The first Edward Burtynsky photograph I ever saw took my breath away -- twice. It was a very large format color print of rust colored scratches across a white marbled surface, the scratches (or were they gashes?) criss-crossed one another, intersecting to create rough, square shapes. The horizontal lines seemed to bleed or melt vertically, like they had been scrubbed roughly with something hard, something metal. A pool of bright green liquid glowed at the bottom of the frame -- or at least this is how I remember it -- an amazingly lovely color, not found in nature. It was the grace of the composition that took my breath away, at least at first. I was overwhelmed by the art of the image, by its aesthetic appeal and then I realized what I was actually looking at, something very large and very real. And it was that realization that took my breath the second time. This beautiful thing was actually something quite ugly. It was an image of an old quarry, all of that beauty just toxic remains.
Filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal is wise to use similar techniques in Manufactured Landscapes, her documentary about Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky. It's necessarily a slow moving film, with the camera fixating on an "abstract" image and waiting for the viewer's mind to catch up. You are not staring at a gorgeous painting of tiny circles and squares, but at a mountain of computer parts taller than a man. I would normally say this is a documentary about Burtynsky's "work," but it somehow seems more than that, more like a mission or an obsession. I cannot imagine anyone dragging himself, as Burtynsky does, across the scarred face of the planet to capture ever larger examples of the consequences of man's industry -- or is it hubris?
Most of the film takes place in China, where the people's revolution has turned its citizens into tiny colorful cogs in the wheels of capitalism. There they are a disciplined part of a very oily machine that leaks toxins, but also seems to gather and reuse the whole world's refuse. Manufactured Landscapes takes us from what must be the world's largest factory ever -- it seems like the first ten minutes of the film are just one tracking shot along that factory's floor -- to the Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest and, like the Great Wall, seen from space. (Filling it caused a measurable wobble in the Earth's rotation!) Then it's off again with Burtynsky to photograph a (literal) mountain of coal and so on and so on.
I wish that Manufactured Landscapes had told me more about Burtynsky, about what makes him tick. Similar to Rivers and Tides, the Andy Goldsworthy documentary, the film offers lots of process, capturing the photographer in action as he frames his horrific subjects, but the soundtrack is filled with very little talk, very little about the artist's philosophy and how he copes. As an observer of the work, as someone who will only experience the images that this film and this artist bring back, you really would like to know -- how to cope.
Ultimately, we have to admire someone like Burtynsky who can look at this kind of activity and destruction with a clear eyed gaze and see something special. It is the real artist who can turn the world's ugliness into things of beauty, into images so lush you can't look away, even while they communicate whole newspapers full of bad, very bad news.
Manufactured Landscapes is now playing in the SF Bay Area.