Hope and solutions drive MountainSummit festival in Aspen
August 24, 2011
ASPEN – No sooner was Chris Paine’s first documentary, 2006’s “Who Killed the Electric Car?” released, than he had to reconsider the premise of the film – that, through the malevolence of automakers, the greed of Big Oil, the short-sightedness of consumers, and the compromised state of American government, the plug had been pulled on the electric car. While “Who Killed the Electric Car?” was laying out a fairly fascinating corporate/governmental/ environmental mystery for filmgoers, there were stirrings that the electric car, like a creature in a horror movie, was about to rise again. Paine heard rumors that General Motors was reviving its program. Tesla Motors, an independent Silicon Valley start-up, was charging ahead with plans to build a fast, stylish electric car. Paine’s next-door neighbor, a tinkerer named Greg “Gadget” Abbott, was replacing gas-burning engines in standard cars with battery packs.Paine saw he needed to make a quick U-turn: “We thought we might be able to catch an about-face in the car industry,” the 50-year-old said from his home in Culver City, Calif.”Revenge of the Electric Car,” which shows on Thursday, Aug. 25, opening night at the Wheeler Opera House’s MountainSummit festival, has a different trajectory than its predecessor. The film follows Bob Lutz, no one’s idea of a rabble-rouser – he’s a vice president at GM – as he talks about his dedication to the Volt, a car designed to run largely on electricity. Elon Musk, a Tesla founder, talks brashly about what the Tesla will be capable of, as the earliest models roll out of the factory. Perhaps most significantly, Carlos Ghosn, the Nissan CEO renowned for a focus on the bottom line, puts his company in the electric race with the Leaf, aimed for the mass-market buyer. The story downshifts for some tense moments as the financial collapse clobbers the auto industry, but “Revenge of the Electric Car” ends with a flurry of good news – which is especially good news for Paine, who didn’t care to be seen merely as the gloomy activist.”It’s a story about momentum, and how change actually happens,” said Paine, whose parents were involved in the open-space movement in northern California. “We know how change stops – the boot comes down, opposition is crushed. I see that a lot in the activist movement. But this is a story of mavericks, about innovation. I didn’t want to be the guy who has one story, about how change gets stopped. If we all believe that, we’re not going to get anywhere.”Paine, who will participate in a post-screening discussion Thursday, notes that even the National Resources Defense Council, which has had misgivings about the fact that electric cars are fueled, in part, by burning coal, has come out in support of cars powered by batteries. He sees consensus building behind the technology.”There is where the system kind of works,” Paine, who is considering a film about bicycle commuting for his next project, said. “If you have pressure coming – and here the pressure was $4 a gallon gas, and auto companies with no product to sell people – things can move pretty quickly.”
The combination of looking hard at a grave issue and coming up with possible solutions, makes “Revenge of the Electric Car” an ideal film for MountainSummit. The festival, an offshoot of Mountainfilm in Telluride, has seen booming growth in its two years; attendance last year doubled, to more than 2,500, from its first year. Gram Slaton, executive director of the Wheeler Opera House, believes it is the hopeful tone that has given MountainSummit such traction.”The subject matter is often serious,” Slaton said. “But it’s how it’s presented, the vibe of the festival is not down and depressing. It’s, How can we fix it and let’s get a dialogue going?”The opportunity to delve into subjects seems also to have engaged the audience. “Usually, you go to the theater, you walk out and it’s over,” Lauren Pierce, marketing coordinator of the Wheeler, said. “Here, you see the movie, you hear the Q&A, and you continue the conversation. It’s a whole experience, and we find people ride the train the whole way.”Among the topics to be addressed at MountainSummit include how the waters of the Colorado River are being used (“Chasing Water,” by Basaltine Peter McBride); human contentment (“Happy,” directed by Roko Belic and produced by MountainSummit regular Tom Shadyac, director of “I Am”); the morality of eco-terrorism (“If a Tree Falls”); 9/11 widows (“From the Ground Up”); and the civil rights movement (“The Barber From Birmingham”). On the lighter side is “Magic Trip,” about ’60s icons Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, and the school bus they drove to the 1964 Worlds Fair in New York City. A pair of morning coffee talks will be moderated by Shadyac in the Wheeler lobby.
MountainSummit runs Thursday through Sunday, Aug. 25-28, at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House.