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Manufactured Landscapes

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It’s pretty common for documentary films to try to work as rhetoric. It’s less common that they actually work. Everyone loved Al Gore’s “An Incovenient Truth,” but I hated it, because it was too much rhetoric and not enough document. Michael Moore’s been arguing with film for the last decade, with varying results. The best of documentaries though, are the ones that don’t try to argue anything; they simply observe and let you decide what you think. “Spellbound” and “Crumb” are classic examples of these; they rise above their genre and are truly great films.

“Manufactured Landscapes,” on the other hand, is an example of the very worst type of documentary – the kind that pretends it’s just showing, not arguing, while there’s clearly an argument being made. Anything less honest than this isn’t documentary any more; it’s propaganda. The filmmakers keep telling us how apoliticial they’re being, all the while striving to make their, deeply political, point. Namely, that human beings are destroying the earth. I’m not saying that they’re wrong, I’m not even saying that their argument is flawed. I’m just saying that if you’re going to say something controversial, something that needs to be proved and can be argued against, admit it. Be like Al Gore and get out the Powerpoint charts and cite your sources and prove it. Don’t just show me pretty pictures and tell me “this is how it is.”

To its credit, the pictures are pretty. “Manufactured Landscapes” is ostensibly a documentary about photographer Edward Burtynsky, and the astounding pictures of industrial sites that he has become famous for. But we learn next to nothing about Burtynsky, and only meet him occasionally, as he speaks at some unknown show or opening. Mostly, it’s film footage of the things Burtynsky is photographing, in long takes, and slow tracking shots, set to industrial-ish music. One wonders if maybe Burtynsky should sue director Jennifer Baichwal for plagiarism. Why would one watch this film if they’ve already seen Burtynsky’s photographs? Why would one bother to go see Burtynsky’s photographs if they’ve seen this film? The two are redundant.

[YouTube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IjRXKB8yZ4g]

A couple of years ago, Nikolaus Geyrhalter made a documentary called “Our Daily Bread” about industrial food processes. That film is everything this one wants to be: fascinating, eerily beautiful, disturbing, and provocative. And it does it all without voiceover, without politicizing, even without an evocative soundtrack. Where “Manufactured Landscapes” laboriously tells you what you’re seeing, “Our Daily Bread” just shows it. Go see that movie instead.

Recommended

  • if you’re a big fan of Edward Burtynsky’s work.
  • if you’re already conviced that mankind, especially China, is destroying the earth and in 25 years we’ll all be dead or living in space colonies.

Not Recommended

  • if you haven’t seen “Our Daily Bread.”
  • if you have a sense of rhetoric (the rules of an argument.)
  • if pretentious artists make you wanna ralf.
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