My favorite documentary at AFI FEST turned out to be one I had initially passed on. The Unforeseenwas described in the catalogue as “the story of how big developers spoiled a city treasure, and about the consequences continued development has on us all,” which didn’t exactly sound like cinematic gold. But after talking with critic Robert Koehler, who assured me that I couldn’t miss it, I did some last-minute rearranging and was very glad I did. I also took in two documentaries about film personalities Pierre Rissient and Val Lewton, both of which were amiable films about interesting figures, though I don’t feel either film is essential viewing. More below.
On executive producer Terrence Malick’s initiative, filmmaker Laura Dunn has crafted a rare entry in environmentally or socially conscious documentaries of late–a movie bristling with information but also with significant formal beauty. Its juxtaposition of facts, figures, and interviews with aerial and underwater imagery, along with Wendell Berry’s poem “Santa Clara Valley” (narrated by the author himself), provides a multilayered examination of what it means for society to “develop” and “grow” while depleting its natural resources.
The setting is Austin, currently the 16th largest city in America, a lush oasissituated on the banks of the Colorado River in the rolling hills of central Texas. In the late-’60s and early-’70s, it became a hub for indie music, progressive culture, and nature lovers that soon attracted substantial commerce and real estate development–the city’s population reportedly doubles every 20 years, three times the national average. Thus, it has become a hotspot for the clash between environmentalists and developers, and no site is more controversial than the beloved Barton Springs, a popular swimming hole connected to the Edwards Aquifer, one of the major groundwater systems of Texas.
The film traces the story of Austin’s development in the last few decades through a combination of archival and original footage, and sophisticated computer graphics that fuse together real estate plans with detailed satellite maps. In a move that might surprise viewers expecting agitprop, director Dunn chooses to focus on controversial developer Gary Bradley as a kind of tragic protagonist, a failed businessman of the ’80s savings and loan crisis who collected millions of dollars for a Barton Springs subdivision he never completed; Bradley has since filed for bankruptcy but has been charged with fraud.
Yet Dunn’s film seeks Bradley’s point of view, telling his story beginning with his nostalgic west Texas childhood, and culls some of the film’s most poignant and emotional moments from his extended interview. The film is honest about its point of view–that unchecked development is detrimental to society–but adheres to systemic critiques rather than casting individuals as villains. (The closest it comes is its offscreen interview with a lobbyist who, constructing model war planes, opines about his success at promoting “grandfathering” bills that exempted developers from complying with environmental regulations.)
The film also showcases the kinds of deals that provide conduits for transnational corporations with abysmal environmental track records–like Freeport-McMoRan, the company that took control of Bradley’s project–to slip into local development. Freeport has been widely accused of human rights and ecological abuses in Indonesia, where it’s the country’s largest taxpayer, and its involvement in Austin has been no small source of controversy in recent years.
Along with politics and history, The Unforeseen is particularly good at illuminating the science of its debate, as USGS researchers explain how surface groundwater collects underground, spreads across the state, and potentially contributes to wide ranging contaminants in essential human resources. (“As a developer,” Bradley says, “all I need is water. I can’t make water, that’s something that has to be there . . . it’s the lifeblood.”)
One of the film’s central paradoxes is that development happens in beautiful places but often destroys precisely what makes those places so special in the first place, an obvious problem for anyone who has watched their favorite locales be overrun by housing tracts, but it’s particularly well articulated in the film; what really is the American Dream and is it truly sustainable? “[Developers] know the costs of everything,” one political activist says, “but the value of nothing.” One of the movie’s most effective metaphors involves comparisons to another complex system–the formation of tumors due to uncontrolled cell growth. Too much of a good thing often results in calamity.
Much of the film’s striking cinematography is due to the work of Lee Daniel, who has done exceptional work with Richard Linklater for many years; Dunn incorporates footage Daniel shot on 8mm in the ’80s, and some of his images of a raging storm–rain drizzling horizontally across a window, flashes of lightning, and its soggy aftermath–are among the film’s most eloquent. Footage of Barton Springs’ crystal clear waters in 1996 are compared with murky views shot in 2004. The film emphasizes expansive, wide angled imagery that evokes the scale of its subject, but also helps generate a contemplative space for the viewer. Scenes of unspoiled nature and urban sprawl alike highlight timely questions rooted in physical spaces but pertain to values and decisions that will affect our material and spiritual worlds for years to come.
The Unforeseen will be distributed theatrically in Los Angeles next March, and will be broadcast on the Sundance Channel in July. (Robert Redford, who learned to swim in Barton Springs, is a co-executive producer of the film and one of its interview subjects.)
Pierre Rissient: Man of Cinema
Todd McCarthy’s tribute to this energetic and hard-to-classify, high-profile cinephile sheds light on the French critic, publicist, filmmaker, and general Cannes festival insider who for decades has been a crucial link between international film critics and some of the greatest filmmakers in the world, including Jane Campion, Abbas Kiarostami, and Hou Hsiao-hsien. Rissient is a charming and opinionated man of action, perennially on his cell phone, and McCarthy follows him around in various locales as Rissient recalls his career, references scads of movies, and insists on the tastes he has formed through many years of cinematic activism.
It’s a breezy, laid back portrait that incorporates a lot of celebrity statements, some eloquent (Olivier Assayas and Bertrand Tavernier), some merely gushing (Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone), and many simply repeating variations of the same mixture of bafflement and gratitude for Rissient’s early promotion of their work (Sydney Pollack and Clint Eastwood). Rissient is a fascinating figure whose life illuminates just how important good publicists can be to the careers of legitimate artists, but the film eventually loses some steam with its seemingly endless stream of complimentary voices and tributes.
Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows
Written and directed by critic/programmer Kent Jones and narrated by Martin Scorsese, this film is clearly designed as a Turner Classics spotlight on Val Lewton, the infamous producer of intelligent and atmospheric B films for RKO in the 1940s. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that it’s a great improvement on Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy already included with the excellent Lewton DVD box set released a couple of years ago. Both films (justifiably) begin by contrasting Lewton’s RKO rise with Welles’ RKO fall, and much of the biographical information and archival photos are from the same sources. Both films include random celebrities for talking heads–in this case, Roger Corman (who offers vague wisdom on indie production) and Kiyoshi Kurosawa–and both contain conspicuous absences (neither include Chris Fujiwara on the Tourneur films, for example).
But Jones’ film trumps its predecessor in its improved pacing and writing; at times, the previous documentary seems like a breathless montage of one or two sentence fragments by a legion of voices, whereas Jones’ film spends more time on individual titles and boasts the kind of poetic commentary heard in the excellent Jones/Scorsese project My Voyage to Italy. (The film is dedicated to one of Lewton’s earliest proponents, critic Manny Farber.) As with their previous collaboration, however, the new film contains bountiful spoilers, including summaries of the final shots of several titles, leading one to wonder who the intended audience is, Lewton cinephiles (who will probably learn little they don’t already know) or Lewton newbies (who likely won’t want to know the endings of films they haven’t seen). It’s an adequate tribute to the filmmaker, but I was hoping for something that, like its subject, might transcend its purpose.