Reviews Of The Union: The Business Behind Getting High, Chasing Ice, They Call It Myanmar: Lifting The Curtain, Happy, And Mansome
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/28/15
I recently watched five documentaries online, and all of them were
putative exposes on things that people ignore or afraid to talk of. They were The
Union: The Business Behind Getting High, Chasing Ice, They Call It
Myanmar: Lifting The Curtain, Happy, and Mansome.
Brett Harvey directed the first of the documentaries I saw, and his film was the 104 minute long 2007 offering, The Union: The Business Behind Getting High. The film explores the history of marijuana, cannabis, hemp, and other related products, and why this versatile plant, with seemingly a non-existent carbon footprint, and having more utility than practically any other plant- drugs, paper, fuel, clothing, food, medicine, and so forth, has been made illegal.
Some critics have labeled this film the anti-Reefer Madness- the infamous Depression Era agitprop film that helped get marijuana illegalized after centuries of productive use in this country. The film is at its best when giving a fact based history and speaking to reputable authorities, such as farmers, industry spokesmen, historians, and scientists, but shoots itself in the foot with talking head interviews conducted with potheads and ĎYo, Dude!í surfer types and frat boys. Another criticism of the film is that itís simply a rehash of arguments weíve all heard of before, but- so what? So are almost all death penalty or abortion documentaries. The fact is that people are dumb and thereís no way one can ignore the facts just to avoid being repetitious.
Harvey does reiterate the same points too often, and often makes himself a part of a film that would be better served following a PBS Frontline approach, but, overall, itís a solid film, with a good sense of its technical limits. I wish a bit more on the history and utility of hemp were included, because that, more so that decriminalization, or the rise of medical marijuana, needed to be explained. Bottom line- even putting aside that marijuana prohibition funds drug cartels which fund terrorism, the fact is industrial hemp is a goldmine waiting to be exploited and taxed, and could, as biofuel and paper, ease the worst of many environmental ills. Critics point out that the film glosses over marijuanaís health effects, which have, in some studies, shown to be as carcinogenic as tobacco- and this is so, yet those very same critics gloss over the fact that I mentioned, that the vast majority of hemp related products are not capable of being made into marijuana, and we all suffer from the ban of hemp products. Itís like banning having pet cats because tigers and lions can kill a man.
Overall, a good documentary, if imperfect, but I did learn that the first North American law passed re: hemp was passed in the colony of Virginia, in 1619, and it required all colonial farmers to GROW hemp. Put that in your pipe and smoke it!
Jeff Orlowski directed the next film I had on tap: 2012ís Chasing Ice, a 75 minute long which followed a noted nature photographer named James Balog on a multi-year quest to document the loss of glaciers and ice sheets in Iceland, Greenland, Alaska, and Montana.
Initially a global warming skeptic, Balog soon turned the corner and became an advocate for the cause, then hit upon the idea of deploying cameras year round, for 3 years, to document the shrinkage of ice over that time by taking photographs that showed, in time lapse photography, the retreat of ice from glaciers and ice sheets.
The proof shown is overwhelming, as is the rigorous proof of global warming on a global and multiple centuries long scale via ice cores that date back to the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Aside from providing historical proof of the reality he documents, Balog also provides spectacular shots of ice caves, glaciers, and one bravura scene of ice calving from a glacier, which he then overlays with a to scale representation of lower Manhattan, to give a sense of proportion. In another, he shows a photograph of mountains with seeming bleach marks, which represent the high points of glaciers that seem puny in comparison to their glory days. In one shot we see that the retreat has covered miles of ice, and at a thickness higher than the Empire State Building. These sorts of moments, and a half hour less running time, make Balogís documentary superior to Brett Harveyís.
Many of these photos will appear in a book Balog is publishing (or published- since itís been a few years, but the film breezes along, makes its points, and provides some insights. The most real moment of the film comes when Balog muses on how birds and mammals can chew through wires and sabotage his cameras, no matter how firmly anchored and protected they see. Months can go by and proof that he wants is lost. Other times, itís as simple as a faulty battery succumbing to exposure. Incidentally, since this is one of five documentaries in an expose mode, and most of it was made under sub-freezing conditions, its telling to note that the filmís production company was called Exposure.
BY filmís end, as Balog gives lectures and shows his footage, he adds yet another irrefutable bit of evidence to the utter overwhelm that proves global warming beyond dispute, and makes the case for human cause of it almost as airtight. As in nature, some times even the dullest minds have to reach a tipping point and concede the truth. This film may not be the final straw, but itís one of the best there is.
Robert H. Lieberman helmed another 2012 documentary called They Call It Myanmar: Lifting The Curtain, a film which details the then 48 year dictatorship that has ravaged a once wealthy and history filled nation, and left a generation of impoverished, starving illiterates in its wake. At 82 minutes, the film is not too short nor too long, and makes good use of archival historical footage, as well as keen insights from experts and players in Burmaís past- and most Burmese still call themselves that, and donít call their country Myanmar- a name imposed by the by the dictatorship, in a program of renaming artifacts and cities and topographical features in an attempt to control reality. The film is at its best when using archival footage that documents the past, but the man in the street interview style is not successful. The average Burmese tends to be scared, apathetic, or just not that interesting, And the director, despite claiming an affinity for the country, early on, that dates back to World War Two, seems a bit dismissive of his interviewees, as if heís the ignoble Great White Hunter amidst Noble and Not So Noble Savages. Add to that the fact that he just seems to feel he can intrude on the lives of people without asking and, well, the film gets a bit ragged at these points.
The film also does not delve too deeply into the Buddhist monkhood that stands in opposition, mostly, to the dictatorship, but it does have a nice interview with the daughter of one of Burmaís last true patriots, who admits sheís a politician, and to be wary of politicians who claim they are more than just a politician.
The film should have focused more on the diverse ethnic groups in the country, as well as more of the history- such as the way the Burmese leaders played the British and Japanese off one another during World War Two, to gain a short lived independence and democracy. As it is, the film feels like a Soviet documentary from the 1970s, showing a time and place that some think will always be, but which history shows us is only an illusion. One only need look to Communist agitprop films for proof of what I state. Come 2025, or 2030, or thereabouts, a revolution will be inevitable, and this film will seem a curio of a soon forgotten past.
And thatís a good thing that an ok film can achieve.
The next film up was a 2011 film from Roko Belic, and narrated by Marci Shimoff, called Happy. Not only is the title a downer, but the whole film is, and achieves the antithesis of its title and subject. As one might expect, the film tries to explain why people seek joy and how they can get it. Of course, this naturally ends up with the Left Wing fantasy of serving others as a model of true happiness. Experts are polled and preen that while money can give happiness when alleviating poverty, it does little to improve happiness once one achieves middle class, or any other goal up to super wealth. They label it the Hedonic Treadmill.
Lost in all this brain dead psychologizing is the reality of whether or not happiness is actually the best thing a person can achieve or experience. In reality, no one leads a happy life. Joy comes in acute moments, as well as other emotions. One can be a bit satisfied with oneís life, but the whole equation presented in the film is as false as those infomercials that prop up fat burning pills or get rich quick schemes. Anyone following this brain dead filmís advice deserves whatever they get.
The talking heads presented are all folks who are happy, but whether or not they really achieved anything, or are just self deluded or narcotized is never addressed. And the overwhelm of unhappy and neutral minded folks are wholly ignored. Someone like me, whoís neither happy nor depressed, despite giving FAR more to the world than Iíve gotten, and far more than the few trite examples of rich folks donating to charities types the film deploys, are never even broached. Is accomplishment, even if not rewarded, a cause to be happy? Or am I correct in merely being satisfied? Am I correct in knowing I mattered, whereas the mass of happy folks out in life, and in this film, are as generic as can be, donít matter? Iíd say I am.
But itís this schism between mass and popular ideas of what life and accomplishment and joy are that, indeed, causes much of the UN happiness abounding. Itís not the usual suspects of hedonism and selfishness which, certainly do breed unhappiness, but this deliberate confusion, as well as the lack of fairness that life breeds. I would be mentally disturbed to not recognize this gap, and to be happy all the time. A state of balance and equilibrium is what life should provide, internally and externally.
Philosophies espoused in this film are a poison pill, no matter how well presented. Yes, meditating and yoga can change brains and bodies, and counting oneís blessings and doing good are good things, but these are not what happiness is, and the film fails to connect those dots, as well as the big question: is happiness even a worthy goal, or is it as selfish as the hedonism the film decries? Fulfillment, knowledge, a sense of purpose- all these are NOT happiness, but far more worthy goals that narcotics of body or mind.
The filmís utter failure on these fronts make me have to say pass on
it, although, if one is vain and shallow, this Oprah Winfrey level film may just
be for you.
Morgan Spurlockís Super
Size Me, released over a decade ago, made him a name in doc filmmaking,
and was a good film that was, at first debunked as agitprop until the agitprop
films that debunked his claims about fast food were themselves shown to be
fraudulent. Since attaining a level of stardom that led to cable tv show deals,
Spurlock has not done a film of any note. 2012ís Mansome does not alter
that. Itís easily the worst of the five films under review. At 82 minutes it
feels an hour too long, as it is.
Having become famous, heís made friends with Hollywood types and the
film opens with what turns out to be a running gag- actors Jason Bateman and
Will Arnett talking about manliness while they are groomed like women, Itís
not funny, wastes a good third of the film with nothingness, and is just plain
It even lacks talking head expert types- just a bunch of insecure men who
get plastic surgery, talk of toupees, shave their body hair- because the film
claims women are turned off by hair on a manís back. Yes, this is the level of
discourse we get. Other pseudo- and former celebrities pop in for no reason save
they have some remanant name value Spurlock wants to exploit. Then we get a riff
on beards, and an allotment of other silly trends that, just a few years since
this filmís release, have already expired. Oh, and then thereís the whole
Ďsportí of beard growing. Yes, some deem this a sport, and there is a team
of bearded dudes that competes in international competitions. Speaking of
non-sports, there is the back shaving pro wrestler for the TNA Wrestling
promotion, who is as insecure as the guy who goes to a plastic surgeon to get
the capillaries in his nose zapped. Yes, you read that right- I could not have
even dreamt that a human being could be so vain as to find that a problem.
Tattoos get their due, briefly, as well as things Iíve already forgotten, or
deliberately tossed from my memory- due to their sheer idiocy.
If Mansome is watched right after the equally abysmally titled Happy,
one gets a real sense of the schizophrenia that is never addressed in the first
film, for this film shows that no amount of eastern philosophy nor New Age
hoodooery can help most people. If Spurlock was just into bad titles, he should
have called this film Unhappy, and tried to get it booked as a double
feature with Belicís film. Either way, skip this and that!
Of the five films, Chasing Ice is the only film I can recommend without reservations. See it, and make up your mind on the others based on these reviews.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Our Salon website.]
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