Monday, December 21, 2009

Halfway House: Mercury Poisoning

halfway through the day, stop a movie halfway through. What do you see?

About 45 minutes into the soon-to-be Oscared documentary The Cove, we pause for a lecture on mercury poisoning. Basically it goes like this: dolphins swim in a toxic dump site, their bodies have too much mercury in them, it's not safe for us to eat them. Ewww times two. I don't like to think about toxic dumps or dolphin-eating.

I totally didn't need to know that dolphin meat was poisonous to be convinced that they shouldn't be eaten, thank you very much.

I have all sorts of issues, defendable and otherwise, with documentaries each year. It's difficult to explain but I'll try. With narrative filmmaking I feel like I'm mostly aware of what I'm watching and of how the movie is choosing to approach its subject and tell its story. With documentaries I often feel like I'm behind some invisible curve and without a ton of research on my own I have no clue in which ways I'm being manipulated and what is being left out of the argument or shoehorned in. What I'm reacting to, then, is not the filmmaking so much as the subject matter and spin. I'm guessing Oscar voters are this way too since they're choice of "best" each year is noticeably dependent on the likability or "importance" of the subject matter. I wholeheartedly endorse the likeability of dolphins and the importance of not killing them but I didn't always know if the movie was great.

The movie made me feel guilt above all else: Guilt for loving dolphins (our mass love of the ever-smiling animals has inadvertently caused the captivity and slaughter problem), guilt for being squeamish (I literally couldn't watch the damning slaughter climax. I left the room just like I did at the dolphin killing scene in White Squall many years ago) guilt even for previously hating Hayden Panetierre (!). Her appearance took me by surprise because I tend to ignore the pockets of pop culture that follow the every move of bad actors or tv stars. I had no idea that she was actually an activist, bless her. The shot of her dismay when she realizes she can't save the dolphins is the only time she's ever made me feel anything onscreen. I can't even talk about I Love You Beth Cooper. Don't get me started.

When The Cove wasn't making me feel guilty it was celebrating my love of cute animals and my love of the power of movies. Movie making technology plays a heroic role here and The Cove itself hopes too. Both of those realities will lock it in for an Oscar win, I think, no matter what its competition turns out to be when the nominees are announced in February. Because who in Hollywood wouldn't like to think of the movies as a force of good in the world?


Deborah said...

What causes me the most struggle with documentaries is, where is the filmmaker? It's all In Cold Blood; you need to know where the author is to truly understand what you're seeing.

Okay, example. Murderball: The team we're following does a presentation at a rehab center, one of the guys they meet there ends up becoming a quad rugby player. How did that happen? Did the filmmakers arrange the presentation? Did they follow many of the guys in the hopes one would become a player? Manipulated, fortuitous, smart, or a combination?

I watch few "issues" documentaries, except inasmuch as issue affect lives. My favorite doc is Trembling Before G-d; you can argue that it's a gay "issue" movie, but I think it's about humans.


Deborah, great point. i wonder that all the time: how did the documentarian get involved. is the point they're making what they had originally planned to make or did the direction change based on wht they filmed. etcetera.

i never feel like i have the whole story. never.

Jim T said...

Nathaniel, I feel the same way. I am glad this documentary exists but as an over-the-top animal lover, I don't understand why I have to suffer in order to learn some things? i can just read about it!

Yes, shocking images have more power than words but not for people like me.

The Pretentious Know it All said...

I love animals. As an animal lover it's almost impossible not to love dolphins. I really want to see "The Cove" because it may shed something on the issue that I'm not seeing.

I want to preface this with clarifying that I have no desire whatsoever to consume a dolphin. BUT (and I know this sounds awful) non-vegetarian human beings consume animals every day. We eat cows, chickens, pigs, etc. In France they even eat horses. If the issue is, the way that dolphins are captured and harvested for meat is inhumane and cruel, then yes I understand. But just because Western culture has been conditioned to view eating dolphins as taboo and disgusting, does that give us the right to condemn another culture for eating dolphins? Does anyone understand what I'm saying? It's almost like the meat-agricultural equivalent of "missing white girl syndrome" whereby it's okay to eat cows and pigs because they're not as cute as dolphins. I feel like the only people who can condemn in a non-hypocritical way are strict vegetarians or vegans who view eating meat across the board as disgusting and cruel.

Like I said, I'm sure I've offended many people by saying this as much as I'm sure that I'm grossly misinformed. That's why I want to see "The Cove." If I have the real potential to learn something from a documentary, then I'm all for it. I was a lapsed Catholic who didn't care one way or another before I saw "Deliver us from Evil." Now I firmly believe that the Catholic church (from the top to the bottom) is concentrated corruption and evil. Such is the power of (some) documentary filmmaking.

Nick M. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nick M. said...

I think the documentarian really missed out on an opportunity to focus on the Timothy Treadwell-esque megalomania of Ric O'Barry as much as it tried its hardest to make the audience feel guilty over the obviously unlawful, unethical, and downright disturbing slaughter of dolphins.

RJ said...

Unrelated but .... On The Weinstein's guild page they have Melanie Laurent listed as For Your Consideration: Best Supporting Actor.

Either this is a misprint or a changed strategy.

Jim T said...

Or a sex change operation?

RC said...

Huh...interesting thoughts on feeling guilt for loving dolphins.

I think it would be harder for me to take my daughter to sea world or ever even thinking about swimming with the dolphins --- although I don't think that was on my to do list anyways.

The mass-conspiracy in Japan was more intriguing/scary to me --- even the way they manipulated the UN and covered up everything that was going.

I feel your concern about wondering "what is not being shown" especially if the film has a strong "angle."

CrazyCris said...

Um, squeamish? You must be very much so because the dolphin killing scene was surprisingly short and didn't really show much other than a lot of movement and red water... It was actually kind of a let down after the immense build up to that single sequence for which we were led to believe the whole film had been built. If hadn't been convinced about the wrongness of this beforehand that one scene wouldn't have done the job for me.

I both appreciate and dislike this Doc. As someone who fell in love with dolphins at age 6 and went on to study marine biology and do a master's thesis on them: BRAVO to anyone who helps bring attention to such problems and wants them stopped. But the scientist in me kind of scoffed at the whole thing (other than the mercury stuff, which coincidentally is what my Master's thesis was about). There isn't really anything to convince a rational and unemotional person that this killing is bad (other than -once again- don't eat dolphins because of the high Hg content). They play 100% on the emotional factor, and that doesn't qualify as a convincing argument. It takes us back to an era of "charismatic megafauna", of "save the dolphins because they're cuuuute!". Sorry but no! They can actually be very vicious animals (just ask the harbour porpoise), they know how to defend themselves (ask any shark) and are very good hunters. There are many valid scientific reasons to protect marine mammals (like all apex predators they help regulate their food chains) that decision-makers would respond to better than some emotional harp-playing.

And as much as I say I would never do it... I see no problem with people eating dolphin or whale or any other animal if it's to their taste, who are we to impose our tastes on another culture? (and I've had long discussions about this with a French horse-meat-eating friend, we've agreed to disagree on that topic)

if anyone's interested here's what I had to say on the topic when I saw it last month:


CrazyCris -- thanks for the info (and link). I guess I should be a vegetarian for how much i love animals. But it's difficult when you live with someone who cooks and who is decidedly not.

CrazyCris said...

Nathaniel, I've got the same problem! But I enjoy meat too much (and dislike too many vegetables) to ever become a vegetarian.

Merry Christmas!