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by Eric Kohn
January 30, 2010 10:09 AM
2 Comments
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REVIEW | The Toxic Avenger: Josh Fox's "GasLand"

Josh Fox's "GasLand" is the paragon of first person activist filmmaking done right. Matching his perspective with a slew of infuriating case studies, Fox explores the influx of hydraulic fracturing (or "fracking"), a method of drilling natural gas that endangers the sanity of water supplies in the immediate vicinity. He has a vested interest in the dangers of such operations that goes far beyond the pure narcissism of mugging for the camera: A Philadelphia landowner, he expresses a credible fear for his safety. By grounding a massive environmental issue in its personal ramifications, Fox turns "GasLand" into a remarkably urgent diary of national concerns.

The bulk of the movie features the director as he travels around the country visiting numerous rural homes where the water boils and burns. Yes, burns: In a shockingly memorable scene, one of Fox's subjects puts a flame to his faucet and then leaps back in fright as a massive fireball bursts forth from his sink. But the problem goes far deeper than such visual gimmickry. Some gas-affected residents suffer brain damage; many can't even take a shower. Placing Dick Cheney's waivers for companies looking to evade the Clean Air and Water Acts at the center of the issue, Fox makes it clear that the financial interests of corporate America leave little room for the safety of the inhabitants left in the line of fire.

Despite his facade as a cocky 37-year-old with hip wireframe glasses, Fox actually makes a trenchant reporter. The scenes of his visitations to various afflicted homes grows redundant, but this dense middle section ultimately functions as an intentional repetitive device to hammer home the magnitude of the problem. His knowledgable sources fill in the essential details. A whistleblower from the Environmental Protection Agency throws up his hands. "We're not present as a government agency to answer your legitimate questions," he sighs.

But "GasLand" succeeds primarily because Fox never forgets that he's making a movie, not simply an argument. The director's last feature, a fake documentary about the human impulses behind Abu Ghraib called "Memorial Day," took a radical stab at deconstructing universal hedonistic impulses by juxtaposing American partying with wartime torture. He drops that sort of heavy-handed analogizing here in favor of cogent cinematic devices. Poetic chapter titles ("Throw Water on a Dragon Man") keep viewers intrigued by the conspiracy at hand, but Fox doesn't shy away from enforcing the bleak nature of his story through metaphor: Along with the the blazing water, another powerful scene involves the filmmaker playing a banjo while wearing a gas mask, while the drills sit ominously behind him.

Fox conducted enough research to turn "GasLand" into an important document for any community afflicted by fracking problems, but it has wider appeal because he manages to tackle an urgent issue without negating the importance of the individual. He lets eccentricities enshroud the facts so that the movie works on multiple levels. A woman stores dead animals that drank unsanitary water in her freezer, hoping to use them as evidence. Another source gives provides cosmic observations so that Fox doesn't have to impose them himself. "What took Mother Nature millions of years to build," the man says, "can be destroyed in a couple of hours with a piece of machinery." That conclusion adds sentimental weight to a practical problem, which gives "GasLand" its lasting impact. At the Sundance Film Festival screening I attended, a teary-eyed woman stood up at the Q&A and announced, "I'm just so concerned for all of us." That's because "GasLand," although it's a snapshot of our times, also suggests the nightmarish possibilities of the future.

2 Comments

  • Steve K. | February 14, 2013 9:58 AMReply

    A very important follow-up to this fawning, servile and not-very-well written piece is that "Gaslands" has been found after the fact to be frought with very large and very misleading distortions - a sad testament to the questionable ethics of its much-celebrated creator. The often described disturbing scene of "lighting the tap water on fire" is one of the biggest and most dishonest repeated riffs in the movie as naturally occuring methane in ground water has been a documented fact in Pennsylvania at least as far back as 1937. Indeed, in parts of Pennsyslvania, Maryland and other areas of the Northeast - "burning springs" and other similiar phenomena have been known to native Americans and colonists as far back as George Washington's time. Its just a phenomena that has never been exploited yet for its emotional pay off in quite the way Josh Fox has employed and has never before been blamed on - nor believed to be to be caused by gas industry drilling or other practices. Take a look at Josh Fox's reaction on a Youtube-aired speech in Chicago, I believe - when he is confronted with this red-handed distortion publically. There has been also a lot of distortion in the movie and in the press implying that "the State of Pennsylvannias lack of oversight of the gas industry" which again - even by the standards of a 3rd party auditor considered the state's oversight of gas industry to be stringent - especially considering the state issued over 1400 hundred fines and levies to the industry in recent years. You aren't going to hear or see anything like these type of dry, but unassailable facts in the works of Josh Fox. He is more interested in the emotional payoff and this "artistic choice" has come at the expense of what little integrity he had in the first place.

  • Kenneth Ward | July 16, 2011 1:51 AMReply

    On July 13, 2011, I picked up Josh Fox in my taxi and took him to Denver International Airport. He told me his name was Roma. Josh tried to pay the cab fare with a credit card in yet a third name. The card was declined and Josh bolted from my cab into the airport. I was not paid for the $34.00 cab fare. In Colorado non-payment of the cab fare is considered theft. Josh Fox is a liar and a thief.