Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Review: GasLand

Dir. Josh Fox
Year: 2010
Aus Rating: PG
Running Time: 104mins

Narration has been a notoriously tricky concept for cinema to grasp from time to time. Blade Runner and Dark City have each waged wars against studio-enforced narration that single-handedly peeled back a curtain that didn’t need to be peeled. At other times it can make the most traditional of film feel like it’s hitting you over the head with its message. However, sometimes narration is very helpful and, at least in documentaries, it can be of the utmost important. Sometimes you can be Deep Water and be blessed with the voice of Tilda Swinton, or sometimes you can be a filmmaker like Michael Moore, whose voice is certainly one that can enliven and empower a film. And then there are films like GasLand where first-time documentary filmmaker Josh Fox has provided his own narration and come perilously close to hampering his own film.

Lucky for Fox that GasLand revolves around such a fascinating topic, then, isn’t it? Receiving a letter one day from a natural gas company he promptly picked up a camera and went around the country, trying to discover everything he could about the debatable ethics that circle the issue of natural gas farming. And as Australia enters the production field, audiences should have their ears pricked for the message of GasLand.

The message, from a broad sense, is one we’ve seen plenty of times before in non-fiction and fiction films alike. Whether it be Roger & Me or Erin Brockovich (the latter of which could almost be telling the movie version of the GasLand tale, even down to the scene where corporate officials are offered a glass of the water they say isn’t contaminated, only to turn it down), we’ve all been made keenly aware that corporations are bad, but as Fox’s observant camera shows us, they’re also incredibly stupid. There are times in this movie that audiences will be truly baffled by not only how clueless these companies can be, but at the near unfathomable level of stupidity that they think even the most modest of country living folk must be to accept their bunkum. Fox's examination of how the Bush government - and, specifically, Vice President Dick Cheney - made the natural gas production company's practices exempt from the regulations that would make it illegal is particularly interesting, galling and despicable whilst really just calling into question why anybody would believe a government that would allow this.

Fox has certainly done a good job of collecting an interesting slate of people affected by the unhealthy side-effects of natural gas drilling – a process known as “Hydraulic Fracturing” that sends countless amounts of chemicals into the ground in order to extract the precious natural gas that lies in multi-statewide underground oceans, resulting in contaminated water and illness to both humans and livestock. A more cynical filmmaker may have tried to locate more “colourful” locals, but Fox’s participants, some of whom even demonstrate the flammable water that is now gurgling through their pipes, are all genuine and likeable people that are immensely watchable.

His trip across America from his home state of Pennsylvania is entertaining as it is horrific. The most distressing moment for some will be one involving the cruel effects of the drilling on farm animals and domestic pets, but the moments of comedic relief provided by setting fire to water by the oft jovial participants Fox has assembled as well as some nice lively presentations of stale facts alleviates the shock and makes sure GasLand isn’t one big misery-filled lecture on how close to hell these mass corporations are willing to send us. I wish Fox had purchased a tripod – or, hell, even just placed the camera on a box or a chair – since the handheld camera movements can induce queasiness from time to time. I think we can all agree that it's hard to get your message across when everyone's getting dizzy because you can't hold your camera still for five minutes, right?

However, shaky cameras can be forgiven, but, as I spoke of initially, if GasLand has one major problem that is almost impossible for me to overcome it is Fox himself. Having given himself narration duties, he has unfortunately not realised that his voice is not suitable at all! His dry, slow delivery is routinely punctuated by invisible ellipses’ and gaps. He’s far more entertaining when he’s not reading from a script and is merely interacting with the residents affected by the likes of Halliburton. When spontaneity is removed and pre-written words are placed in his mouth, Fox loses every ounce of personality and interest (at least in this viewer). At the early hour that I saw GasLand, I am not ashamed to say he put me to sleep for the briefest of moments. It’s an unfortunate aspect of what is a regularly fascinating documentary that should be taken very seriously. The discovery of natural gas resources under Australia, and the selling of land to companies already, means that we will surely be hearing more and more about this in the near future. If you see GasLand you’ll be ahead of the curve in your outrage and, rare for a documentary these days about the environment, it might actually be preaching to more than just the choir. And that’s almost as cool as playing a banjo whilst wearing a gasmask in front of a processing plant. B


1 comment:

Brian F. said...

shaking my head....

(first, good review of the doc...i agree with almost all of your points.)

but second, i encourage people with little knowledge of the oil and gas industry, outside of what they have watched in GasLand, to further educate themselves on the processes of natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing in particular.

you have watched an hour and a half of one person's (side's) viewpoint, now you owe it to yourself to invest some time in exploring what other information is out there.

several of the main points in GasLand are either skewed, false, or very misrepresented. I am not calling the whole thing BS, I think it's great that a documentary can raise and is raising public knowledge or at least interest, in the oil and gas industry and their practices.

However, I think it's a shame that the SOLE source of information in many people's case (this documentary), is pretty slanted and misrepresented.

For example, is anybody aware that there have been problems with methane in tap water dating back to the 1970s, and even 1930s, decades before the hydraulic fracturing process debuted in the natural gas extraction industry?

You will surely not be informed of this pretty important fact in GasLand, which makes it seem that methane in tap water is a direct result of hydraulic fracturing.