Saturday, February 21, 2009

Day Seventeen: Manufactured Landscapes (2006) - Rank 3.5/5


If there's one thing I'll say about documentaries, it's that they tend to have great openings (the credits sequence to "Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr." still stands as one of my favorite credit sequences of all time). I suppose if you're endeavoring to grab the attention of the average American, you have to have a great open, because God only knows they shirk away from information about the world around them if at all possible. Especially when it comes to movies, where escapism is the goal rather than reality. Still, the eight minute long take that "Manufactured Landscapes" starts off with is a marvel to behold. The camera begins on the floor of a Chinese factory and by the time the shot has ended, there seems to be no end in sight to the sprawling industrial interior.

This sets the tone of the film, a look at the work of Edward Burtynsky, a Canadian photographer who specializes in these man-made spectacles, from mountainsides stripped of their allure by mining outfits to pastures buried under layer upon layer of tires or scrap metal. Yet, he manages to capture the beauty seen in the symmetry and repetition created by the remains left behind by man rather than ugliness, creating a surreal social commentary on industrialization. We've gone beyond controlling the environments in which we exist (i.e. air-conditioning, electricity, etc.), we're now reshaping our entire planet's horizons to suit our needs. A third of the film is series of photos Burtynsky's taken of these horizons beautifully complemented with ambient music. It's interesting to see how one man can made a landfill seem gorgeous.

The film follows him as he embarks on another journey to China for another photo shoot. Along the way, the industrialization of China becomes a major theme of the film. To me, this is where the film loses focus. It fluctuates between Burtynsky's work and the progression of China to an industrial country from a once agricultural stature. I feel if a documentary chooses a subject, it should see that topic all the way through. It's as if director Jennifer Baichwal realized that there wasn't enough material on Burtynsky to keep audiences engaged or she simply found a second interest while making her film. That unevenness leaves you wondering what the theme of message may have been for the film. Still, there are enough breathtaking visuals to make it worth the scant eighty minutes it lasts.

Watch the Trailer

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