The Age Of Stupid Film Analysis Essay
Franny Armstrong's low-budget climate change documentary is sometimes scrappy. Some may find its sci-fi premise annoying: Pete Postlethwaite plays the last guy alive in a post-apocalyptic, climate-fried world, introducing a preserved video archive of news clips and interviews filmed way back in the first decade of the 21st century. He muses sorrowfully on how humankind could have been so stupid, ignoring the environmental warning signs. Now, I've got to be quite honest and say that I found this concept a touch annoying and teenagery sometimes, and The Age of Stupid does not have the focus and weight of Al Gore's outstanding An Inconvenient Truth. I must also register the point on which I timidly dissent from my colleague, George Monbiot: the practice of calling those who dispute climate change "deniers" - do they have to be tarred with a Nazi brush?
Yet the passion, urgency and punch of this rough-and-ready film is real enough. It's refreshing too. The cinema and its attendant media-comment industry appear to have endless space for every sort of smoothly mediocre irrelevancy in fact and fiction. There should be room for an essay on the most screamingly important problem that we all now face.
Armstrong's wide-ranging film pulls together a disparate collection of witnesses, including a robustly unrepentant oil executive in New Orleans, who is nonetheless shown becoming reflective after Katrina destroyed everything he owned - seeing how political incompetence and inaction can usher in disaster.
The film's most intriguing section deals with the ferocious and acrimonious battle in this country centring on wind farms. This is a battle that the climate-change protesters are losing, because opponents in the shires have mobilised a formidable activist army of their own, and they're objecting on environmental grounds: that the windmills are a massive eyesore. Armstrong has one exquisitely horrible moment when a haughty anti-wind farm woman sneeringly corrects her opponent for using the word "additive" when he means "additional": a fenceline moment of political warfare if ever there was one. But how to win this argument? Like it or not, the anti-wind farmers are assuming the underdog-protest cachet. Yet would they be allowed to prevail against dozens of new nuclear reactors - Gordon Brown's favoured approach to the problem?
The Age of Stupid, like other activist documentaries, may face putdowns from those who find it insufficiently sophisticated or consensual. But it deserves a hearing. To mangle a well-known phrase: Rome is burning and Franny Armstrong is fiddling the right tune.
The title of the documentary The Age of Stupid refers to the era of the audience. According to the filmmakers, we are wasteful to the point of self-destruction, and the opportunity to prevent our society’s suicide has almost passed. More than in most environmental documentaries, blame is focused on individuals. Sure, oil companies contribute to global warming, but The Age of Stupid makes the people it follows key agents in the big picture of global warming.
As in Traffic or Crash, director Franny Armstrong shows us six stories of people across the globe who embody painful contradictions, and whose lives are somewhat interlinked. How funny, her film seems to say, that an oil geologist could save one hundred people from Hurricane Katrina, without acknowledging that his own work produced carbon emissions that caused the extreme weather. Or that a Nigerian woman, the victim of pollution and poverty caused by a nearby oil operation, covets the belongings and life of Americans, the byproducts of which make her own life miserable. These connections can be dizzying, but, unfortunately for the film, they muddle the argument against global warming by making these people’s struggles too human, their offenses too understandable.
The Age of Stupid provides a lot of examples, but leaves its thesis implicit. Armstrong acknowledges that in the first cut of the film, “Only people obsessed with climate change could understand all our subtle links.” The problem is not entirely solved. The movie opens with a segment featuring an entrepreneur of a low-cost jet start-up in India. You can tell you’re meant to despise this person’s actions, but the documentary does not give good evidence to back up this position until much later. Even then, it rushes over or omits the reasons why flying is so bad for the environment. Clearly, the movie is meant to be seen by people who are already well-versed and convinced of the various repercussions of global warming. With its small-scale release in the United States, it might not matter that the film hasn’t bothered to persuade the less environmentally aware. They wouldn’t have bought tickets anyway.
Indeed, the most clever and solution-oriented part of the film is its production. Using “crowd-sourced” financing by environmentally sympathetic groups, the project was able to raise £450,000. The producers also reduced crew costs by giving them shares to supplement their reduced wages. In the closing credits, the filmmakers enumerate the carbon footprint created by the film, compiling a list with items like “48 flights, 124,000 miles, 68,100 Kg CO2”. The distribution, too, will occur through a live simulcast to over 400 theatres and guests bicycling to the premiere. This innovative financing and distribution may generate that communal feeling that spurs people into action, something the movie itself does not entirely achieve. Instead of being inspired, viewers may leave the theatre feeling overwhelmed, as though they should never fly, buy a pair of shoes, or use oil-produced plastic again.
The depressing weight of individual responsibility is made dire by the framing story, which is set in the environmental post-apocalypse of 2055. Pete Postlethwaite, playing a survivor, introduces each story as a cautionary tale dredged up from the fictional Global Archives, showing us the inaction that led up to the Earth’s destruction. From this neat graphical interface, we’re also treated to explanatory montages using archival footage, as well as animated segments. However, the style of animation and narration does not match from segment to segment, furthering the feeling of disconnection between the stories.
For those who are environmentally minded, The Age of Stupid is a worthy reminder of one’s responsibility to protect our environment. Statements like “We gorge ourselves on hundreds of years of sunlight [stored in fossil fuel] every year” provide moments of shocking clarity. But these moments are few and far between. The documentary could have benefited from a more compact and message-oriented approach, like that of An Inconvenient Truth. What it shows us, though, is perhaps more real: a messy, complicated picture of global warming, a problem with no easy solution.