An Age of New Narrative Structures and Fearing The Future

Earlier this week Greta and I went to see the new climate change film The Age of Stupid. It's a documentary with a speculative fiction frame around it, and that's what I want to talk about, the form, rather than the content of the film. I've blogged before several times about climate change. You know where I stand on that.

The thing I'd like to note about the film is that the documentary part of it is probably only 3 to 3 1/2 stars. If it had been only that it wouldn't have been a complete failure but it would have been quite a substandard film. The nonfiction portions consist of 6 interweaving stories of 6 people or groups of people, in New Orleans, the UK, India, Africa, Syria, and France. They all are effected somehow or other or have some goals or activities that are somehow resonant with the theme of human-induced climate change. But this resonance is at times, for some of the plotlines, very very tenuous.

We were at a special global premiere screening event that was happening in 400-some theaters around the world, and one thing we saw before the film itself was some interview segments with the Director. She said that in fact they had originally planned the film to be pure documentary, with just these 6 storylines intercutting each other - a structure, she admitted, that they stole from Soderburghs's film "Traffic" (though I can name many films, especially recently, that have a similar structure, so many that I actually feel at least a little underwhelmed these days when a film only has 1 simple narrative!).

But when they had that version done she realized it wasn't going to work, and they came up with this science-fiction framing story that served as a sort of fancy and scary meta-narration: an old guy in 2050 looking at video clips from the early part of the century, wondering where the human race went wrong and why, as the ruined planet seethes and burns outside.

I think this idea works, much better than the straight doc would have. But it's still not quite working like I was hoping. The film is a great attempt at taking up where "An Inconvenient Truth" left off, of being something more compelling and eye-grabbing than that, but something more real and believable than The Day After Tomorrow. But, The Age of Stupid is not a total success. Something about it didn't quite click for me, and in the end, I guess it was still another documentary that pleaded and howled and moaned, and even entertained, but didn't really get over some line, some hilltop of inspiration that would have produced the desired mass activation that the filmmakers were hoping for - or maybe I'm wrong and even now hundreds of thousands of filmgoers are drafting passionate letters to their elected officials, demanding the radical agreement the world needs at Copenhagen this December, and planning thousands of direct actions across the globe and coal plants and mines and oil wells and car factories.

Maybe that's happening. But, I fear not. However, the film is a valiant and extremely intriguing step in the continuing evolution of hybrid fiction/fact works. I hope people continue making climate change films, on all points in that doc-narrative spectrum, and continue fighting to get people off their asses while they continue to explore their craft as moving-picture storytellers.

One final point, a digression into the content of the film even though I said I wouldnt talk about that: one thing I fear is that the film is way TOO scary. Especially the point, which is sort of never returned to but is still there like the 800 pound gorilla in the room, the point where they interview the guy who wrote the book "Six Degrees" (I forget his name), and he says basically that we have till 2015 to limit the global temperature increase to 2 degrees - if we don't do that we will have passed a tipping point from which there is no return and we're basically completely screwed (my wording, but you get the gist).

To me this is dark, dark news. So dark that it almost makes me think, "well, hell with it, there's absolutely no way we can do that, get that much done in that little time, it just can't be done, so if that's true it's hopeless, throw in the towel." And I wondered, how many people left the theater thinking basically the same thing? Did the film go too far and convince people that there's nothing they can do, so why bother? If so, is that reason, justification, for NOT mentioning that dark bit of statistic, that doomsday deadline, leaving out that interview, basically lying and telling people, like they hollowly (for me) do at the end of the film right before the credits "there is just BARELY enough time to do something...."

The film is amazingly low on factual, scientific backing for the claims and warnings it makes, amazingly absent of high-powered scientists, such as that cool dude at NASA whose name I also forget right now. But I hope that Six Degrees writer is wrong, and I hope someone proves him wrong and tells us all soon that we have at least till 2020. Because otherwise, i mean, c'mon - we can't even get a few windmills built cuz of the NIMBY syndrome, how can we possibly save the world in 5 years?