Saturday Night at the Movies The voluptuous horror of Mother Earth
By Dennis Hartley
We’re down in the Poles: Chasing Ice
This is not a putdown: Jeff Orlowski’s new documentary Chasing Ice is glacially paced. Because you see, “glacial pacing” ain’t what it used to be. These days, glaciers are moving along (”retreating”, technically) at a pretty good clip. Unfortunately, this phenomenon does not portend well for the planet; as this ancient ice continues to dissipate at an alarmingly accelerating rate, leaving naught but barren rock in its wake, it is a red flag alert much akin to Mother Earth experiencing a health-threatening hardening of the arteries. To put it in a less flowery way…we’re fucked. After all, according to renowned nature photographer (and film subject) James Balog, “The story…is in the ice.”
Of course, there are those who continue to dismiss the concept of man-made global warming, despite such tangible evidentiary manifestations (not to mention the nearly unanimous scientific consensus), and Orlowski opens his film with a montage of the usual braying deniers (Hannity, Beck, & co.) including one that surprised me (Weather Channel creator John Coleman…really?) interspersed with news footage of some of the freakishly intense and catastrophic weather events that have become an all too frequent occurrence in recent years (gosh, it almost seems like last week…I seem to recall a “Hurricane Sandy” making a bit of a splash). Luckily, their appearances are brief, because the meat of the story centers on Balog’s eye-opening Extreme Ice Survey project.
The photographer’s fascinating journey began in 2005, while he was on an assignment for National Geographic to document the effect of climate change on the Arctic. Up until that fateful trip, Balog had counted himself amongst the skeptics; he candidly admits on camera that he “…didn’t think humans were capable” of affecting the Earth’s weather patterns in such a profound manner. His epiphany gave birth to a multi-year project that he pursued with a missionary fervor. His goal was to utilize specially modified time-lapse cameras to capture irrefutable proof that affective global warming had transcended mere academic speculation. After strategically placing the cameras (quite a challenge in and of itself) next to sizable glaciers like Solheim in Iceland, Store in Greenland and several more in Alaska and Montana, Balrog and his team began their painstaking waiting game.
The resulting images are quite beautiful and mesmerizing, yet simultaneously troubling. Orlowski’s film itself mirrors the dichotomy, being in equal parts cautionary eco-doc and art installation. Balog’s stills and time-lapsed sequences are fantastical ice-wrought dioramas that look like they could have been imagined by Roger Dean and rendered by Dale Chihuly. Finding these diamonds in the rough of pending ecological disaster reminded me of Jennifer Baichwal’s 2007 documentary about photojournalist Edward Burtynsky, Manufactured Landscapes (which I reviewed here). The film also offers a glimpse into the real blood, sweat and tears that goes into professional photography (particularly in some hair-raising moments where Balog and a member of his team make a risky foray into a seemingly bottomless ice crevasse, just to grab a couple of pictures).
While Balog makes a number of impassioned statements about the urgent need to get everyone on the same page regarding this issue, Orlowski stops just shy of giving his film a strident polemical stance. This is wise, because he doesn’t need to hit us over the head to make his point about global warming’s profound effects. This is best illustrated in the film’s money shot, where one of Balog’s video teams captures the largest “calving” event ever so documented. The jaw-dropping sequence, depicting an ice peninsula equivalent in size to lower Manhattan (and twice the height of its tallest skyscrapers) sluicing off of Greenland’s massive Hulissat Glacier, handily trumps any amount of of squawking that emits from the likes of the bloviating gasbag deniers featured in the opening montage, and proves that that old adage will forever ring true: a picture is worth a thousand words.