Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 10, 2022 2:08 pm 
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A French volcanologist couple who pursued their passion in tandem, gathered spectacular footage, came too close, and died together in their forties

Intrepid scientists and loving couple Katia and Maurice Krafft died in a volcanic explosion doing the very thing that brought them together: unraveling the mysteries of volcanoes by capturing the most explosive imagery ever recorded.

Katia was a geochemist, Maurice was a geologist. They died coming too close to a Japanese volcano, at Unzen, in 1991. Alsatians from Strasbourg, hey had met in the sixties and married in 1970. They said their love of volcanoes was born out of their disappointment with humanity. They left behind an exceptionally rich visual record of their explorations and adventures, which has been assembled here with narration (perhaps written? but three other wordsmiths are also named: Shane Boris, Erin Casper and Jocelyne Chaput) read in the hoarse, wispy voice of filmmaker Miranda July.

The film and the description start out trying too hard: zooms roaring in and out; needless split screens; phrases like "Understanding is love's other name." "The camera loves them, and they love their own cameras back." "Volcanoes must destroy to create. But must this unruly cycle take human life?"

The material requires no embroidery. The couple are impassioned romantic obsessives. They married and honeymooned on the volcanic island of Santorini. They decided not to have children. Maurice says, "I prefer an intense, short life to a monotonous, long one. A kamikaze existence in the beauty of volcanic things."

This is obviously a passion threatening to overwhelm caution and scientific impartiality. The surpassing power of this most awesome and fiery of natural phenomena causes them to shiver with excitement - and stay dangerously close and, when they survive, are emboldened. Maurice rejects volcano categorization when questioned on a TV show, saying they're best treated one by one, as individual and unique. But he does accept the identification of two important types: the red ones, where lava flows, which are "kind" (gentilles), and the gray ones, the "killers" (les vulcans tueurs), the explosive ones which are far more destructive and dangerous. Eventually he and Katia turned their focus on the latter.

Maurice tells the camera he has an ambition "to go down a lava flow in a canoe," and says it can be done in Hawaii. He's tried floating around in a bay of sulfuric acid with another geologist in a small rubber raft; his chemist wife knew the dangers and stayed on shore. (How were they filmed out there up so close?)

As the Kraffts turn riskier and crazier, Maurice sometimes seems to look plumper and dumpier, and Katia appears ever leaner and more ascetic. Actually both are athletes, pursuing an activity that is as strenuous as it is dangerous. Back home in Strasbourg, they edit their voluminous material. She writes books with her still photos; he gives lectures and media appearances with their films, and thus they finance their ventures. Stills and film show them in a large room packed with their voluminous files.

They have the sensation of missing too many volcanoes - and of perhaps having a gruesome occupation. They miss the highly destructive eruption of Mount St. Helens in May 1980 in the Pacific Northwest - and are furious - but they spend three months there documenting the ash and damage (not as scenic for us, the viewers as the earlier images of glowing red lava and glorious fireworks of sparks). Miranda July reminds us this eruption in Washington State had the force of 25,000 Hiroshima-style atomic bombs; worth looking into. Mount St. Helens led the Kraffts to focus from then on on gray volcanoes like it - which also include Vesuvius. They're disturbed by the November 1985 Ruiz, Colombia eruption that killed over 22,000 people.

From our point of view perhaps it's the gentler red volcanoes that are more striking visually, but the gray ones are more powerful and hence perhaps more worthy of the Kraffts' attention. And so they wound up at Unzen where an unexpected pyroclastic flow killed them and 41 other observers. So they were not the lonely risk-takers they sometimes had been. They died at 45 (he) and 49 (she), indicating their lifestyle was as dangerous as the boldest mountain climbers'. They helped establish the importance of volcanologists in warning the public of the danger of volcanoes, but prediction is difficult and getting governments to prepare is an uphill battle.

This is a beautiful and interesting documentary, marred by Miranda July's wispy voice. There is a reason why films are traditionally narrated by people with clear, resonant voices and training in acting or elocution. Some find July's voice dramatic, but I side with the reviewer for Screen Daily who says she "lends the picture a preciousness that can be cloying." The Wikipedia article about the couple provides arguably more balanced information on the Kraffts' achievements and importance and their recognition in the field. This film leaves somewhat the impression that they were outliers, and under-reports their importance and the respect they received from other volcanologists. Even the title seems a frantic, unnecessary gesture to personalize what is already very personal because this couple, though they remain opaque, were as unique as Maurice insisted their dangerous subjects were.

Reviewed by Ryan Lattanzio for IndieWire and in Variety.

Fire of Love, 93 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 20, 2022; IMDb lists 15 other, mostly documentary festivals, also including San Francisco and New Directors/New Films (Apr. 27). as part of which it was screened for this review. It is now getting special IMAX screenings at selected venues throughout the US. In San Francisco it will be shown in iMax at 7:00 p.m. on Oct. 17 at AMC Metreon, followed by a Q&A with director Sara Dosa and coeditor Jocelyne Chaput moderated by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss.

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