Displaced polar bears, misplaced guilt | Bleader

Displaced polar bears, misplaced guilt

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The stars of To the Arctic
  • The stars of To the Arctic
Apart from the recent Paul McCartney songs on the soundtrack—reminders of how trite and maudlin his work has become—the most dispiriting parts of the new IMAX documentary To the Arctic are the interview sequences. The subjects appear in these little insets that take up about one-tenth of the screen while overhead shots of giant icebergs transpire behind them. Thanks to 3-D technology, the insets appear to jut out at the audience—as though the manager just turned on a real big-screen TV inside the theater. Attending a preview at Navy Pier last week, I felt as if the filmmakers had gotten it all backward, making a spectacle of the most prosaic material and reducing real spectacle to background noise. The movie runs for only 40 minutes—is it impossible to forget about television for that long?

Ah well. I guess that’s just the nature of the age. And To the Arctic does contain moments of genuine cinematic spectacle, one of which remains stuck in my mind even after I've seen the brain-cleansing We Have a Pope, Life Without Principle, and The Trouble With Harry. To illustrate the effects of climate change on the arctic, the filmmakers present one of the region’s rapidly melting icebergs: taken from a moving plane, the shot passes a row of openings in the side of the berg, each one spouting a great fountain of melted ice. The series of waterfalls suggests a Berkeley-esque ordering of nature, one that God might have imagined had He been interested in geometry. Like Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary Manufactured Landscapes (a movie that’d look really good on an IMAX screen, come to think of it), this image proposes that the irreversible destruction of nature might at times be beautiful.

It's the sort of unspeakable thought that images can express in total innocence. Yet the makers of To the Arctic seem to feel guilty about the beauty they’ve captured, and they attempt to cover their bases by having the narrator (Meryl Streep, who likely recorded her lines on her way to the dry cleaner) feebly insist that we can all stop environmental devastation before it’s too late. I resent this recourse to good taste: with only 40 minutes to impress its audience, a film like this simply has no time to appeal to morality.

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