obvious that this deer is done for, especially when the poor thing stumbles, and tumbles, and rolls across the ground. Now, we know the cheetah has won. Fine. We're thinking, "Ok, Disney's not actually going to show the death of this deer. They'll cut the shot right about now...... ..... ...." Nope - they keep it rolling, and in slow-motion they force children to watch as the cheetah tears into flesh, and then, as it moves to the neck and sinks its teeth deep into Bambi's throat. It's not a cartoon teaching kids about death this time around, but the images of real, living, breathing animals desperate for survival - the one thing Disney gave me for my money.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Earth for the Disheartened Warhawk

Naqoyqatsi means, "War Life." The film, Naqoyqatsi, by the same geniuses that made Koyaanisqatsi, represents human life bound to technology. As the third film in the series, Naqoyqatsi explores more than our human relationship with the natural world, but also our relationship with the technological landscape we've created. The film proposes that technology and human nature are now inseparable. Computers, like the air we breathe, keep us alive. Technology is civilization.

No doubt, Naqoyqatsi is an art film. Not surprising either, that the movie asserts complex ideas about human nature, and so poetically. The basic idea is something we've been talking about in science-fiction for decades: the introduction of technology has forced human civilization into uncharted territories from which we will never escape. Where Hollywood films dilute the important questions of this kind of thinking, with romance or high-tech explosions, Naqoyqatsi makes sure to leave no stone unturned. The film asks you to separate yourself from life as you've seen it. The perspective is so startling, you'd have thought you've been brainwashed your entire life.

I find it appropriate that the film equates war and technology. As stated previously, Koyaanisqatsi was entered into the National Film Registry for its important historical documentation, and in the same way Naqoyqatsi makes significant observations, though with demanding artistic conviction. The film demonstrates the extent to which technology has become the fabric of the human universe. We build tools that build tools that slowly change infrastructure, culture, civilization, and certainly human relationships. We build tools that change the ways we perceive ourselves. We build tools that build tools that kill people. If we wanted, we could use our tools to destroy everything, all other tools, to erase all sign of human existence. We create to destroy.

Still, I think the word "war" is subjective. Naqoyqatsi means more than to say technology can be used as a weapon. "War" in this case, represents our relationship with nature, and beyond that, the grand idea of life itself. Today, to be human means something entirely different. It's a timely idea. With technology we're waging a war on the way things used to be, or the natural way of things. Technology is pure intellect, pure reason, pure humanity. We're at war with "the way of life." We're battling previous definitions of "nature."

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Bye Bye, New Old Hollywood

As an aspiring filmmaker, I'd love to see Hollywood die a gruesome death. So, you can imagine my excitement at Raleigh Studios’ recent announcement of its plans to create a "studio and entertainment complex" in Utah. Their announcement falls in line with a recent trend in the film industry. Hollywood can keep poppin’ flashbulbs, but it’s no longer the only place to make movies. Words cannot express the joy this would give me, though they may come close enough:


Utah makes its claim with natural beauty. You only make a movie outside Hollywood if the cost is cheap or the scenery is otherwise unachievable. Utah has the best of both worlds. Utah boasts some of the world’s most spectacular landscapes. Why paint a natural backdrop when the real thing exists, and in your own backyard? What’s more, everything comes at a cheaper price! Watch your back, LA. Raleigh Studios’ announcement came as part of a recent diaspora away from Hollywood and into the wilderness of life outside of pop-culture.

New York City, Philadelphia, Michigan, Alaska, Chicago, North Carolina, Atlanta, New Mexico, and not to mention Vancouver (or many other Canadian cities) all want a piece of showbiz, and they’re taking it freely. You can’t blame them for trying, given the sorry state of the economy and the fact that the American entertainment industry generally controls all of Earthly Civilization. The other 49 want their share of the loot, so they’re baiting filmmakers with tax incentives. We’re talking big breaks, saving millions of dollars per production. Philadelphia, for example, offered a 25% tax credit for films that spend at least 60% of their budget in state. Since its creation, the Film Office of southeastern Pennsylvania has generated over $2 billion thanks to film and video productions. Obviously, both parties benefit. It’s a win-win that fundamentally changes the movie-making business. Good, maybe movies won’t suck anymore. These days the film industry concerns itself with business primarily, and with new competition around, LA will have a run for its money. It could be disastrous. You may need to avert your eyes.

Personally, I’ll kick back and marvel as the big companies struggle to push the limits of “spectacle” even further – once the novelty of 3D runs out they’ll need even newer, louder, bigger, more encompassing ways of distracting the audience. Common sense would demand a better product via genuine talent, or better stories, but business is about efficiency, and cheap shortcuts. I know from my experience in the field that Hollywood prides itself on its ability to sell bad movies. Gimmicks will only last so long, until people realize they don’t have the money to see the nineteenth edition of Fast and Furious, Too Fast Too Furious, or some other slight derivative of the words “fast” and “furious.” Hopefully, the dispersion of film production to new environments means raising the bar.

With any luck, decentralization of the film industry should result in a new oeuvre of movies. A new spirit for a new age. As an audience, we’ve been wading in the same recycled stories for decades. For whatever upsetting reasons, The Remake is in, and it’s only a matter of time until the pool of films ripe for remaking runs dry (don't be surprised if they start remaking remakes). In the meantime, studios around the country will produce specialized films that result of their unique settings. I base my hopeful argument around the idea that these unique locations will produce equally unique feature films. Enough decentralization could shatter Hollywood's thin plastic veneer - that sour pride running rampant, taking advantage of your wife and kids with cheap escapist gimmickry. Then may our film industry lead a way out of this muck of contemporary pop-culture we've gotten ourselves into, because Jesus, it’s about time.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Earth for the Transcendentalist

Koyaanisqatsi speaks without language. A montage of imagery, the shots create visual poetry, a sort of nature documentary absent of a narrator. The shots are bigger than life, taken from the air above natural wonders, or condensing the time of a day into seconds. Just watching, you feel the power of nature, and time. Koyaanisqatsi makes observations that allow the Earth to speak for itself, so eloquently - its own voice.

I mean: that for good reason, the government selected Koyaanisqatsi for preservation by the National Film Registry, listing it as, ""culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". Koyaanisqatsi captures some of our most important history and packs it into the length of a feature film. The director, Godfrey Reggio, used artistic observation as a means of documenting the natural world and included humans, and civilization, in that definition of "natural world." Though, the film's perspective so alters your previous perceptions of our planet that you almost feel inhuman just watching it, and that's the point. In an interview, Reggio gave purpose to his choice of music over language, stating that music and images communicate to all people, without discriminating. With Philip Glass as composer, and Ron Fricke as cinematographer, it's not hard to speak without words. The result of the collaboration between these men is an amazing human achievement.

Then, it's no surprise Godfrey Reggio spent fourteen years in fasting, silence and prayer in part of his training with a group of Christian monks. After so much time in isolation away from mainstream civilization, he decided to make movies. In other words, he spent fourteen years exerting the entirety of his soul towards a specialized spiritual cause, abandoned that cause, and immediately picked up a camera so he could go off and document the world. Who wouldn't want to know what that man has to say?

Apparently, most people. Koyaanisqatsi was the first film of a trilogy, all of which films have struggled, for years, to find distribution. I'll remind you: the Library of Congress chose this film to be preserved, for as long as possible. Still, almost no one knows what "Koyaanisqatsi" is, and fewer have had the immense privilege of experiencing it. ...At least it's sitting in a vault somewhere.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Disney Markets Mother Nature (For All She’s Worth)

Disneynature: it’s like selling tickets to a funeral, or helping an old lady cross the street because she tips well.

On April 22, 2009, The Walt Disney Company will release the first of several films under its new subsidiary, Disneynature. Disney says the film, entitled, Earth, “…will take us on a tour of our home as we have never seen it before.” How many times have we heard that one?

It’s like the McDonald’s slogan, “I’m Lovin’ It!”

No, Disney’s intentions are about as green as a dollar bill. Take a look at Disneynature’s press releases, which shamelessly paint pictures of potential profits. The company cites the success of other nature films, such as Planet Earth and March of the Penguins, as motivation for entering the “market”: it wasn’t the interests of a young clownfish, Nemo, taken from his father - not the protection of a baby deer whose mother died dramatically at the hands of hunters - not the disappearance of “all the colors of the wind.” Instead, Disney chief-executive Bob Iger, described his eureka-moment in the formation of Disneynature as an attempt to copy March of the Penguins’ giant success: "After that came out, a lightbulb went off and we said that should have been a Disney film worldwide. That's part of the Disney heritage."

It’d be like if Obama used the line, “NO MORE TAXES!”

He’s right about heritage – Disney also turned to nature for ticket sales back in the 40s and 50s for the, “True-Life Adventure Series,” and even then, the company’s intentions proved questionable. For instance, the company actually staged natural scenes, as if putting on a play. Disney created the idea that lemmings commit suicide. Don’t worry, I doubt any lemmings were actually harmed in the production of the documentary, though the company purposely fabricated the morbid idea that lemmings jump of cliffs in procession. Literally – they took lemmings from Manitoba, their natural environment, and herded them off cliffs in Alberta for the sake of “documentation.” Similar to the way in which Bob Iger addressed the formation of Disneynature, Walt announced that the purpose of the company’s old-school docs, the “True-Life Adventure Series,” was to entertain, and not to educate. Apparently suicidal rodents are popcorn material!

It’s like the idea of “non-profit” oil drilling.

So, “heritage” as defined by Disney, means exploiting nature for the sake of profit, to put it simply, clearly, environmentally. The fact that Disneynature has come to be means that someone at Disney recognizes the precarious position of the natural world, and that it’s marketable. That’s fine. We get it… Hollywood is an industry. Shocking, then, that a company like Disney takes little to no precaution in exploiting the trend. Come on. We all understand the term “movie business.” Iger obviously ignores tact, and corporate identity, in the honesty of admitting financial motivations for the creation of an environmentally based subsidiary. Shouldn’t we expect Disney, manufacturer of pleasant dreams and childhood wonder, to put business aside and represent itself with exactly that fantastical attitude? And wouldn’t that work better anyway?

It’s like OJ writing and publishing a book about how he would have killed Nicole.

Look… I have nothing against entertainment. In fact, it’s what I’ll try to do for the rest for my life. There is, however, a certain liability that comes with being a powerful corporation that shapes the interests of children and adults alike. We’ve made it to the year 2009. We are struggling, truly struggling, to find a solution to our most threatening, potentially detrimental problems. The least Iger could do: “We recognize the importance of our natural world. Disneynature is our veritable attempt to become a part of the environmental discussion happening around the world.” Instead, Disney – creators of “the happiest place on Earth” - reasserts that business concerns itself with business primarily.

It’s like buying stock in the apocalypse.

That said, I can’t wait to see the films.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Earth for the Nostalgiac Italian

Now, let's look at how the Earth has been used to characterize timelessness. Let's look at the Earth as a symbol of the past, and as tradition. Let's look at it among the things that have made us who we are - as something we cannot escape, that makes us human in the most essential way.

In Luchino Visconti's, "The Leopard," (1963 adaptation of Lampedusa's 1958 novel), the Sicilian landscape is characterized as a symbol of permanence. The movie takes place just before the formation of Italy, while an aristocracy comes to an end and a new Italian empire will claim a nation - in a time of inevitable change Visconti uses landscape to reassert tradition. For Sicilians of this era the landscape was a way of life. Agriculture was business, but also lifeblood. So, in Visconti's film, we see dramatic portraits of yellow mountains accompanying triumphant scores. These scenes are meant to be as grand as the history of one of the world's most powerful empires. These expansive shots of Sicily's natural environment remind us of a simpler time, or place, in which humans lived off of the Earth, not vice versa.

The physical realm, the Earth and its forces of nature, represent tradition, the past, and certainly the state of Sicily in Visconti's, "The Leopard." Throughout the story, our main man Fabrizio, notices and is compared to the Sicilian landscape, which is characterized as dusty, immemorial, and harsh. The land resists change. Not even time can affect Sicily. It is an absolute whose permanence gives identity to its people: “The term ‘countryside’ implies soil transformed by labor; but the scrub clinging to the slopes was still in the very same state of scented tangle in which it had been found by Phoenicians, Dorians, and Ionians when they disembarked in Sicily, that America of antiquity” (Lampedusa 123). Because the land is unchanging, it is familiar. Because the land is familiar, it is comfortable, and ultimately reassuring. The landscape has the power to pacify Fabrizio, and eventually he realizes that Sicilian culture, and its people, are primarily a formation of time and the Earth.

Lampedusa's book was published posthumously in 1958, though it's written about the 1860s in Sicily, just before Italy became a nation. Visconti's filmic adaptation speaks at least of an Italian nostalgia, but also some kind of mainstream reverence for the Earth. Here, we see the Earth as a symbol of our past, of a life without new technologies, or cityscapes, or neighborhoods. We see the Earth in its transcendental beauty, so characteristic of that time. Take it as a reminder of what life could be like.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Watching Environmental Films Doesn't Make You An Activist

Among history’s best records of our planet and human civilization, of the textbooks, scientific journals, political and cultural documents – even the decaying ruins of ancient cities – the cinema stands as one of our most significant self-reflections. The cinema, as any art form, has the power to record the spirit of an age, but with the clarity of a mirror. Only the performing arts share cinema’s direct and encompassing representation of culture, though the cinema is as archive-able as our oldest texts. Dudley Andrew, author of “Cinema & Culture,” states in clearly, that, “a cultural history of cinema must reconstruct the temper of the times, neither through the direct appreciation of its products nor through the direct amassing of ‘relevant facts,’ but through an indirect reconstruction of the conditions of representation that permitted such films to be made, to be understood, even to be misunderstood, controversial, or trivial. More than this, as certain key films attest, the movies create as well as display a culture's imagination” (Andrew). What’s more, film and video are accessible to the ordinary civilian, yielding an even more extensive documentation of culture, society and civilization via varied perspectives. It then goes without saying that, in analyzing the environmental movement as a recent cultural development, filmic representation of the natural world is revealing historical documentation.

Filmic visions of our planet record not only contemporary issues, but also our social reactions and concerns. These visions are sometimes distributed as entertainment in the form of popular movies or television shows, but also as scientific, educational or politically motivated arguments, and it would seem that these separate intentions are at opposite sides of an environmental debate: that an environmentally themed film should necessarily transcend the purpose of passive entertainment if it’s to be effective in making some kind of change. In other words, why gander at natural images without recognizing their impermanence? The market has developed several solutions to this question, resulting in the formation of many sub-genre categories of the “environmental film,” each with its own intended audience. These sub-genres depend on specific demographics and yield respectively varied effects on the social consideration of environmental ideas. These different methods of communicating with an audience ultimately reflect a specific time in environmental consciousness that focuses on the individual spectator, rather than one unified ideology of the movement.

Since we’re talking about environmental issues, it’s important to highlight a few key moments of the movement. While discourse on the environment finds its roots in the 19th century, the popular environmental movement began in the 1960s, largely thanks to Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, which gave a social critique of pollution in our environment. Both organizations Greenpeace and Friends of our Environment took flight in 1971, and then in 1972 began the first of the United Nation’s 10-yearly Earth Summits. Awareness increased throughout the 70s, and 1983 saw the United Nations General Assembly created UN World Commission on Environment and Development. Global warming became hot topic in the 1990s, and since then the debate has only gotten larger (Reynolds). Over the last few decades environmentalism has picked up speed, and its increasing popularity is evident in cinema. In these years that environmentalism gained popularity, its issues became increasingly visible in film and video, and today films with environmental images are quite popular at the movie theaters.

In its early stages, environmentalism was widely regarded as liberal nonsense, though it has since gained recognition as a global concern, further increasing the presence of environmental issues in popular discourse and ultimately resulting in the emergence of the mentioned sub-genre categories of the environmental film. In fact, if the ordinary civilian were asked to identify “sub-genre categories” of the environmental film, they’d have no idea what they were being asked. Still, when identified, most movie-goers might understand the distinction between, say, the nature documentary “March of the Penguins,” and the animated children’s movie, “Happy Feet.” Both of these films convey environmentally driven messages, though they appeal to different (overlapping) audiences: one is designed for people of all ages - the average movie-watcher, intrigued by the fantasy of remote lands, cute animals, and warm-hearted narration, and the other, in the case of “Happy Feet,” simply for children and their parents. Beyond Hollywood exists even more classifications of environmental cinema, kinds of special-interest films ranging from low-budget independent documentaries, the avant-garde film, or even local-issue documentaries focused on making some kind of impact within a smaller community. For the sake of argument we’ll lump these types of films into two generalized, but contained categorizations, the first of which I’ll describe as the large-audience environmental film.

Naturally, the large-audience environmental film is more familiar than the smaller, and for good (business) reasons! There shouldn’t be a need to point out that Hollywood is an industry dependent on creating and responding to social trends, but that’s the nature of the beast: that a marketing strategy strives to be invisible. Derek Bouse, author of Wildlife Films, points out that, “How film and television depict the natural world often has far less to do with science or real outdoor experience than with media economics, established production practices, viewers’ expectations, and the ways each of these influences the others” (Bouse 1). Films within the industry rely on critical success, word of mouth, and lasting reputation. Then, any large-audience environmental film by default seeks some common denominator that connects most powerfully with the largest variety of people. These films are subject to the game of weighing costs and profits, and it’s a tough industry. If money is the lifeblood of these films, how can we be sure they’re actually even working towards improving environmental conditions?

No matter the message of a film, the intentions of major studios seem about as “green” as a dollar bill. Still, it could be said that, if nothing else, these films garner a greater appreciation for the environment and a more global awareness of environmental ideas. It is true that any kind of public representation, regardless of studio intentions, at the very least keeps environmental issues contemporary. If it’s entertainment, people won’t ignore it, and if people won’t ignore it, it’s entertainment! So, obviously, increasing awareness is better than not, but some argue that Hollywood environmental films don’t encourage enough participation.

The argument against Hollywood nature films as activism demands that sitting in a theater, or on your couch, or in your computer chair, no matter how much “awareness” these films garner, ultimately fails in compelling people to action. Marketing is the adversary of integrity. For instance, take New Line Cinema’s owl movie, Hoot, which tells the story of a group of kids that stand up against a construction development that threatens a population of endangered owls. New Line partnered with the National Wildlife Federation in promoting the movie, releasing this statement: “In an effort to build awareness for the needs of wildlife and engage families in a fun and interactive activity, New Line Cinema has created a program where consumers can download a HOOT DESKTOP PET, which helps fund the National Wildlife Federation's efforts to protect owls and other wildlife and habitat around the country” ("New Line Cinema Encourages Audience Environmentalism..." ). The movie sends a great message: kids - you can stand up to industry and save the environment. The marketing strategy, however, convinces those kids to sit at home on a computer and pretend they’re making a difference by playing with some digital avatar. Sure, the program raises money for the National Wildlife Federation, but that’s a great way of saying, “Someone else will worry about it so that all you have to do is just stay home, buy our products and feel influential.”

Authors Bouse and Gregg Mitman describe why these large-audience nature films appeal to the contemporary viewer, attributing their appeal to an ability to relate with the audience, and a public voyeurism for remote landscapes. Bouse claims that, “in wildlife films it is nearly always story that matters most” (Bouse 36), and continues to describe how these films create familiar narratives, often based around the idea of the family. Mitman takes the explanation further by asserting that, “Whether crafted to elicit thrills or to preserve and educate audiences about the real-life drama of threatened wildlife, nature films then and now reveal much about the yearnings of Americans to both be close to nature and yet distinctly apart,” (Mitman 4). We love to watch nature because we can relate with it, and at the same time we’re thrilled with its mysteries.

However, on the other hand of the debate about environmental cinema, the small-audience environmental film has different motivations. The success of these videos doesn’t rely on marketing or profits, so we can more easily assume their intentions are genuine. Instead, the small-audience environmental video focuses on the advancement of some specific or local cause. Austra, a member of Arts Engine (an organization promoting “independent media of consequence”), states it well, that, “This kind of media isn’t trying to sell you anything other than a voice in the debate about the future of the planet” (Austra). With money out of the picture, the effect of environmental images is measurable, and even tangible.

The small-environmental video has proven itself as an influential medium that has the power to compel people into action. Austra also demonstrates how these videos reach people:

The international environmental organization Greenpeace, for instance, has achieved a good deal of notoriety and success over the past 20 years sending camera crews around the globe -- into the middle of the ocean filming whale hunts, to the bottom of the world documenting pollution in Antarctica, and underneath the sea capturing the murderous impact of driftnets. The power of these images has been essential in moving the public to call for an end to commercial whaling, international protection for Antarctica, and a U.N. ban on driftnet fishing. (Austra)

Needless to say, Greenpeace is non-profit organization, so these documentations aren’t necessarily for the purpose of entertainment, but politics - not just about awareness, but also action. Austra goes on to describe several instances in which small-audience environmental films have solved specific issues. In one example, an everyday citizen documented trucks carrying garbage to landfills in the Midwest and then returning to the East Coast with food bound for supermarkets. Her story appeared on several important news shows on primetime television, and the woman explained that, “In dealing with the news media, just a small amount of footage can say a lot. Without the video, I don’t think our message would have gotten out” (Austra). Her civilian footage convinced state officials to pass legislation regulating out-of-state waste, demonstrating the true power of environmental video.

The crux of this debate relies on whether or not environmental film or video has the necessary responsibility to elicit more than awareness. The Cinema is traditionally a place of entertainment before politics, and so I think it’s naïve to demand that popular movies adhere to such a social responsibility. Still, ethics can’t be ignored. The industrial revolution made clear that we have a very delicate relationship with the earth, and in recent decades the environmental movement has become increasingly prominent. The frequent presence of natural images in these mediums evidences our contemporary concerns. Ultimately, Hollywood’s passive use of these images abuses the importance of these issues. In other words, the intentions of large-audience environmental film negate social principal, and in such an ethical argument this kind of film serves little to no purpose other than describing the human race as lazy, hypocritical and apathetic. After all, the Cinema is a symbol of escapism. At the end of the day, it’s up to the individual spectator to decide what to do with their environmental consciousness.

Works Cited

"New Line Cinema Encourages Audience Environmentalism...." The Big Screen Cinema Guide 28 03 2006 1. 17 Feb 2009 .

Andrew, Dudley. "Cinema & Culture." Humanities Vol. 6 No. 4(1985) 18 Feb 2009 .

Austra. "Do Environmental Films Help the Environment?." MediaRights 07 09 2001 1. 20 Feb 2009 .

Derek Bousé. Wildlife Films. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

Gregg Mitman. Reel Nature: America’s Romance with Wildlife on Film. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Reynolds, Andy. "A Brief History of Environmentalism." Channel 4 (2002) 18 Feb 2009 .