Monday, June 18, 2007

Industrial Landscapes

"You missed the opening tracking shot!" the publicist yelled at me as I arrived late for a screening of the meditative documentary Manufactured Landscapes (Zeitgeist Films), which opens June 20 for a two-week run at New York's Film Forum. Sue me, or, rather, the MTA and its faltering D train. And, as it happens, I hadn't missed it, not entirely: There were still two minutes (out of seven) to go as director Jennifer Baichwal and cinematographer Peter Mettler roamed the Olympian expanse of a Chinese manufacturing plant, the kind of vast, yet eerily anonymous, space prominently featured in this month's Sino-centric Atlantic Monthly. You can all but hear the strains of Strauss in the background as the camera progresses through this inner space, much as Stanley Kubrick had the spaceships photographed in 2001. When the lens comes to a full stop, the image freezes, into a still life...and we are looking at one of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky's large-scale images from the new industrial revolution, one that we are, or should be, aware that is happening not in our backyard, and one that is rarely seen in its enormity.

I use the word "enormity" advisedly. Yes, it's a shock to realize what's happening as China and other rapidly developing nations exhaust world resources to provide for the inexhaustible global economy. But it has a terrible beauty; Kubrickian, with a dash of David Cronenberg and, with Burtynsky at the helm, maybe a touch of Ansel Adams, an Adams fascinated by disruption and decay. The photographer started by snapping images of rock quarries, scarred fissures of earth like open wounds on the planet. This led to an inquiry as to where all the ore and minerals being dug up were going. The answer: China, which has been flexing its manufacturing might over the last 20 years. When I lived in Hong Kong I remember being impressed at how quickly the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, a "special economic zone," was growing. Today, there's nothing special about it; city-size complexes churning out goods of all kinds are the norm. We see the photographer at work, getting (and being denied) permission to arrange one of his shoots, whose exactitude matches that of the factory superiors, who ride herd on the armies of young workers fitting components and products together (we see one employee upbraided for shoddy workmanship, a lapse that is said to threaten the entire enterprise). The micro (or perhaps macro) cosms photographed include Cankun, the world's largest maker of irons, which employs 23,000; sports shoe maker Yu Yuan, with a whopping 90,000 workers in shoe business, and Deda, China's biggest chicken processor, which helps feed all those workers.

Burtynsky also photographs villages that exist to recycle electronic waste, plastics, and metal, all work done by hand. What I found most breathtaking were his images of shipbreakers in Bangladesh (pictured), where the world's vessels go to die (the subject of a haunting Atlantic article, not on its site). Imagine the ships of Titanic or Fitzcarraldo being broken up and scoured for useful bits, then remember that this awesome, surreal, and frightening sight--it is dangerous work, performed for a pittance--is happening on the other side of the world and not on a soundstage.

Manufactured Landscapes has its banal side. The photographer gives rote answers to questions at gallery exhibitions, and I felt a certain impatience with his concerned but apolitical stance from Baichwal. It's as if there are two films going on at once: The one about Burtynsky, and the one that Baichwal wants to extrapolate from his work. (Both are stuck with a somewhat droning score; Philip Glass and Koyaanisqatsi this is not.) The film is at its best when observing the simple dictum, show, not tell. The photographer's pictures, beautifully presented and embroidered upon in 35mm, really are worth a thousand words, but I will leave you with some of Burtynsky's from the press notes, which I obtained on the fly. "These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire--a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times."

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