Welcome back to Brainwaves, a podcast about big ideas produced at the University of Colorado Boulder.
I’m Paul Beique.
This week-- in honor of the Academy Awards coming up--we’ll look at why movies matter.
And their impact on society and the environment.
And we’ll revisit the debate on superhero movies, and whether they’re a menace to filmmaking.
If you have a big idea you’d like us to explore, or you want to give us your thoughts on our show-- you can now email us at email@example.com.
Plenty of people in Hollywood talk a big game on social issues, but do they “walk the walk” so to speak?
Ricky Gervais had a field day with that topic at the Golden Globes.
Apple roared into the TV game with ‘Morning Show,’ a superb drama, a superb drama about the importance of dignity and doing the right thing, made by a company that runs sweatshops in China. Well, you say you’re woke, but the companies you work for-- unbelievable. I mean, Apple, Amazon, Disney. If ISIS started a streaming service, you’d call your agent, wouldn’t you?
While film stars do plenty of work for causes like clean water, malaria, and so on, there’s a hidden aspect to all of this you might not know about.
Movies-- even ones that are about caring for the planet-- can be surprisingly bad for the environment.
Brainwaves executive producer Andrew Sorensen has that story.
Going back to the earliest days of Hollywood, there’s a very dirty secret.
The counter-narrative, which is pretty much buried underneath the sheen of the excess, the bright lights of Hollywood films, is all of the resources and the labor that goes in these films.
That’s Hunter Vaughan.
He’s an environmental media scholar, and author of the new book: “Hollywood’s Dirtiest Secret.”
Through backlot tours and interviews with executives, he pulled back the curtain on the environmental impact of film.
(Music) “I’m singin’ in the rain!”
“Singin’ in the Rain” is actually where this whole project started. It’s funny. It’s entertaining…
A lot has been written about how this movie was made, loads of articles, books…
None of them actually talk about the water. No one discusses the water use, no one discusses the week it took to rehearse the scene with the water running constantly on this backlot at MGM.
During that week-- the filmmakers put a serious strain on LA’s water.
Issues like that have only gotten worse as movies get bigger and flashier.
(Suspenseful music from “Titanic”)
“Titanic” was filmed in Mexico. And what they were doing was they were siphoning water in from the ocean, and then it was going through the film production, and then it was trickling out into the surrounding waterways.
If you remember that movie, water’s a pretty big part, it’s the Titanic.
In a predictable climax, the boat crashes into an iceberg and sinks.
(From the movie Titanic) Ice crashes. Leonaro DiCaprio shouts, “Get back!”
And the impact it had was to decimate a sea urchin population, while also completely ruining the livelihood of a local fishing community.
Another movie he explores in the book, “The Beach,” also starring Leonardo DiCaprio. This one is about, you guessed it, a beach.
And what they were doing with “The Beach” was they were literally removing or displacing particular plants in order to get the aesthetic shots that they wanted.
They basically ruined a natural monsoon barrier.
But they did make it look good. And tourists followed.
The presence of tourists, the oversaturation of tourists started to destroy the coral reef system around there to the point where, I believe last year, they actually shut off all tourism.
(From “Avatar) “You Jake Sully?”
Then there was “Avatar,” which Vaughan says marketed itself as fully digital, which was supposed to be greener.
It involves lots of analog production, such as the production of real costumes, the production of real sets, a lot of this was done so they could reproduce or theorize, hypothesize, what garments would look like on the planet of Pandora.
And at the end of production, all of that was basically waste.
On top that, computer generated imagery can take a ton of computer power, which uses electricity, air conditioning to keep the computers cool and can ultimately be bad for the environment.
Vaughan says he does enjoy movies, and going to the movies, but he says environmentally conscious moviegoers should probably consider spending their money on films that are a little less flashy, and less wasteful in their production.
(Music from “Singin’ in the Rain.”)
For Brainwaves, I’m Andrew Sorensen.
(Music from “Singin’ in the Rain.”)
Yes, the film industry can harm the environment, but it can also use its powers for good.
That’s according to Erin Espelie, an assistant professor in the College of Media, Communication and Information at CU Boulder. She’s also a filmmaker who says the medium can raise awareness.
We heard just now about the serious and often hidden toll that the movie industry can take on the environment. But can the opposite also be true? Can film shed light on issues like climate change or the wildfires that are devastating Australia?
Absolutely they can. The question is how, and, and how people have access to these films. I think many people think, when they think about environmental films they might think of someone like David Attenborough, obviously. His work has been has been
quite powerful and has, has even adjusted to our reaction against anthropomorphizing of animals, etc.
But I think we're now looking for new ways of telling, telling these climate stories which will only continue to grow a number and severity. And what we what we really need is a sensitivity to telling those stories and diversity of telling those stories.
Many people will know about the more mainstream movies that address environmental concerns and “Inconvenient Truth” or “Before the Flood,” which was produced by Leonardo DiCaprio. Have these been effective at raising awareness of these issues?
You know, there's not as much empirical data on this, actually, as I would hope. We don't know, I think we can definitively say that more people are making films about environmental issues.
But what film has always been good at is responding to the times. And so, when we look at the history of cinema, we look at a history of our concerns. Whether that was the Cold War and thinking about science fiction films, going to space as a way of working through some of the angst around that. And, and I think we're seeing increasing numbers of films that are responding, sometimes in space as well, but some taking us into places that can allow us to cope with some of these environmental shifts and changes to our societies that are, for a lot of people, bringing out a lot of anxiety and fear as well.
Let's talk about some more current films. This year’s “Honey Land” was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. It follows the story of a traditional
beekeeper in Macedonia. How did this film examine the relationship between humans
“Honey Land” is a beautiful, fantastic film. It's a very unique film in that it, it
blends fiction and documentary. We, we see and follow a woman who's a beekeeper,
who's been a beekeeper for, for many decades. And follow a shift that happens
in the course of her life, and in the course of her community.
And the way that the filmmakers capture this is pretty interesting because they ended up camping and living on-site with her at this very remote village, without
Electricity, so almost all of the film is shot in natural light. And so, at one
level the film itself is in a different conversation with nature already, because
of that form of filmmaking. And then, on top of that, the filmmakers were very
savvy about creating situations and, and I am careful in using that terminology,
because they indeed did craft certain situations and, and planned certain for
certain things to happen, and as it--as the story unfolds, we actually see things
occur that seem to mirror the larger planetary concerns that we're having.
Let's talk about your own work. You are a prolific director. How are you using
film to take a close look at the natural world right now?
I'm working on a film about cyanobacteria with professor on campus, Dr. Jeffery Cameron in biochemistry. And what attracted me to his research, is that he's thinking about cyanobacteria as real game changers in terms of our climate. They created our
Climate, they actually were what converted our atmosphere into one that was habitable by, by humans and other, other animals as we know it. They produced the oxygen that we needed in the great oxygenation event, and so they created our current environment. And they also have the capacity to change it, because they are capable of sequestering carbon dioxide in great quantities. So, I'm fascinated with these creatures.
The Cameron laboratory has set up a camera that can actually capture
live growth of cells on an individual level. And this creates really beautiful
images, and the fluorescence of it can be controlled. The light that is being fed,
literally fed to these bacteria can be manipulated, and as a filmmaker I can actually move a joystick to control where the camera points and create my frame so this is kind of the beautiful situation for a filmmaker to have that level of control.
But on another perspective, I don't think enough cinema looks at the at the smaller things, and I think we need a diversity of imagery to really be telling some of these increasingly complex stories about our changing environment, and this is one that I don't think many other people are telling.
Erin Espelie, thank you very much for joining us today on Brainwaves.
Thank you so much for having me.
Erin Espelie is an assistant professor in the College of Media Communication and Information at CU Boulder and teaches in the Department of Cinema Studies and Critical Media Practices.
(Music from the “Avengers”)
Of the top 10 movies at the box office in 2019, four were superhero movies or superhero spinoffs.
The latest “Avengers” movie, whose theme you just heard, led the pack. It had more than $850 million in sales, according to the website Box Office Pro.
That’s got some people in Hollywood reeling.
Again, Ricky Gervais.
Martin Scorsese, the greatest living director, made the news for his controversial comments about the marvel franchise. He said they’re not real cinema, and they remind him of theme parks. I agree.
That said, $850 million says a lot in this ongoing debate.
Cole Hemstreet sorts out that question: “Marvel: hero or villain?” revisiting two conversations we had last summer.
For all of the debate around whether superhero movies are ruining cinema, it is still a debate.
Rick Stevens is an associate professor of media studies at CU Boulder. He breaks down why these movies are so darn popular.
This current rise of the superheroes has to do with technology, it has to do with the zeitgeist of the moment. But basically, it’s an open platform, where we take superheroes as this kind of moralistic storytelling that happens with spandex and bright colors. You know there’s something about that comic book medium that, over the last almost century, has kind of focused the storytelling into these very black and white, but red and blue and yellow. You know, kind of really strong contrast. Let’s you really get to these sharp and distinct understandings. And for comic books and the print world, that has worked for a long time. But now that technology is allowing us to bring some of that to the screen and it’s kind of rejuvenated the technology for summer blockbusters. We used to have action movies, crime movies, suspense now we can do those things in the context of a superhero movie and it combines together lots of audiences at the same time.
Basically, it’s an admittedly one-size-fits-all approach.
We also talked to Ernesto Acevedo-Munoz, a film professor at CU Boulder who seems to buy into the hype a bit less.
Well the demands of the market have become more and more narrow and summer movies have the necessity to appeal to the widest possible audience, which unfortunately means the lowest possible denominator and what I’ve been referring to in my classes as the moron-ization of American cinema.
Did you catch that? The “moronization of American cinema.”
Acevedo-Munoz blames the PG-13 rating, first introduced in 1984.
It’s not that these movies are automatically bad, it’s that so many are catering to the people who are most likely to go see PG-13 movies.
When the widest possible audience, particularly in summertime is composed of suburban white boys, and the 13 number in particular. You know, no offense man, but suburban white boys are not the most sophisticated audience. And so, there can’t be anything that is even slightly challenging to a large portion of the audience who doesn’t know anything about the movies, who are not interested in learning anything about the movies and are not interested in being challenged intellectually. And this is why you have the same movies every summer, over and over again.
But Stevens believes that’s kind of what makes superhero movies great. Hollywood is using a common platform to elevate lots of different kinds of stories, and even social issues.
Marvel Studios has been very good about that. Once they built up to their “Avengers” moment in 2012, after that they diversified the genre in that regard. You know, “Captain America: Winter Soldier” comes out, and it's a spy thriller. You know, you get “Iron Man,” which is talking about future technology trends and thinking about the military industrial complex. You get ant man, which is kind of a comedy-heist film kind of a thing. It’s like any of the genres that we have in classic Hollywood cinema can be mixed into this superhero formula if you pick the right character, and if you pick the right director and set up the right formula. So suddenly, you’ve got this Marvel library offering, and it’s more diverse than just “Hey, here are superheroes and we’re going to follow, you know kind-of the standard superhero, hero’s journey formula.”
But that’s exactly why Acevedo-Munoz doesn’t like the superhero trend.
Look around at the repetitive output and patterns, which reduce the options of the cinema going public to superheroes, trolls, magical creatures and talking animals. How many talking animal movies do we need to have in a single year? And how can you tell apart any of the ‘Avengers’ movies, or any of the Marvel Universe for that matter, with the very rare exception of something like ‘Black Panther’? Which is the exception to the rule, by definition.
Whether you enjoy these films like Stevens, or want something more out of cinema like Munoz, the debate is probably going to rage on.
Disney has already announced nearly 20 upcoming titles under their Marvel tag.
For Brainwaves, I’m Cole Hemstreet.
Thanks for listening to Brainwaves. I’m Paul Beique.
Next week-- we’ll look at pets, and what science says about their relationship with humans.
Again, if you have a big idea you’d like to hear us explore, or if you want to learn more about a show we’ve already done, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can also subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Cole Hemstreet, Andrew Sorensen and I produced today’s episode
A shoutout to our former producer and co-founder Dirk Martin. He retired in December.
Dirk, you owe us lunch for every beach pic you send.
That’s it for this week-- we’ll catch you next time on Brainwaves.