Material hazard: the documentary ‘Plastic Planet’
ASPEN – One of the great scenes in “The Graduate” was when Mr. McGuire put his arm around Benjamin Braddock, and told him he had one word for the recent college graduate. The word was “plastics,” and it was viscerally ominous – a call to Benjamin that adulthood had arrived, that he had better prepare himself for a future of business suits, responsibility and boredom. No more floating.Oh, that really was a time of innocence (as Simon & Garfunkel, who created the soundtrack to “The Graduate,” would later put it). If only plastics still represented such trifling matters as the end of childhood, the end of imagination. These days, plastics is the harbinger of the truly serious stuff – cancer, irreversible environmental and biological catastrophe, death.Yes, the scenario painted by Werner Boote in “Plastic Planet” is that grim. Plastic is everywhere, it’s hazardous to Earth and its inhabitants, and it ain’t going away.Really and truly, it’s not going anywhere. Plastic is so ubiquitous, it’s impossible to imagine life without it. In a set of scenes that serve as connecting threads in this globe-hopping film, Boote has people in Japan, the U.S. and an Indian slum empty their homes of all plastic products, and pile the plastic out front. In each case they marvel: They never imagined how thoroughly plastic had replaced wood, metal, glass and paper to become the dominant material of our existence. (Stop, look around your immediate vicinity, and take account of the sea of plastic around you. Possibly the one product in your midst that isn’t plastic is the newspaper in your hands. Hooray for newsprint!) Perhaps worse still is that all this plastic, inorganic substance that it is, isn’t going away – it doesn’t break down, it doesn’t mix with dirt and get processed by microscopic creatures and eventually melt harmlessly into the earth. Plastic is fantastically durable stuff, and much of it ends up, flattened but hardly gone, on roadsides, in gutters and in landfills. An ungodly amount of it finds its way into something known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or the Gyre – an expanse of plastic-strewn ocean that is estimated to be twice the size of Texas.And now, the really bad news. Plastic doesn’t break down – OK, it does, in about 500 years – but it does break apart. Plastic devolves into smaller and smaller bits, called polymers. These building blocks of plastic get into the food chain – fish are especially susceptible to swallowing them, mistaking them for food – and eventually into the things that eat fish. Like people, for instance. Avoiding consumption of fish might help, but polymers also escape into the air, into the water we drink. And finally into the horrific: As a fleet of scientists testify in “Plastic Planet,” this stuff, made from petroleum and chemicals, is really bad for us. The worst of plastics, known as phthalates, they tell us, cause cancer and asthma, and, because they mimic the hormone estrogen, some cause even stranger bodily mishaps – man-boobs, infertility, malfunctioning sperm.”Plastic Planet” includes a quick visit to an Italian company that makes a plastic alternative out of biomass. Even for the most optimistic, though, this is a barely visible glimmer of hope, as the company owners acknowledge there is little hope of scaling up to compete with plastic.Another topic raised, but given little attention, is the idea that plastic might be the lesser of evils. It is pointed out that plastic is far lighter than alternatives like glass, thus easier to ship, thus reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. Might not this be a beneficial trade-off?The Austrian-born Boote, whose grandfather was a prominent figure in the plastics industry, is a big and serious man. He is not generally threatening or manipulative, but occasionally goofy – he has a habit of smelling plastic, a scent that transports him back to his childhood. In “Plastic Planet,” the camera follows him around the world, and he lets the experts – doctors, scientists, people in the plastics trade – do most of the speaking. The film even lands in Paonia, Colo., to hear from a plastic critic. Boote doesn’t hide his anti-plastic agenda – those who caution against plastic are given more time, and treated with greater respect – but the documentary comes off as well-researched and important in the issues raised.Two of Boote’s confrontations stand out. One is when he finally is invited inside a facility where plastic is manufactured – in Japan. But there was a misunderstanding, and when it is learned that Boote is a filmmaker – not a customer, as had been assumed – he is sealed off from the operations end of the plant. Turns out that the plastics industry is intensely secretive, and even the companies that buy plastic may be unaware of what exactly is contained in the products they purchase.Perhaps the heart of the film are the several encounters with John Taylor, head of a European plastics trade association. By film’s end, at a trade show, Taylor is ducking the camera – it’s Boote taking the Michael Moore route.But earlier in the film, in a more agreeable moment, Taylor reveals that he cannot say for sure that plastics are entirely safe. Instead, he says he has to trust – trust that government regulations will ensure the public safety.Taylor squirms as he says this; there’s no hiding his pro-plastic prejudices. But the truth may be that Taylor’s view reflects that of most people. We trust that our computer keyboards aren’t really lethal, and that the bottle of pop we’re drinking isn’t quite as dangerous as Boote makes it out to be. Each of us trusts that we won’t be the one who is especially sensitive to phthalates and develops cancer as a result.And we’ll keep on using plastic, trusting we haven’t made a deal with the devil.
“Plastic Planet” shows Tuesday and Wednesday, April 26-27, at the Wheeler Opera House.
• “Blue Valentine” (May 8-9): Writer-director Derek Cianfrance, a graduate of the CU, Boulder film school, dismisses all artifice in this potent, difficult story of faded romance. Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling are exceptional, unforgettable.• “Inside Job” (May 10-11): Director Charles Ferguson earned the Best Documentary Oscar for this lucid, emotional dissection of the economic crisis.• “The Music Never Stopped” (May 14-15): Based on an actual case study, this sad but tender film chronicles a father (J.K. Simmons) and son navigating through brain injury and the past. Their primary guide is a soundtrack of Grateful Dead and Beatles, that is prominent in the film.• “Of Gods and Men” (May 18-20): A group of Christian monks live peacefully in a Muslim community in North Africa, until the outside violently intrudes in this Cannes prize-winner.• “Heartbeats” (May 21-22): From 22-year-old French-Canadian director Xavier Dolan comes a stylish drama about an unusually complex, intense romantic triangle.• “Queen of the Sun” (May 25-26): Another environment-related documentary rendered in ominous tones; here, director Taggart Siegel tackles colony collapse disorder, which is decimating bee colonies.• “The Way Back” (May 27-29): Director Peter Weir’s heavy drama about a group of World War II prisoners escaping Siberia and trekking over the Himalayas stars Ed Harris and Colin Farrell.• “Certified Copy” (June 7-9): This French romance stars Juliette Binoche as a woman who meets a stranger, strikes up a quick romance, then watches the relationship take imaginative turns.• “The Red Shoes” (June 10-12): A 1948 ballet classic, focusing on both what happens on-stage and behind the curtains, has been restored, and shows in a 35mm print.All Wheeler Films show at 7:30 p.m. Films scheduled for Saturdays and Sundays have an additional 4:30 p.m. matinee.
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