by Memo Salazar
As we enter decade number two of the 21st Century, our cultural landscape is quite different than the one most of us grew up in. There’s plenty of kids under ten who can claim to have written, directed and edited their own movie these days — something almost inconceivable even to folks who just a few years ago thought themselves hip and on the cultural cutting edge. With that in mind, the advent of a new documentary in 2012 doesn’t really command the interest it once did. What subject hasn’t been discussed on camera yet?
At the same time, the influx of all this non-fiction media has made it impossible to ignore the simple fact that nothing is truly objective. History textbooks, award-winning newspapers — they all boil down to someone’s biased, fallible opinion. Michael Moore sort of blew this issue into our faces by pushing the idea of “documentary” to the extreme. There’s no doubt that his docs are basically op-ed pieces, but they also make you realize that so are the wonderful films of Albert Maysles, as much as he poo-poos Mr. Moore’s work. What you leave out of the frame, what you leave out of the edit, it all creates a version of reality rather than reality itself — one that reflects the filmmaker’s view. You can try to be objective and unobtrusive all you want, but you’re doomed to fail, no matter how much you try. In a time when not just the 6′o clock news but even the beloved New York Times are far from examples of journalistic integrity, people are left to figure out what “truth” is for themselves. Enter the internet, happy to provide you with as many articles as you need to back up your preconceived opinion, whether you be a liberal or conservative, and here we are — a world fragmented into a million variations of reality, each custom-made to fit our rarely-changing world-view. We can all sleep snugly knowing that our opinions have the weight of experts behind them, no matter what we believe.
So what does all this have to do with a movie about renewable resources?
“Switch” attempts to tackle an incredibly complicated puzzle and distill it into 100 minutes of entertaining and educational video. It’s an impossible task, but I have to admit, they do as good a job as I’ve ever seen of coming close to hitting that goal. I don’t know that a movie is the best way to learn and understand all these complex issues, but given that most people aren’t going to bother reading a hundred articles of data, “Switch” isn’t a bad second choice. It’s pretty conventional as far as its structure: you have your protagonist in the form of a congenial college professor/energy expert named Scott W. Tinker, who becomes your tour guide through the complicated world of energy resources. You set up your problem early: our current energy system is in trouble. We need a change. You explore the current Big Players: coal, gasoline, natural gas. You look at the alternatives: biofuel, solar power, wind energy, hydroelectricity. You throw in a couple of controversial players: hydrofracking, nuclear power. Mix it all together, give the viewer your conclusion, and then end on a positive “we can beat this!” note. It’s a tried-and-true formula, but it work — and to director Harry Lynch’s credit, “Switch” is incredibly clear in its distillation and deconstruction. Tinker’s narration is logical, understandable. When he interviews experts, he re-states what they just told us in clear ways to make sure we’re not lost. It makes you wish more documentaries were like that. “An Inside Job” is great on some levels, but how many folks could actually recite how the 2008 financial crisis unfolded after seeing that film? It was a lot of information, packed in much too densely, to really absorb. “Switch” manages to avoid this, and it provides a continuing educational resource in the form of its website to boot.
Let’s not forget the best part of the film, which is simply getting an inside look into all of these fascinating sources of energy. Think about everything you do, every day, including reading these very words, and realize that you’d be nowhere without these people and places making it all happen. The filmmakers went all over the globe and spoke to many, many experts who all graciously explained their role in the world of energy. The footage is shot well and intelligently — in short, the production is an A+ effort. Not to mention that this film is about as relevant to your life as a movie can get, even if most people aren’t aware of the energy miracles we’ve managed to create, or the potential energy disasters looming in our near future. Seeing what coal plants do, seeing the inside of some state-of-the-art nuclear power plants, it’s all very enlightening and educational. Sometimes the film falters a bit, as when our experts unconvincingly try to explain why the BP oil spill or the Fukuyama nuclear disaster could never happen at their plant, but these and other minor criticisms don’t overshadow the incredible job the film does at being coherent and complete in its task.
Which brings us back to the idea of objectivity. This energy crisis is completely our doing, a result of shortsighted politics and a desire to live beyond our means — but “Switch” tries very hard to avoid blame and remain unbiased and objective. No one is seen as a villain or a hero, and every solution carries its own set of problems that make it less than ideal. The film presents a future that will be different than today’s, but not better or worse — just different. If you don’t know better, and perhaps many people don’t, you leave the movie with a sense that you’ve just gone through an interesting intellectual exercise and nothing more — that’s the overall tone. But in trying to be so non-alarmist, the film actually ends up distorting the facts about this energy crisis. It makes references to CO2 gases and climate change without ever detailing the disastrous effects some of these possible energy solutions will pose. In fact, the film’s own conclusion is that the actual “tipping point” switch from fossil fuels to alternative energy sources will happen, gradually, in about half a century. I don’t argue with their math, and that prediction makes a lot of sense given how we live currently. But at that rate, pardon my French, we’re all quite fucked. I realize this is not supposed to be a political film, but you can’t get away from politics when you’re talking about this issue, no matter how middle-of-the-road you try to be. The erratic weather, brush fires, and droughts we’ve all been experiencing is just a taste of what is coming down the pike, even if we stopped all oil production today. As “Switch” makes perfectly clear, there’s no way we are stopping oil production today. In fact, even in 50 years, we’ll still be burning coal and gasoline — just not as much of it. The film pretty much ignores the ramifications of all the CO2 that will be released by their projected model. That’s their prerogative, but let’s be clear — they are presenting a point of view, and from my point of view, it’s an incredibly naive one in an age where we can’t afford such ignorance. Follow the logic of “Switch”’s projected conclusion, and daily life is going to get very, very ugly. Funny how nobody mentioned that.
The film ends with a call to action, encouraging the affluent West to start changing its energy tune today — but even here, the prodding is incredibly gentle. “Each of us should do our part — whatever we’re comfortable with,” Tinker tells us. Another expert claims “we’ve made a lot of changes at home without sacrificing our way of life!” That’s the real elephant in the energy room — the fact that Americans are not willing to live differently than they do now, even if it means their own doom. The film knows this, and rather than risking alienating its audience with the facts, it portrays an alternate America where people still live in big houses, have their big tv’s, and basically get to keep all the luxuries they have today — except that they drive to the supermarket in an electric golf cart and use CFL lightbulbs. This is, again, a hopelessly naive vision of the future. The fact is, the amount of energy we consume has to go down a significant amount if we’re going to dig ourselves out of the energy hole we’ve fallen into — and by “significant” I mean living a lifestyle most Americans will never willingly accept. Doing merely “what you are comfortable doing” is not going to be enough in a country where people already think they’re “green” because they recycle every so often. “Switch” does such a good job of showing the insane amounts of energy that we consume every day, it shoots itself in the foot when it tries to argue that everything’s going to be okay if we all pass the hat around and pitch in a couple of bucks. The filmmakers are correct in saying that this is only going to work if we all do our part, but in an attempt to appeal to mainstream America, they soften the blow and lose credibility. I’m sure their counter-argument is that it’s better to make a mostly-honest film people will want to watch than to make a genuinely-honest film that everyone will avoid — and they’re probably right in that sense. Still, when you’re dealing with what can easily be described as the greatest challenge in human history, that’s a pretty lame argument.
As the news media becomes more and more useless, films like “Switch” fill in the need to dissect and understand world issues in thoughtful, well-researched and critical ways. For the most part, “Switch” does a commendable job of that, especially given the gargantuan task it has set before itself. Our world runs on the backbone of a ridiculously complex energy system in which every human being is a player, and guiding us through that maze is a feat “Switch” deserves a lot of credit for. If it’s not a topic that catches your interest, then you haven’t been paying much attention to reality –it’s that simple. The filmmakers are far too polite to ever make that statement, so I’m happy to make it for them: we all need to become experts on this subject, and fast. “Switch” is a great way to start, and gently but firmly reminds you that, ultimately, the sequel to this film is in your hands. Maybe you should ride your bike to the theater and catch “Switch” as fast as you can.
Switch (USA/Qatar/France/Iceland/Norway/Denmark/India/Canada/Spain 2012)
Director: Harry Lynch
Not Rated, 98 minutes
(Opens in New York City on September 21, 2012.)