Tuesday, August 28, 2007
Leonardo Di Caprio's "The 11th Hour"
Well, Leonardo Di Caprio has become a man. At 32, his forehead even looks furrowed. And in producing and narrating this film, The 11th Hour (2007, Warner Independent Pictures, dir. Nadia Conners, Leila Conners Petersen), he seems to be trying to live out the positive karma of the artist character Jack Dawson, who sacrifices himself in the water for Rose Bukater (Kate Winslet) after the sinking of the Titanic (1997, Paramount, dir. James Horner), who, according to the script, will go on to have babies. As an actor leading toward activism, he had given a clue with his performance in Blood Diamond (Warner Bros.). Another actor who comes to mind with reports of political activism is Josh Hartnett, and one could add Brad Pitt.
One note about the theatrical release. In Washington DC, it is showing at only one theater this week, the AMC Dupont Circle 5, in a small auditorium. When I saw it tonight there were only six people in the audience. I don't know why the audience isn't bigger, and why it wasn't shown at a better property (the Georgetown).
The obvious comparison of this treatment of global warming would be to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2005, Paramount Classics), with its college lecture style and overwhelming scientific statistics. Di Caprio had, in fact, participated in producing a Canadian TV documentary The Great Warming, which had a brief theatrical run in abbreviated form. Di Caprio has also offered free a couple of shorts he made himself on the Internet: “Global Warming” and “Water Planet”. The style is one of quick images (some of the photography is 16 mm and grainy), a bit in the style of Koyaanisqatsai (“Life out of Balance”) (1982). Di Caprio often stands and talks, as do many experts, who give rather alarming warmings. The most disturbing of all may be Stephen Hawking claiming that Earth could have an explosive runaway greenhouse effect as did Venus, possibly less than a billion years ago (maybe Venus had a civilization), but 2/3 as far from the Sun. Other experts claim that life will go on, but that Man could become extinct, since most species have gone extinct and Man’s history is a blip on the scale of geologic time.
But what sets this film apart from the others on this topic is its moral sweep, which it disguises as a matter of "culture". It is much more concerned with philosophy, and is a bit sketchy as to details. There is a paradigm that is all encompassing, across several ideologies. It points out that Nature offers mankind free, through photosynthesis and biology, a mechanism that would cost, in hundreds of trillions of dollars, several times the gross output of all of the world’s economies. Of course, one can cast this in religious terms (God, Jehovah, or Allah). But the legal system recognizes only “people” (or parties – that is, corporations as persons) and “property.” Nature is “property.” Even in a libertarian construct, it has no rights.
This worked fine until a bit over a century ago, with the Industrial Revolution. Before that, man lived off of “current sunlight.” Once man learned how to get “past” energy from fossil fuels, he could put more carbon into the atmosphere and, besides obvious pollution issues (which have often gotten better in recent decades) eventually cause the planet to warm with greenhouse gases.
The political viewpoint in the movie does start with the typical liberal concern with the behavior or corporations, but then it remarks on the deficiency of a legal system (in the industrialized west) that does not give rights to “Nature.” Yup, that charge is levied against liberal democratic capitalism which we all love and which can bring out the best in many of us as individuals (and which we are trying to export to the Middle East). But if you worry about “Nature” carelessly, you can sound like Aquinas, and pretty soon you will say that a lot of personal behaviors are against “Nature.” (Just ask Andrew Sullivan to analyze “prohibitionism” again.
Now, to give the film due credit, this is where they do give some hints as to how Nature can help us out. Indeed, in our industrial processes, we ought to learn how biological processes work so well. One example is how spiders spin silk, without heat or toxins; another is how fungi dispose of heavy metals. (Fungi are said to be the link between the living and non-living worlds.) Ultimately, the movie does propose the hydrogen fuel cell car, whose practicability has been controversial.
The movie, however, hits a sensitive nerve ending when it talks about the media, as a source of most information for ordinary people, especially young people, in a globalization context. Yes, this blog and my other books and websites are part of this global media. It mentions that people no longer depend on their families for most of their information. Now that has a trickster meaning: some of the meaning of marriage (and the intimacy that needs to be sustained lifetime in a faithful marriage) is lost, in order to give individuals more opportunities to define themselves relative to an entire world. That’s very good for someone “different” like me, who benefits from globalization. But it also makes someone like me dependent on the hidden plunder of others, as well as their exploited labor (the more common left wing argument). That brings this whole discussion away from the behavior of corporations to one of the proper context for the freedom of the individual, in a world that recognizes it has little time left (it is 11:59:59 PM) to ward off global catastrophe. The movie ventures to suggest a carbon tax or consumption tax, to replace much of our income taxes (generally an idea that appeals to conservatives, but that would hurt the poor, wouldn’t it?) I wonder if we have to take the discussion out of just economics (persons and property, factored down to fiat money as a least common denominator) into something more nebulous than even personal carbon footprints: karma. (Actually, mystics said the concept is quite precise: the akashic records can perform integration by partial fractions quite well, thank you.)
The film doesn’t mention the Amish, but they are one small religious group that, with the intentional disavowal of modern technology and a compulsory family-centered and church-centered “plain” lifestyle, can sustain itself. Of course this happens, in the view of the typical westerner, at the cost of personal liberty. Like a few other socially extremely conservative cultures (the Mormon Church, Singapore) they seem free of corruption, although generally “moralistic” cultures denying self-expression to the individual tend to become corrupt as they remain rigidly tribal and patriarchal. Is there some moral common denominator that applies to the individual? Maybe it is something like “locality of emotion.”