Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Ugly Truth

Where in America do we now get our truth? Since newspapers have eliminated reporters and cut budgets for news-gathering, there's little of substance in them anymore--they figure AP and the unquestioning reprinting of press releases oughta be good enough for the American people, who aren't even watching.

The documentary film, I would submit, has taken the place of investigative journalism in this time when we basically don't know shit about what's really happening (to our freedoms, to our soldiers, to our economy, or to the earth, to name a few areas of concern) and by whom. These independently produced documentaries are delivering coverage of otherwise undiscussed issues in unparalleled depth. In color, with soundtracks, too!

The problem is that these films are not made of material that can be loaded into street boxes and bought with loose change. They need to be shown in theaters. And there are only a handful of theaters in the U.S. that will show them; these are not going to be playing at the local Cinema One Two Many, up against Iron Man 2 and The Last Airbender. (Which exemplify truth of a different, possibly more disturbing, sort, but we don't have time to go into that here.) Moreover, the few art-house theaters that do screen documentaries tend to be located in towns where the homogenous population forms a choir already predisposed toward the preacher.

Too bad, because one documentary every American should see is The Last Mountain. It details the reprehensible, almost unbelievable practice of mountaintop-removal coal mining, which is laying waste to the timeless Appalachian range. It is greed in motion. It permanently destroys landscapes, woods, waterways, the homes of people and other animals, for such short-sighted and ultimately small gain it makes your head spin. Say you wanted to have a piece of toast. But first you had to burn down a forest. That's pretty much the size of it.

In truth, any time we
unthinkingly switch on the lights, we drive the bulldozer. The movie gives us some facts:
  • Almost half of the electricity produced in the U.S. comes from the burning of coal.
  • Sixteen pounds of coal is burned each day for every man woman and child in the US.
  • Thirty percent of that coal comes from the mountains of Appalachia.
It doesn't take deep thought to wonder how much longer we can do this--how much longer the coal will last, not to mention how much longer we can last, given the greenhouse effect driven hotter by burning coal, and the health problems associated with it. We are so smart--we can make a Facebook; we can make a guided missile--but we can't figure out how to power our appliances without massive destruction of everything and everyone?

What the movie does so well, though--what documentaries can do that no other medium can--is to put the insanity in front of your eyes in large format, no explanation required other than the ugly truth. Take one of the most beautiful places on the planet, emerald green hills rising up from hollows through which run clear streams like lifeblood, and first tear down the forests, then scrape off the top of prehistory's own geography, then dump it down to bury the water until it no longer runs. (Into the bargain, flood the people who live in the hollows, when rain pours and it has nowhere else now to go.) It is breathtaking. In a bad way, I mean. When you are shown what the coal company terms "reclamation," you want to laugh, then cry, finally scream. Or perhaps some other order will occur to you. In one scene, water tumbles down from the pristine hills in its ageless bed; in the next, the green is erased by gray as far as the eye can see, blazing under the sun, and the streambed is a dry spill of carefully placed rocks. They might call their replacement a "river," but this is the most cynical use of the English language I think I've ever encountered. (Well, next to "enhanced coercive interrogation technique" and its ilk.)

But words can be changed up so long as you create a diversion, then slip a new one into a law somewhere. Bingo! Now what was drafted to protect us suddenly protects a business interest, and we can all go to hell. Or wait--they'll bring it to us. You just sit right there.

That's what this movie shows, literally (a word disappears from a document before our eyes and another is dropped in), and a more dispiriting moment in cinema I have rarely seen.

Happier, though still depressing because it needed to be caused in the first place, is the visual evidence that people are taking to the streets in protest. That is really our only hope, and the greatest of our freedoms. If only everyone could see The Last Mountain, the protests might become big enough to stop something very bad. First, we need to see the ugly truth.


Shybiker said...

I share your enthusiasm for documentaries. And thanks for alerting us to this one; I hadn't heard of it before.

Documentaries rarely get theatrical release because they are so unprofitable; only a tiny percentage can make money (e.g., the work of Michael Moore, aided by his humor).

I get my fix by watching them on DVD in the deep selection available from Netflix. I make a special effort to see as many as I can. My last one was "Inside Job," an excellent examination of the financial industry.

You're right, of course, about the troubling disappearance of newspapers and the effect that will have on the general public's awareness of real news. Sadly, most people now care more about the trivial lives of celebrities than anything of substance.

Charles said...

i wondered when you'd mention the media, and lack of truth and reporting. Glenn Beck, infotainment, no coverage of the Occupy Wall Street, TSA feeling us up, submissiveness training and the like...

but now you have? all I can think about is riding motorcycles. I have a one track mind.

begone worthless underpants!

Kevin G. said...

Another problem with documentaries – as a preferred form of news gathering - might be that, while powerful and impressive in delivery,they can't replace unbiased and unemotional reporting.
They are like the passionate closing arguments of those trying to win or sway support for their own version of the truth. An excellent starting point for getting to the facts. But insufficient for those who accept that there may be at least two sides to every story.
Another unpalatable truth may be that the ranks of those who believe that “no news is good news”, are growing as more and more people for whatever reasons, are opting to remain blissfully unaware of what goes on.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Everyone here has raised some great points. (Even you, Charles. ;))

Perhaps one problem is that now we are drowning in information, and so there is none. A documentary, as Kevin points out, represents one person's passion. These movies have to be funded by someone, and they'll reflect it, whether corporate, nonprofit, or individual. Bias is built in.

On the plane from California yesterday, my traveling companion pointed to a woman across the aisle, reading US Weekly and some other magazine fixated on women's skin and cellulite or lack thereof: "Isn't she ashamed to be reading that in public?" he gasped.

No. Where's the shame in the norm?

The only coverage of Occupy Wall Street that I've seen in the mainstream press (what's left of it) was extremely belittling. "They don't really have very cohesive aims, do they?" Well, uh, yeah: We want to live like human beings! It's rather complicated to reduce a population to the status of bugs.

And yes, when I start feeling that, I want to go for a long ride, too.