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directed by Jennifer Baichwal
by Walter Chaw There's something about Jennifer Baichwal's profiles of artists. After debuting with a nicely-modulated piece on writer Paul Bowles, Baichwal heard her muse with The True Meaning of Pictures, a profile of Appalachian portrait photog Shelby Lee Adams that, without overtly politicizing the subject, digs gratifyingly deep into the question of where representation becomes exploitation and, trickier still, how the audience might have as much to do with that difficult equation as the essayist himself. With Manufactured Landscapes, Baichwal looks at the work of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, an artist who shoots landscapes of industrial wastelands that reveal men to be astonishingly productive beasts--and destructive, too, in the same procreative stroke. It's hard to imagine the industry necessary to manufacture the scale of the freighters getting dismantled in the ship-breaking yards to which Baichwal travels with Burtynsky (I've heard a similar sense of awe attends a visit to the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA)--hard to assimilate the amount of Nietzschian will-to-power necessary to even contemplate the construction of titans.
It's harder, though, to appreciate the toll on human life that the industry around the deconstruction of giants takes on underdeveloped nations, which, unencumbered by such niceties as individual liberty and the Environmental Protection Agency, accept the corpses of unimaginable technological achievements for the purposes of an often very toxic repurposing. The opening eight-minute tracking shot of Manufactured Landscapes, pulling laterally across an infinite assembly plant somewhere in China (they're producing steam irons, I think, though it hardly matters), is humbling, but a moment later, it's revealed that the factory's work-force, carefully sorting through old scrap metal and transistors for reusable materials, has most likely been mortally contaminated by lead.
Burtynsky's photographs turn the ugly business of industrial waste into dazzling gestalts: patterns the eye makes into a kind of terrible, beautiful sense. The first reaction to a picture of several thousand abandoned microchips is that there's sense to it: the instinct is to try to understand the insect who created it. By putting a frame around waste, chaos, ruin, Burtynsky forces philosophy on it; and by exhibiting it in galleries in the middle of the affluence and privilege--the main benefactor of these wastelands--he forces irony on it. Then Baichwal comes with her own camera and set of invisible prejudices and artistic predilections and suddenly the true meaning of these pictures is hopelessly muddied by the layers of representation that separate us, the audience, from the subject. I'm reminded of Christian Frei's War Photographer, a documentary about another photographer, James Nachtwey--in particular, I'm reminded of how Frei captures a scene with his camera that we revisit later in the film through Nachtwey's stills, and of how Frei's and Nachtwey's documentation of the same events couldn't be more disparate upon critical consideration. Why film should be so much different from still photography--why watching an event unfold in real time buggers analysis while a snapshot of the same event is thick with critical throughways--is the type of question that serious defenders of art in any medium should be asking.
Manufactured Landscapes goes farther, however, because in choosing Burtynsky as its subject, it forces the viewer to consider more than the morality of taking photos of an Appalachian for the pity/piety of the Manhattan literati. You're forced to consider, for instance, that you're watching this film about several pieces of machinery, itself pressed/burned/developed by several other pieces of machinery, in the sort of material comfort afforded by the exploitation and waste documented by Baichwal and Burtynsky. The picture, in other words, questions its own existence. In so doing, Manufactured Landscapes also questions the means through which one assimilates data and, vitally, how film as a medium disseminates information. Not exactly entertainment, this is more like a master's course in critical theory. It's not a shock to learn that humans are badass evolutionary killing machines wired to thrive on the misery of others, but it is something of a shock to be confronted with the extent to which we fail to challenge our filters. Take the film's closing shots of a blasted Shanghai, wherein a woman with a red veil over her face cycles through the post-apocalyptic cityscape, challenging the very notion that there is a more "natural" environment for man.
There's a comfort with the presence of Baichwal's and Burtynsky's cameras--there's nothing anomalous about them and it's questionable that any of the people documented in the film have altered their behaviour appreciably for the camera's presence. Without the usual problems of representation provoked by the popular documentary fallacy (that it's Truth), the film offers the thornier suggestion that there might not be anything left "outside"--that Blade Runner's utopian "offworld" is as much the fantasy for us now as it was for that film's synthetic humans. The corollary to the title Manufactured Landscapes is that it's populated by manufactured people, something Baichwal hints at with aerial shots of beehive suburbia connected by miles of mousetrap overpasses--the saving grace of all that nihilism being that the film betrays a gratifying faith in the audience's agility. It's active viewership as the modern conduit to Descartes's notion of being human.
Six additional scenes (39 mins. total) launch the special features on Mongrel's excellent DVD release; each superfluous to Manufactured Landscapes, they nevertheless prove indispensable as supplements. Pictures of Wushan (drowned by the Three Gorges Dam), accompanied by commentary from Baichwal, are gorgeous and haunted and, in this format, provide a startling level of insight into Baichwal's process--which is, by and large, more green than I'm comfortable with, but when the results are this sticky it's hard to argue. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of the movie proper is startlingly sharp, oftentimes looking like HiDef; the DD 5.1 audio is similarly irreproachable. As an aside, an interview (5 mins.) with cinematographer Peter Mettler (also referred to as "Creative Consultant" in both the credits and his talking-head) gains particular fascination as Mettler speaks to a few of the challenges of the shoot and, moreover, to how the film was for him an opportunity to explore how his camera would respond to a director on one side and a photographer on the other. A conversation with Baichwal and Burtynsky (18 mins.) delves quickly into the philosophy of representation in what is ultimately a gratifying and too-short discussion, leaving me with the rare desire for a full-length yakker. Manufactured Landscapes' trailer rounds out the presentation. Originally published: May 4, 2007.