Friday, July 2, 2010

Josh Tickell's FUEL explores alternatives to oil -- and why we might want to try 'em

Acting as cheerleader for a sustainable source of fuel is probably not the worst thing you could accuse a movie of being these days, and Joshua Tickell's new documentary FUEL is pretty much that -- a paean in particular to bio-diesel fuel (made from "used" vegetable oil yet!) that Mr. Tickell (shown below) pours into the van (see the penultimate photo in this post) in which he traverses our country to win converts to his cause.

The director/narrator (the writing here is from Johnny O'Hara) seems a friendly, funny and pleasant young man who first fills us in on his family history (some of it) before moving on the subject at hand: our nation's reliance on oil -- and not just foreign oil, but the stuff that has made his mother's home state, Louisiana (he's originally from Australia), such a wasteland in many ways.  His detailing of the "Cancer Alleys," found wherever oil is processed, shows up the oil companies who create them as both appalling and criminal.

The most interesting part of the documentary for me was Tickell's fact-finding regarding the connection between Henry Ford --  whose early cars ran on ethanol alcohol and captured 25% of the mid-west market --  and John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil, who funded the ammendment to our Constitution that became "Prohibition."  It was not until Ford finally gave up on ethanol-fueled cars that prohibition actually ended.  And here we thought it was those little-old tea-totaling ladies who effected our period of non-drinking.  As usual, it's the power behind the throne -- in this case (as in most) the oil companies who call the shots -- and call them in secrecy.

In the film we hear from everyone from Shock Doctrine's Naomi Klein and various scientists and politicians to Woody Harrelson (who makes a fine co-cheerleader) and Julia Roberts.  The biggest fumble in the film occurs more than halfway along, when we're suddenly faced with headline stories in Time Magazine and else-
where that these bio diesel and other green fuels are pointless and worse -- "crimes against humanity." What?  But instead of  taking the trouble to detail the the negative points the articles raise so that we might have a greater understanding of things, not to men-
tion possibly refuting them, Tickell just moves on, saying we must find "better" alternative fuels. This is bad, stupid movie-making.

Even if the filmmaker is correct, and I suspect he is, his approach is not good enough. Preaching to the converted never changes things much.   Still, Tickell does open up new areas for examination: among these, the oil spills during Katrina that were given no news coverage, a history of Rudolf Diesel and his work, the fact that the country of Sweden has promised to be oil-free by 2020 and what this might mean for other nations in their increased search for the right mix of oil alternatives, and Virgin's Richard Branson and his standing behind bio-diesel (though in some future, better format, it would appear).

Tickell gives us a lot to mull over, much of it worthwhile and inter-
esting.  But I wish he had shortened his movie by 20 minutes because his cheerleading gets increasingly repetitive and tiresome before his film finally concludes.  Still, his checklist on what we can all accomplish immediately -- which ends his documentary -- is certainly worth reading and considering.
FUEL is out now on DVD, for purchase or rental.

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