Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Nov 25, 2012 4:20 pm 
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That sinking feeling

National Geographic photographer James Balog's recent work may be an even bigger punch in the gut than Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, if people see it. It's all so simple. No elaborate explanations are necessary. We know what melting ice looks like. The ice melts and turns into water. The sea level rises. The climate grows warmer. You can see it. Those who have seen these images recorded by Orlowski recording Balog will not forget them. Balog says he anticipates his children asking what he did about climate change and he can say he did the best he could, which he has surely done. Melting glaciers are "the canary in the climate coal mine," as Balog puts it. Catching Ice ends with a rousing call to action song sung by Scarlett Johansson and written by J. Ralph, composer for the film's music. In the wake of the devastation wrought along the East Coast by Hurricane Sandy, all this information gives one a sinking feeling. The situation is real, daunting, vast, dangerous, urgent, yet many don't care.

Orlowski's documentary has one purpose: to document the recent work of James Balog. And Balog's aim is equally simple, though not easy: to document the melting away of planet Earth's great glaciers. Using multiple solar powered time lapse cameras located in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska and other icy regions over a period covered in the film of roughly three years, Balog and his crew accumulated still and moving images to "capture global warming in the act." The result is the most extensive visual record of glaciers ever recorded. The images show the thinning and shrinking of glaciers, one of the main causes, along with increased temperature, of rising seal levels that will destroy human settlements and displace millions. Climate change deniers will have a hard time refuting this photographic data, and people who are already concerned will get a terrible sinking feeling when they view Orlowski's document and Balog's images. When thousand-year old blocks of ice many times the size of Manhattan suddenly crumble into the ocean on film in minutes, it's devastating evidence.

Take Glacier National Park, in Alaska. Of the 150 glaciers found in the park a century ago, only 27 remain. Scientists predict that by 2030, as Balog puts it, this will be "Not Glacier Park" because the glaciers in it will all be gone.

Orlowski was young, and very inexperienced. He had never made a film and simply wanted to be with Balog and see him work. It took him several years of reediting and resubmitting this film to festivals to get it to its present well-honed form. It's evident the much younger men on Balog's many trips are both protective of him -- because he had bad knee problems, and the hiking and camping in the ice lands were a challenge that led to repeated surgeries -- and inspired by his utter dedication to going through with the project. This isn't just an extreme ecology film, but also an adventure and endurance film, and a film of youth learning from experience and experience learning the frailty and mortality of all things, from oneself to the planet itself.

It's also an art film, because James Balog is a nature photographer of great accomplishment who doesn't just document but provides many images of breathtaking beauty (some compiled into a book) that also happen to record landscapes that have vanished. And while some pristine images of glistening, translucent mountains of ice are gorgeous to look at, there is a disconnect because the time-lapse (and some caught videos) of glaciers shrinking or "calving," which is the term for having big chunks slip off and sink away into the water, are images that are sickening and ugly. Chasing Ice has a quality good art has sometimes then, of seeming simpler at first than it really is.

The title Chasling Ice may seem a little too youthful, a little too frivolous, at first, for such a solemn and important topic, but it describes the experience of the filmmaker and his subject, Balog and his crew. The physical effort of planting the cameras in those high, dangerous spots in places of extreme weather would have been challenging enough, even if it weren't for Balog's knee problems. But besides that, whole years of work were lost because many of the first series of planted cameras failed to function. The tech men had to design a simpler computerized trip mechanism for the time lapse shooting, one that would not malfunction and wreck the setup. You see Balog actually weeping when he finds another malfunctioning camera and you realize how hard this work was. As for "Chasing," that also refers, of course, to the race against time to record a process of melting away that is happening much faster than had been predicted. A glacier that's gone is gone. Hence the urgency of the "chase" of the Extreme Ice Survey.

Chasing Ice is a personal story. It chronicles Balog's fierce dedication and his various surgeries and kneee problems and like An Inconvenient Truth it shows its subject giving lectures showing off his time-lapse images and explaining what they mean. Jeff Orlowski works with the crew of the EIS and is one of them. But being a part of a project doesn't bar a good photographer/director from providing good footage. Compare Larry Clark's famous photography book Tulsa, where the photographer was a speed freak documenting speed freaks, but he produced a landmark book.

This is also a science lesson. The graphs and diagrams to show iceberg history, percentages of glaciers that have grown vs. what has been lost, and so on, are not fancy but are elegant and beautiful. The film is careful to fill in the big scientific picture: that by a scientific consensus the effect of CO2 in its current large quantities on the climate is real and is not natural but man-made. And that the climate deniers are a Fox News right wing lunatic fringe, but unfortunately public opinion (in the US that is) isn't very clued in. Many think the issue is still controversial. But the data in the film's charts shows how breathtakingly rapid global warming has been in a period of 800,000 recorded years. It's in this framework that Balog's snapshot of time has meaning. His is a visual illustration of mountains of long-accumulated data.

Orlowski is working with Balog, and you could say he's working for him. Is this a "balanced" account for climate change deniers? Hardly. But if someone was filming the concentration camps after the end of the War, the mounds of emaciated corpses, the mountains of shoes, would you protest that he or she wasn't giving equal time to Holocaust deniers?

Chasing Ice, 76 mins., debuted at Sundance in Jan. 2012. US release: 18 Nov.; UK, 14 Dec.


Interview with Orlowski and Balog.

Jeff Orlowski desribes his experience.

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