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Earth in the Balcony

To see the environment through America's eyes, go to the movies.

by B. J. Bergman

If the eyes are the windows to the soul, the windows to America's collective unconscious are its movie screens. (Television, of course, is the portal to unconsciousness.) This is no less true for the nation's feelings about the environment than about sex, violence, or extraterrestrials. Sure, you read Sierra, and your bookshelves are groaning with conservation classics from A Sand County Almanac to Walden. You've seen Chinatown and A Civil Action, maybe even caught Koyaanisqatsi at an art-house screening attended by three grad students and a black-bereted Quentin Tarantino wannabe.

But where were you when the execrable Bio-Dome was grossing $6 million on its opening weekend in 1996? Or when John Frankenheimer -- director of The Manchurian Candidate, the acclaimed political thriller from 1962 -- loosed the eco-horror drive-in disaster Prophecy on the world barely a year before Reagan won the White House? Down at the art house, right? Or off on a camping trip, curled up with one of those conservation classics?

To be fair, a lot of people missed Prophecy, which can't be blamed for James Watt and the Sagebrush Rebellion. But it is a piece of the puzzle, like the kangaroo rat or the black-stem spleenwort. And, like air or water pollution, the movies' impacts are cumulative. Here's the point: While you and Jimmy Carter were boning up on biodiversity, the rest of the voting public was getting its environmental education from monster flicks, melodramas, and romantic comedies. Does this explain why George W. Bush is soaring in the polls while Al Gore is floundering? No, but it could offer a clue to why the environment lacks what political scientists call "saliency" as a campaign issue. The possibility alone warrants a few field trips to the nearest multiplex-or at least the neighborhood video store.

Tinseltown, it turns out, is foursquare for nature. With the notable exceptions of Jaws and Bio-Dome, it's hard to find a non-Western Hollywood film that takes joy in the destruction of wilds or wildlife. (Westerns have always glorified the frontier mentality, which is the point of the genre; environmentally speaking, when you've seen one horse opera, you've seen 'em all.) But while the packaging may say pro-environment, the contents tend to lack nutritional value-rarely are the lessons trenchant enough to take your mind off your next fistful of Raisinets. Often we get the same fluff served up countless times before, relocated by some marketing whiz to a rainforest or a nuclear power plant. Hollywood is committed to recycling. And what it recycles the most is its scripts.

Earth-themed movies fall into one of five categories. (Actually, many of them fall into several; like your friendly local video store, we've been guided by whim and astrological factors in shelving our inventory.) What follows is a sampler, and is not intended to be comprehensive. Note that documentaries are absent, since most Americans don't watch them, as are movies for kids, who don't vote. That said, here are some of the films that have been shaping the minds of the American electorate-or enfeebling them. Sit back, praise the environment, and pass the popcorn...

Man and Nature (or, Don't Fence Me In)

Since before the dawn of talkies, the call of the wild has been irresistible to Hollywood. When Hollywood calls back, however, it speaks in its own inimitable language. Nature? Love ya, babe.

  • Jeremiah Johnson (1972). He "wanted to be a mountain man," the theme song tells us, so he let his whiskers grow and a-headed for the hills. A dutiful hymn to wilderness starring Robert Redford, who's forced to deliver lines that belong in a high-school pageant. (Of a coat made by his Indian wife, he solemnly declaims, "It will keep me warm in a strong wind, and the rain will not pass through neither.") Shot on location in Utah, Jeremiah Johnson resembles the young Redford-earnest, ruggedly handsome, and not terribly memorable.

  • Man in the Wilderness (1971). What Jeremiah Johnson might have been with a smaller budget and a bit more edge. Eight minutes into the film, Richard Harris is mauled by a griz (a trained one, incidentally, named Peggy) in the Northwest Territories. Later, having been left for dead by his fellow fur trappers, he's attacked by a wolf. Typecasting, to be sure. If you can overlook the predator stereotypes and the sappy TV score, though, Man in the Wilderness delivers several strong performances (including one by John Huston) and an unflinching look at survival in the wild.

  • The Gold Rush (1925). Chaplin's little tramp tangles with bears, cold, hunger, loneliness, and gold fever in fin-de-siècle Alaska. A certified silent classic, with the backlot wilderness stuck in the second-banana role of comic foil. For a curtain-raiser, try The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933), a far funnier short wherein W. C. Fields shows that the Yukon is tough, but the temptations of the big city can be just as perilous.

  • Tarzan and His Mate (1934). If you've only seen Johnny Weismuller and Maureen O'Sullivan in their later, sanitized incarnations, this sexy, pre-Code rendering will be a revelation. Not that it isn't silly-we're talking Tarzan, after all-but it does have a serious message about the treatment of nature and Natives at the hands of "civilized" ivory hunters. The nude swimming scene was one backstroke ahead of the censors, and yes, it's essential to the story.

  • The Old Man and the Sea (1958). This too-reverent reading of Hemingway's pretentious fish story should have been thrown back. Spencer Tracy, as the long-suffering Cuban fisherman Santiago, grapples valiantly with a "truly big fish," and teaches us a lesson (with help from Papa's spare prose in voice-over) about the grave dignity in killing very large creatures. Think Tracy deserved his Oscar? Then you'll love Gregory Peck's wooden-legged (and just plain wooden) Ahab in Moby Dick (1956), a better movie of a better book.

  • Lonely Are the Brave (1962). A man and his horse versus modern American civilization, as symbolized by an 18-wheeler bound for New Mexico carrying 156 privies. Dalton Trumbo based the screenplay on Edward Abbey's The Brave Cowboy; the result is a quirky black-and-white valentine to an Old West that never was. Kirk Douglas is the loner who hates fences and loves open spaces, just like Cactus Ed himself. With Gena Rowlands as the one that got away, and Walter Matthau as the put-upon sheriff who's secretly rooting for his anachronistic fugitive cowboy to reach the border.

    Who's Sorry Now? (or, It's Not Nice to Fool With Mother Nature)

    Hollywood's efforts to deal with environmental destruction range from the ridiculous to the sublime. As for Charlton Heston, he'll never be president, but Ronald Reagan never made a movie as entertaining as Soylent Green, either.

  • The Road Warrior (1981). "Defend the fuel" is the watchword in the post-apocalypse (not to mention real-world gas crisis) landscape of Mad Max, where "only those mobile enough to scavenge, brutal enough to pillage" can hope to survive. Nightmarish and visually arresting, this dystopian eco-fable has Mel Gibson-at the wheel of a tanker truck with the word Earth scrawled on the door-fighting to help his adoptive family reclaim its future from the rubble of all-out war and the savagery of psychotic gas-hounds. Better than its predecessor, Mad Max. Fluidly filmed in the stark Australian outback.

  • Soylent Green (1973). It's 2022 in New York City, where the population has hit 40 million, everything's broken, and most of the food is supplied by the Soylent Corporation, the supermarket to the world of the future. Ah, but what's in that food? That's what Charlton Heston, as Detective Thorn, aims to find out. (Hint: It's not a soy product.) The movie never quite generates the required tension, which makes it a hoot instead of a holler. With Edward G. Robinson as a man who loves strawberries, a bargain at $150 a jar.

  • Prophecy (1979). An EPA official finds that a Maine paper mill has been dumping mercury into the water, engendering mad raccoons, salmon the size of Volkswagens, and one of the lamest monsters Hollywood has ever produced. (Armand Assante, as an Indian fighting to save his ancestral forest, is only slightly more convincing.) Descended from a long line of Japanese horror series (Godzilla, Gamera, etc.) whose beasts result from nuclear fallout, Prophecy was, thankfully, too weak to spawn a sequel.

  • Clearcut (1992). Far more terrifying-and disturbing-is Graham Greene as Arthur, an Indian who takes revenge on the owner of a timber company that's destroying his Canadian homeland. Righteous anger sadly devolves into Cape Fear-style sadism, and gives Clearcut the smell of a politically correct slasher film. But Greene is magnetic, and Arthur does have a point, however twisted his methods. Not for the squeamish.

  • Safe (1995). Is Safe about environmental illness, or is that just a metaphor for more cosmic concerns? Is Carol White really "allergic to the 20th century," or just trading in her sterile yuppie existence for a cultlike New Age model? In Safe, a bored San Fernando Valley housewife (Julianne Moore) becomes hypersensitive to chemicals, and seeks refuge among bromide-spouting healers in New Mexico who urge her to love herself. In the end, she says she does. Why don't we believe her?

    Ah, Wilderness! (or, Which Way to the Great Outdoors?)

    It's a jungle out there, especially if you're a city slicker. Most of all-Norman Maclean excepted-don't go near the water.

  • Jaws (1975). It's Fourth of July weekend on Amity Island, and even the out-of-town ichthyologist (Richard Dreyfuss) is itching to kill the fish that's taking a bite out of the local tourist economy. A bona fide cultural phenomenon, Steven Spielberg's blockbuster has about as much soul as the mechanical Great White we don't see till the climactic battle. If you stop to think about it, Jaws is a glorification of hysteria over the encroachment of sea life into man's territorial waters. But that's unlikely, as temptations to think on this cheap-thrills roller-coaster ride are few and far between.

  • Deliverance (1972). The strains of "Dueling Banjos" ringing in their ears, four good ol' boys point their canoes downstream and are soon in over their heads. Burt Reynolds is the macho man who wants his soft Atlanta buddies (Jon Voight, Ned Beatty, and Ronny Cox) to experience a wild river before a dam turns it into "one big dead lake." In author James Dickey's poetically chilling vision, however, "you don't beat this river"-even if you do manage to escape the river rats. Deftly filmed by John Boorman in Georgia's Tallulah Gorge.

  • The River Wild (1994). Therapeutically speaking, big water and on-the-lam crooks are cheaper and faster than couples-counseling for a one-time river guide and her uptight workaholic husband. Silly, predictable plot, but Meryl Streep turns in her usual stellar performance and Kevin Bacon is a charmingly creepy villain. More important, The River Wild was filmed on location in Oregon and Montana-the journey starts on the Rogue River and ends on the Kootenai, a nifty trick-and lovingly conveys the beauty and thrill of whitewater rafting. Is river running more exciting with a gun at your head? You be the judge.

  • A River Runs Through It (1992). Wistful, languorously paced adaptation of Norman Maclean's memoir of childhood in Montana. Directed and narrated by Robert Redford-and featuring Brad Pitt as the author's dissolute brother-it's about fly-fishing, family, and the river flowing, the river being the Big Blackfoot. "As a Presbyterian," says Redford/Maclean, "my father believed that man by nature was a damn mess, and that only by picking up God's rhythms are we able to regain power and beauty." A River Runs Through It, at its best, hints at that power and beauty.

  • Continental Divide (1981). Even the eagles look bored in this limp romantic comedy, in which John Belushi's streetwise Chicago Sun-Times columnist ("Fresh air makes me nauseous") finds love with naturalist Blair Brown in the Rockies. There's a continental divide between them, see? And they're on the Continental Divide. That's pretty much it. Wilderness as wallpaper. If you really want to see Belushi in the wild, stick with Animal House.

    Environmental intrigue, seldom seen in early films, has come into focus since Earth Day in 1970. Moviemakers' motivations, however, remain a mystery. Has Hollywood matured, or did James Bond just get old?

  • Wild River (1960). Elia Kazan directed this sophisticated tale, which pits Montgomery Clift, as an agent for the Tennessee Valley Authority, against Jo Ann Fleet, an octogenarian who'd rather drown than abandon her land. "I like things runnin' wild, like nature meant," she says. "There's already enough dams lockin' things up, tamin' 'em, makin' 'em go against their natural wants and needs." The dam, of course, is a foregone conclusion, but Monty is no two-dimensional villain. With compassion to spare, he's all too human, the emotional fulcrum in this bittersweet black-and-white meditation on "progress."

  • The Big Trees (1952). "I live by the board foot," declares Kirk Douglas, who plays a dimple-chinned Charles Hurwitz prototype in this dopey drama set in California's redwood country. Happily, Kirk falls for the lovely Widow Chadwick, a Quaker who wants the forest spared, and sees the light in the final reel. What else would you expect from a flick whose every shot of a redwood is accompanied by harps and violins?

  • The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear (1991). "I sank every penny I had into buying that one thousand acres of Brazilian rainforest," pleads transcendentally clueless police Lieutenant Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen). "Then I had it slashed and burned so we could build our dream house." Naked Gun 21/2 is full of inspired deadpan silliness, machine-gun pacing, and a cast of hundreds. (Warning: One of them is O. J. Simpson.) But it also delights in lampooning Big Oil and its efforts to drill Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. With help from Priscilla Presley, the good lieutenant foils a scheme to replace a sustainable-energy advocate with a lookalike "former arts consultant to Jesse Helms." See it with someone you love.

  • The China Syndrome (1979). This taut but conventional thriller about a nuclear "accident" had the good fortune to hit screens just 12 days before the partial core meltdown at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Adding to the film's seeming prescience, one of its characters warns that a meltdown could render "an area the size of Pennsylvania" uninhabitable.) Contrived, but has its moments. Jane Fonda is the pretty-in-pink local-TV reporter who finally gets her shot at hard news, Geraldo Rivera-style. With Michael Douglas as her anti-nuke cameraman and Jack Lemmon as her tongue-tied, gun-wielding inside source.

  • Silkwood (1983). Riveting drama starring Meryl Streep as Karen Silkwood, the real-life nuclear power worker who knew more about defective fuel rods than was good for her. Silkwood, an employee at a Kerr-McGee plant in Oklahoma, died in 1974 when her car was mysteriously forced off the road. She was on her way to meet with a New York Times reporter; the documents she meant to hand over have never been found. By turns chilling and tender, Silkwood-like its heroine-refuses to take the easy way out.

  • Chinatown (1974). If there's one thing Hollywood knows it's L.A., and this neo-noir look at Southern California in the 1930s is one of the smartest, most stylish films it's ever produced. Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is a private eye who stumbles onto John Huston's diabolical plot to force farmers off their orange groves, buy up the San Fernando Valley at rock-bottom prices, and divert the city's water to his ill-gotten real estate. It's fiction with both feet planted in historical truth. Masterfully directed by Roman Polanski, with Faye Dunaway playing Bacall to Nicholson's laid-back Bogie.

  • At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991). Peter Matthiessen wrote the novel, but don't blame him for this ponderous, often ludicrous morality play. (He's expressed his own misgivings at some of the casting, which features Tom Berenger and Daryl Hannah.) Evil missionaries want an Amazon tribe's souls; evil developers want their land; the misguided Berenger, a half-Cheyenne from the States, wants their love. But things don't work out, good intentions notwithstanding. The movie fares even worse. Three hours long and feels like a lifetime.

  • A Civil Action (1998). Based on the nonfiction book by Jonathan Harr, this is the story of several families in Woburn, Massachusetts, whose children have been dying of leukemia. The families suspect contaminated wells, and they want justice. But they have trouble even landing a lawyer-that is, until ambulance-chaser Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta) sniffs out deep-pocketed Beatrice Foods and W. R. Grace, the chemical giant, as the polluters. A slick but sensitive look at the scales of American justice, helped enormously by the presence of Robert Duvall as Travolta's corporate nemesis.

    Greens on Screen (or, Tree-Huggers and Other Do-Gooders)

    Whether our weapon of choice is a typewriter or a machine gun, environmentalists-those not in Pauly Shore movies, at any rate-tend to be cast as Hollywood heroes. If we're really, really lucky, sometimes we even achieve three-dimensionality.

  • The American President (1995). No sooner does Annette Bening show up in the impossibly plush offices of the Global Defense Council (the D.C. green group's hired her to lobby for a bill to slash fossil-fuel consumption) than she's locked in a very public affair with the Clintonesque commander in chief, Michael Douglas. In director Rob Reiner's appealing liberal fantasy, the prez is unattached (he's a widower), effectively manages his libido, confines a retaliatory strike against Libyan intelligence headquarters to the night shift to minimize casualties, and opts for personal integrity over political expedience. The First Couple eventually ride Air Force One into the sunset, while the vicious right-wing demagogue (Richard Dreyfuss) slinks away with his tail between his legs. And global warming? Let's just say the Defense Council gets its money's worth.

  • Cross Creek (1983). Slight, sweetly atmospheric story of struggling New York writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' move to the Florida Everglades. Even if you don't quite believe Mary Steenburgen as Rawlings (author of The Yearling) you'll still be rewarded with fine performances by Rip Torn and Alfre Woodard and a loving evocation of the 'Glades. Soundtrack includes bits of Rawlings' nature writing, for better or worse.

  • Never Cry Wolf (1983). A government biologist much like Canadian author Farley Mowat-whose autobiographical novel is the source for this movie-is sent to the Arctic Circle to dig up evidence of wolf predation on caribou herds. Over the course of six months of observing the wolves, however, what he finds instead is a renewed sense of wonder in the natural world. Charles Martin Smith shines as the nerdy, woefully unprepared biologist-who knew all that beer would be undrinkable in the frigid northern winter?-and so do the Inuit who guide him on his accidental vision quest. Extraordinary footage of wolves in the wild and director Carroll Ballard's unerring eye lend a haunting beauty to Mowat's funny, inspirational tale.

  • The Emerald Forest (1985). Supposedly based on true events, The Emerald Forest is still hard to swallow. An engineer (stiffly played by Powers Boothe) is at work on a dam project in the Amazon when his young son is unaccountably kidnapped by a peace-loving Indian tribe called the Invisible People. The tribe's chief raises the blond boy as his heir; ten years later, Boothe leads a Rambo-style raid on the club where his now-Indian son's wife has been sold into slavery. Credibility (and paternalism) aside, the film is nevertheless a sincere effort to examine the effects of land exploitation on indigenous cultures, and the forest is shown off to good effect by director John Boorman, who also made Deliverance.

  • On Deadly Ground (1994). Directed by action hero Steven Seagal, On Deadly Ground in many respects resembles The Emerald Forest, but without the artsy pretense-and with a far more engaging leading man. Seagal is a cool-as-ice ex-CIA agent-"the kind of guy that would drink a gallon of gasoline so he could piss in your campfire," says an admiring antagonist-determined to bring down Michael Caine, the racist, ruthless (and thoroughly entertaining) owner of Aegis Oil, and save the Arctic for his Inuit friends. Subtlety may be an alien concept to Seagal, but On Deadly Ground manages to pack an emotional punch anyway. Beneath the macho, kung-fu nonsense lurks a palpable appreciation for Earth and its people. And-admit it-it is kind of fun to see stuff blowing up.

  • Gorillas in the Mist (1988). Based on the book by Dian Fossey, featuring Sigourney Weaver as the famed naturalist who died fighting to halt the poaching of endangered Rwandan mountain gorillas. Weaver never breaks a sweat hiking in the African jungle, and some of the early dialogue feels forced. But Gorillas in the Mist takes flight when she meets up with her beloved apes, and the film, to its credit, does not oversimplify the crisis. Along with Fossey's outrage at poachers, it shows us the dire poverty of the locals and a market driven by wealthy Americans in need of a gorilla hand-or head-for their trophy rooms.

  • Bio-Dome (1996). "Two twits from Tucson" get themselves trapped inside Hollywood's version of Biosphere II, run by well-heeled, holier-than-thou conservationists from Central Casting. They wreak predictable mayhem, and then-to win back their girlfriends-achieve homeostasis by Earth Day. If that's not enough to scare you off, the head twit is Pauly Shore, whose 15 minutes of fame grew out of a spin as an MTV veejay. Bio-Dome wants to be Beavis and Butt-head, but lacks both the wit and verisimilitude. Until prints can be safely disposed of, sentient moviegoers are advised to keep their distance.

    Green Thumbs Up

    •The Road Warrior
    •Never Cry Wolf

    Green Thumbs Down

    •Continental Divide
    •At Play in the Fields of the Lord

    B. J. Bergman is Sierra's writer/editor.

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