While I’ve been focusing a lot of energy on poetry lately — you can see some at The New Apocalypse‘s cousin site: 365 — I promise you, dear constant reader that I haven’t neglected my petty drug habits and inane rambling essays on the esoteric. In between tormented poetic introspections, I’ve been working all summer on catching up on movies, TV series and documentaries I’ve missed over the past few years with a brand spanking new Netflix account. This deal is sweet as a virgin’s honey pot; for basically ten bucks a month, you can watch hundreds of hours of this crap streaming online right at your TV or laptop computer. Or — failing that — you can watch a scratched-up-but-somehow-always-still-functional disc delivered right to your home mailbox. Amidst all that rampant upper-fueled viewing, I’ve been developing a few movie reviews. In today’s post, I offer you reviews of two recent documentaries which offer differing views on the present human condition and the roads we are building into our collective future: Collapse and The Cove. In each of today’s reviews, I’m looking at a documentary which centers around a powerful figure whose life is wrapped up in his own obsessions. Those obsessions are created by each man’s past experiences and informed by their present outlook on what they think will become or could become the future.
In our first film — Collapse (2009) — we are introduced in the opening sequence to a man named Michael Rupert. He is a former Los Angeles police officer turned investigative reporter and radical thinker. After working on the force for a while and marrying a C.I.A. agent, he discovered what he still believes to be the assassination by the C.I.A. of several U.S. soldiers who discovered too much about a secret C.I.A. program being operated on domestic soil to distribute and test illicit substances. He quit the force then only to find himself the victim of several mysterious near fatal accidents after his wife divorced him without explanation. He then became an investigative reporter an worked to expose that incident and others in journals, newspapers and eventually his own publication: From the Wilderness. His investigations turned into obsession. What he uncovered and the theories he devised based on that information led him to conclude that modern society was on a collision course with self-destruction. The rest of the film consists of a 82 minute monologue in which he explains how he publicly predicted the 2008 financial crisis well in advance (as well as other systemic disasters), then goes on to predict and explain how modern industrialized society will collapse under its own weight within the next fifty years — if not the next ten.
The film is very atmospheric and plays on the viewer’s desire to buy into Rupert’s anti-establishment and conspiratorial views throughout. It’s filmed — as Rupert incessantly chain smokes — in a dark-meat-locker-looking basement somewhere in Los Angeles by the director and interviewer: Chris Smith. During the monologue, the director intersperses footage of Rupert in his earlier exploits, photos of his publications, and archival footage which illustrates Rupert’s points. Throughout the film the viewer is easily drawn in as Rupert convincingly explains his predictions about the coming collapse of society.
Rupert explains that “peak oil” — the time at which the world’s oil supply peaks and then begins to decline — has already occurred within the last decade. Declassified government documents confirm this. Therefor, he explains, the global economy which is based on this resource — which we only began extracting from the ground a little over a hundred years ago by the way — has already begun to decline. Imagine: all of the fossilized energy which has been stored inside this planet since its creation/formation has been strip-mined by human beings in less than two hundred years. Rupert also debunks all the popular fixes for oil dependence: nuclear, clean coal, wind, solar, hydroelectric, wave power, zero-point energy, biodiesel, etc. Because in the future the only means of generating power will at best be wind and solar — and because those forms of energy cannot be transmitted over long distances via power lines — all future civilization will be local and decentralized. And it will not be industrialized. In other words, because nothing can replace the edifice created by fossil fuels — and because at least five billion of the people who exist on this planet exist only because of the modern conveniences invented in the last century — civilization will collapse as soon as a sustainable supply of oil disappears and billions of people will starve to death and be swept aside by the global chaos that ensues as slowly collapsing governments fight over what resources are left. In the end, Rupert believes — as I tend to believe — that five hundred years from now the historians of humanity’s survivors will look back and write that the twenty-first century gave birth to the Dark Ages.
Now, the filmmaker tries to paint this very convincing picture and then pull the rug out from under the viewer at the very end by de-legitimizing Rupert. Because Rupert is a man obsessed and emotionally wrecked by his obsession, Smith tries to show how — in his own words — “… that [Rupert’s] obsession with the collapse of industrial civilization has led to the collapse of his life.” At the end we see how Rupert is avoiding eviction after the failure of his most recent book and the director transposes several quotes (published in the 80’s) from Rupert’s critics which claim he is a paranoid delusional. Here I think the director falls short.
While Rupert’s obsession is certainly destroying his life, the director unfairly debunked and dismissed Rupert’s theories when he pointed only to Rupert’s personal problems as evidence of his theories’ illegitimacy. Yes; Rupert is an unhealthy and obsessive individual, but he also happens to be a genius. His logic is sound. His theories about the edifice of fossil fuel and its collapse are inscrutable. His facts and figures can’t be argued with. But that’s just my opinion. You can watch and judge for yourself. Are you like the director — too eager to dismiss Rupert because you are afraid he might be right and your children will never be able to watch Netflix on some thing called a laptop — or are you like me?
In our second film — The Cove (2009) — the director (Louie Psihoyos) creates a fascinating narrative of the life and exploits of dolphin-trainer-turned-dolphin-liberator Ric O’Barry. The subject of this film got his start as a dolphin trainer for the show Flipper. Before that show came along the general public didn’t know much about dolphins and didn’t adore them overmuch. But the show was green-lit by its studio decades back and O’Barry was hired to capture and train several dolphins which could then all be used as rotating stand-ins for the character of Flipper. You’ll learn that O’Barry actually lived year round in the house by the Flippers’ dock which was supposed to be the family house in the show. There, in that enclosed bay, he lived with those dolphins for the entire TV series’ run and befriended them. He would even drag his TV out to the end of the dock with an extension cord so his dolphin friends could watch themselves on TV. Then the show was cancelled and the dolphins were taken away from him. He said he still visited them for a time after the dolphins were sold off to a theme park and performed shows for the public. Of course, he learned right away as dolphins for the first time because theme park animals that they cannot survive happily in such a place. They are acoustic animals and aquatic theme parks are basically like giant noise sinks for aquatic animals. It would be like capturing a human being, taping their eyes open and making them watch war-crime footage for years on end.
So, O’Barry dedicated his life to freeing captive dolphins even as their success at that first theme park caused dolphin captures to increase exponentially worldwide for the next forty years. Now there is a booming industry — which O’Barry blames himself for starting with the show Flipper — that captures and puts on display hundreds of dolphins every year.
However, that is merely prologue. The subject of the film is mainly O’Barry’s time in the coastal Japanese town of Taijii. That town — which seems pleasant enough on the surface — is actually the world’s number one supplier of captive dolphins and of dolphin meat.
Yes, that’s right. Dolphin meat.
As it turns out, the International Whaling Commission — the only body in the world dedicated to anti-whaling practices — doesn’t consider dolphins to be a type of whale. Therefor, Japanese fisherman can round-up hundreds of dolphins near their breeding waters in Taijii, sell the prime females to collectors from aquariums around the world, then herd the rest into Taijii’s secluded and infamous cove (hence the name of the film). There they are slaughtered for their meat. The fishermen of the town have kept the cove off-limits to journalists and cameramen for decades because of what goes on there and the Japanese government assists them financially in doing so. In other words: they know how negatively the rest of the world looks at this practice.
Furthermore, the film proved that these fishermen are selling this dolphin meat the Japanese government, which is then repackaging it and selling it with labels claiming it is exotic and expensive fish of various other kinds. If that wasn’t enough, the reason dolphin meat shouldn’t be sold at all — much less advertised as other meats to artificially inflate its value — is because its got over 500% more mercury content than any other animals in the sea. This is because dolphins and whales occupy the same level of their food chain that we do on land. In other words, all the mercury we are dumping into the ocean (the mercury content of the ocean has gone up 1 to 3 percent every year since the mercury content of the ocean began being measured) is collecting in dolphins and whales and sharks: the ultimate end of the oceanic food chain. What will the end result of this be? Mercury poisoning at mass levels in the Japanese public if this continues.
The filmmakers — and Ric O’Barry — also do a pretty good job of convincing the viewer that this practice will probably continue since Japan an other countries are desperate to satisfy their public’s demand for seafood. At our current rates of ocean fishing, scientists say, there will be no more fish in the oceans within the next fifty years. While Ric O’Barry doesn’t seem to have a long-term solution to the problem, he is more optimistic than Michael Rupert that action can actually be taken to solve some or all of the problem. To that end O’Barry contacted the filmmakers, who in turn assembled a veritable secret agent team of experts. Their goal was to expose what was going on inside the cove in Taijii.
They came up with a plan — detailed in the movie — to infiltrate the cove by cover of darkness and install hidden cameras underwater and under false rocks along the shore to capture evidence of what happens there. Much of The Cove details how that operation was executed and the footage and evidence that they uncovered in the process.
I warn you, dear Constant Reader… If you don’t want to see dozens of Japanese fisherman impaling the hearts of hundreds of crying dolphins as an entire mile long cove turns from ocean blue to blood-red… don’t watch this film.
O’Barry, at the film’s conclusion, seems optimistic that this evidence will give him what he needs to affect some kind of change in the globe’s attitude about whaling and dolphin protection (maybe even amongst the general public of Japan itself, which is still largely ignorant of the mercury-choked dolphin meat they’re being fed). That is the difference between him and Michael Rupert of Collapse: optimism.
In the end, I’ll let the viewer decide if there is any hope of shaking people out of their apathy. But I think you can guess how I feel about that, dear Constant Reader.
In any case, The Cove is an excellent film insofar as it exposes a global problem which most people don’t even know is a problem (because no institution exists to expose it). However, while Collapse unfairly dismisses Rupert, I feel The Cove unfairly glorifies O’Barry. Yes, O’Barry and the film crew succeeds in their goal of exposing dolphin fishing, but they utterly fail to convince me that anything will change as a result. The one thing the film overlooked is that the revulsion of the general public whenever they are outraged by something is always outweighed by the greed of the corporations and governments they work for.
So, to sum up, I felt like both of these films presented fascinating portraits of fascinating characters and exposed massive problems in society which can’t be escaped. However, both films were skewed in their perceptions by their creators and presented — in both cases — what I felt to be an incomplete or short-sighted view. In other words, both films barely had time to scratch the surface even as fascinating and scathing as they were.