Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Wed Mar 05, 2008 11:14 am 
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Good land, bad guys? Where's the big picture? Where's the plan?

The Unforeseen considers the issue of land developers as a source of eco-disaster. These are the guys who come in, acquire chunks of property, subdivide them, establish access to services, water, electricity, roads, and so on, and build houses for people to live in. As a documentary this one, for which Robert Redford is an executive producer (with cultish filmmaker Terrence Malick) and also a meandering talking head, provides a worthwhile new angle, with some pungent characters and some interesting personal stories. Unfortunately this lacks some of the scope and perspective of other ecology-related documentaries and seems to get sidetracked more than once. It has a certain built-in balance since one of its main characters is a failed developer whose tears evoke sympathy. But in view of the magnitude of the issues involved, it would seem that those who herald The Unforeseen as superior to a film of the scope and urgency of Davis Guggenheim's An Inconvenient Truth have gone a bit overboard.

Are developers bad? Environmentalists seem to think so. Some radicals even just set fire to a row of "green" McMansions under construction in the state of Washington. Frontier-oriented advocates of traditional free capitalism are emphatically in the opposite camp. To them, anything that enables people to exploit and own the land is good. Development is the essence of American free enterprise, a God-given right, what we're here for. Getting rich doing it is the essential American dream.. And so is owning your own little house with its garage and its lawn and its picket fence. Real estate people, and this film, give scant consideration to the issue of indigenous peoples and their relationship to the land.

What this film does consider is how developers habitually disregard considerations of proper land use and future degradation, particularly of water resources. Laura Dunn's researches focus on Austin, Texas, a partial childhood home of Robert Redford (he tells us), a college town, a cultural and music center (Willie Nelson speaks for that) and a community whose obvious liberal, preservationist tendencies led its citizens to lock horns with developers in the 1980's, when growth opportunities arose for the appealing, pleasant city and its environs. At the center of the story is a developer named Gary Bradley, whose 4,000-acre Circle C Ranch luxury housing development--conceived as far back as 1980--was set to derail Barton Springs, a large creek near the city linked to the major aquifer of the region. An anti-Bradley Austin website called "Make Gary Pay" calls him "a consummate hustler" and documents how for close to thirty years he has waged war on the city of Austin in cooperation with lobbyists and Good Old Boys of the Texas state legislature.

Central to the citizens' and environmentalists' objection to Bradley's project is its indifference to and damage to the regional aquifer. Wikipedia defines an aquifer as "an underground layer of water-bearing permeable rock or unconsolidated materials (gravel, sand, silt, or clay) from which groundwater can be usefully extracted using a water well." Describing residential land development early in the film, Bradley clearly sees big hunks of land simply as a blank canvas on which the creative real estate guy can draw a lovely new picture. He overlooks what's underneath that canvas--such as aquifers. Another factor the film reveals is that development exhausts energy sources and removes land from agricultural use.

Bradley's voice, rather surprisingly, tends to dominate the film. We learn how he met with consolidated civic objections to his project when it came up for city approval. But later through the efforts of a lobbyist, whose voice we hear, his face sinisterly hidden as he methodically assembles a model bomber plane, a state law protecting projects like Bradley's--allowing them to override new laws and be subject only to ones in effect when they began (it's called "grandfathering") was vetoed in the early 1990's by the then governor Ann Richards, who had a sympathetic ear for environmental activists. But in 1995 George W. Bush became governor and the law was reinstated. And then around the same time Bradley came a cropper through debts he couldn't pay off and lost everything. He fell afoul of the late 1980's-early1990's loan company collapses. His attempt to file bankruptcy was finally defeated just a couple of years ago--right when his mother died, he tells the camera, tears streaming down his face. In fact, he's still a player and a thorn in the side of Austin.

What's the lesson of all this? That real estate developers are foolish? Bradley admits in an audio of the bankruptcy trial that he was miserable at accounting. But not all developers are, though they may prone to grandiosity--and an excessive sense of entitlement. As we see, they think they should be compensated when new laws lessen the profits they originally expected from a given piece of land. They don't all try to launch a major development right in the midst of a community as liberal and green-activist as Austin, Texas.

Okay, if putting a self-serving and rapacious capitalist in charge of land development, though American as apple pie, is not a foresighted approach, what are the alternatives? Unfortunately Dunn's film doesn't provide strong enough voices in this area. We get to see concerted action of citizens both for and against development: the protectionists are impassioned; the free enterprise/property rights advocates are strident flag-wavers. But the voices for an alternative are feeble. Redford talks about how things were nicer in the past, quieter, more wholesome. Rolling Stone essayist William Greider refers to the idea of reworking existing housing to accommodate new populations as a better way, but the idea's too vague. Nor does the Wendell Berry poem, "The Unforeseen" contribute more than a ringing tone of ruefulness. What we need is analysis, scope, and plans.

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┬ęChris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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