The Age of Stupid
by Chuck Tryon — Fayetteville State University
September 22, 2009 – 10:48
It’s impossible to review Franny Armstrong’s fascinating and persuasive hybrid documentary about climate change, The Age of Stupid (IMDB), without also talking about the distribution and promotional practices that have shaped its reception. In an impressive achievement for word-of-mouth, low-budget marketing, the film was distributed to over 500 theaters worldwide in over 45 countries in a live-via-solar-powered-satellite premiere that attracted over one million viewers (according to estimates reported by the filmmakers). As I mentioned the other day, the filmmakers sought to leverage social media tools not only to build an audience but to create a movement around climate change. And although I learned about The Age of Stupid relatively late–just a day or two before its premiere–the screening in Raleigh was certainly well attended, suggesting that the campaign generally worked, at least in terms of getting audiences in the door.
The film itself used a relatively innovative hybrid documentary structure in which Pete Postlethwaite plays what seems to be a lone surviving human living in the year 2055 who has assembled an archive of all of the great works of art, literature, and culture in a giant library somewhere near the Arctic Circle, now turned into a tropical beach-front setting. The archivist navigates a series of documentary news clips, using an invisible touchscreen imposed between him and the viewer, in some sense directing the movie, as he seeks to make sense of how the world allowed climate change to continue unabated until the planet itself became virtually uninhabitable.
The Archivist toggles between four or five primary stories, one focusing on the efforts of Piers Guy, a UK-based windfarm developer who faces opposition to one of his windfarms because local residents worry about having their view tarnished and express concern about noise pollution. Others include a Shell employee, who despite seeing his home destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, steadfastly defends his employers practices, and a mountain guide who observes the receding glaciers in the Alps Mountains where he has lived much of his life. A young Nigerian woman who dreams of becoming a doctor, discusses how oil company practices have led to polluted water and increases in water-borne illness. The approach here seems significantly different than the Al Gore lecture model seen in An Inconvenient Truth, although like that film, it proceeds in part through mechanisms of identification, especially with Guy and his family.
The overall effect is to illustrate, in part, that climate change is a global problem and one that deeply effects ordinary people while also emphasizing the ways in which others, often while juxtaposing them against others who seem oblivious about the effects of climate change on the planet, including one well-intentioned Indian executive who seeks to create a low-cost airline that will allow poor people to fly rather than travel by train. In places, this opposition could have been more carefully established, and quite often the assertion that global warming is happening is asserted anecdotally, rather than through scientific reasoning, but The Age of Stupid seems to be after something a little different by trying to make sense of one central question, expressed by The Archivist: Why, when the science seems so obvious, did we let this happen? In other words, why were/are we so stupid, especially when all of the science was there? The Archivist solemnly concludes not that we didn’t believe climate change, but that we believed we weren’t worth saving. It’s a somber thought and one that might have worked better had the film offered more evidence to support it or had it explored the topic a little more carefully.
The film’s premiere, timed to an important environmental conference held September 22 at the United Nations, seemed well-suited to shape the conversation about climate change and to regain the sense of urgency that seems to have been lost in the years following the release of Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth, and the post-movie discussion featured short speeches by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, among others, designed to underscore the need for serious reduction in carbon emissions. That being said, Armstrong and others seemed, at moments, a little too caught up in the sense of urgency set up by the film and the context of a massive premiere to communicate clearly how to change the course, and quite often, the climate change talks to held in Copenhagen later this year seemed to be set up as an all-or-nothing proposition. A more explicit endorsement of the 10:10 proposal, the plan to encourage consumers to cut their carbon emissions by the year 2010 (to name one example), might have helped.
Still, The Age of Stupid offers, one level, new ways of thinking about the ways in which the networked documentary can be used to advocate for social issues and, more broadly, it offers one enticing model for new models of film distribution, as Jon Reiss has recently argued in The Huffington Post. It may be a slight exaggeration to say that The Age of Stupid is “the future of film;” however, as Reiss points out, the film illustrates a number of key points regarding digital distribtion and the use of social networking as a promotional tool. First, Reiss is correct to note that theatrical screenings can still serve as an important part of independent or DIY distribution, especially with more theaters converting to digital projectors. That being said, it’s less clear whether these “event” screenings will work for all (or most) indie films, especially given the timeliness of the subject matter in Stupid. Second, his reading of the role of NGOs and other organizations in promoting Stupid seems right to me. They are crucial not only to helping the film find an audeince but also in shaping its meaning for the audiences who saw it. It is, in short, a movie about a much larger conversation, and one that has significant global implications.