Thursday, January 13, 2011

PLASTIC PLANET: Werner Boote's worth-while wake-up call about our environment

Oh, god, no -- something else to worry about. Forming the perfect trio of environ-mental fear films resulting, if we don't mind our P's & Q's, in an end-of-times scenario, comes Werner Boote's new PLASTIC PLANET, which joins the likes of Lucy Walker's nuclear armageddon Countdown to Zero and Davis Guggenheim's rising tempera-tures, An Inconvenient Truth (not to mention Ondi Timoner's more insightful Cool It!) to scare us shitless regarding the state of our world.  Unlike the devastations of nuclear war and global warming, however, the threat to humanity in Herr Boote's movie is... plastics. Wasn't that the industry that Dustin Hoffman's character was advised to get into by a well-wisher in the classic film, The Graduate?
Have times changed this much?

Indeed they have, as Boote (shown with bullhorn, at left) makes more than clear, roaming the world and talking to scientists and researchers, families, businessmen and corporate hucksters. It was his grandfather who first filled Boote's brain with the wonders of plastics. Only much later did the filmmaker -- and, I wager, the rest of us -- begin hearing about the downside of this modern miracle substance. Example? As plastic decays over time, molecules are set free that penetrate the food chain. Another? A single PVC diaper takes 200 years to decompose to its "rest" components.  During those two centuries, it releases its portion of dangerous materials into the environment. (But wait a minute: PVC diapers haven't even been around 200 years yet? Well, scientists extrapolate, I guess.)

Do you think the chemical industry -- the people who make plastics -- knows about this, Boote asks one of the scientists?  "Absolutely," he is told.  "They suppress it." By the end of this 97-minute movie, you may feel, as did I, that someday these "people" will be held in the same esteem as those in the cigarette industry who knowingly poisoned us for decades and then lied about it. But, then, under-standing the dangers while keeping them secret seems to be a staple of big industries, across the board.

The filmmaker shows the process by which crude oil is turned into plastic (some smart animation accompanies this and one other section, devoted to how the degrading plastic poisons our sys-tems). He goes into the secrecy of the manufacturing process (sure, companies want to protect their patents, but this seems to have to do with something a lot more covert and dangerous). Going out to sea with a marine researcher, we learn that the surface of our pla-net is now covered with plastic dust, and how fish are eating bits of plastic (they mistake it for plankton) until their bellies are full. This, an environmental toxicologist explains, is creating inter-sex fish.

It seems to be doing similar thing to animals and people. A cell-biologist/pharmacologist tells us that, once the lab's plastic cages began to disintegrate, at this same time the animals exhibited some very odd symptoms. By the time a reproductive biologist explains how certain toxic plastic degradatrion can change human cells and how this will affect at least three generations, you're ready to cry uncle -- and aunt, in case we're all growing transgendered. Another biologist links plastic to low sperm count. You've heard how the birth rate is falling, right? Well, sterile couples are now being tested for plastics in their blood. Worse, some couples may be only somewhat infertile: not enough to stop reproduction but just enough to sire abnormal babies.

If the oddest, darkly funniest scene arrives as we meet a modern mummifier (he "plasticizes bodies") and his card-playing group (above), the movie's most pointed moment comes with the simple view of a baby sucking on a plastic pacifier. First to last, Boote's film is eye-opening and thought-provoking.

We visit the supermarket, where food packaging (in plastic, 'natch) needs to be better labeled. The type of plastic does matter. We learn about bio-plastic containers that use natural materials and may help the situation. Toward the end of the film, Boote revisits a man he interviewed early on: John Taylor, head of Plastics Europe. Now, Taylor's earlier words seem patently false, and the guy avoids Boote as best he can. The filmmaker corners Taylor at a plastics convention (where he uses that bullhorn and begins to seem a little like Michael Moore, though not as heavy-set).

So how do we handle this danger from plastics? As a representative from the European Commission explains, little is being done now because of all the power and money that the plastics industry wields. Here in the USA, considering the manner in which most of our politicians are bought off by industry and lobbyists, we can't look to them for help. And with the Supreme Court favoring corporations over the individual, that route is closed for now, too. Consumers-saying-no looks to be about the only power we possess, puny and often unorganized as it is. Good luck.

Meanwhile, see this movie and consider the possibilities. From First Run Features -- and its second fine documentary in as many weeks -- Plastic Planet makes its debut tomorrow, Friday, January 14, at New York City's Cinema Village.

Further playdates can be found here (click and scroll down), and a DVD release is on the horizon, as well.

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