July 18th, 2013
It ain’t that simple. It just ain’t, despite what filmmaker Josh Fox (“Gasland”) wants you to believe as he feeds red meat to his ravenous followers. Andy Revkin says the issue of fracking needs to be viewed through “the prism” of complexity, which is the same message the Breakthrough Institute guys have been saying. Neither of them are saying they love fracking or love the companies doing the mining. But the anti-fracking movement is so “villain hungry” they don’t care. And by the way, this is the same dynamic I talked about two weeks ago with David H. Freedman’s brave article about the “Pollanites.” All of which tracks back to P.J. O’Rourke’s landmark 1990 Rolling Stone essay warning about movements who feel they have “found the devil in our society” — it is when you start to hear that level of certainty from the witch hunters that you should start to get worried. I advocate simplicity in storytelling, yet simultaneously warn about it when it comes to the truth. It is possible to do both — tell simple, yet true stories. You just have to be brave enough to endure the unpopularity of it.
“YOU’RE PUTTING US TO SLEEP.” Of all the rude comments — the Hamptons Film Festival should apologize to everyone for the rudeness of their audience members who shouted this at Andy Revkin as he was trying to engage in just a few of the details of the fracking issue. Look, I wrote the “Don’t Be Such A Scientist,” book — I know when panelists are being overly informational, all too well. He wasn’t. The purpose of the panel was to discuss fracking, Andy wasn’t even close to getting lost in the details. But their audience members were obnoxious.
“Your story is only as good as your villain is evil.”
Everyone should take that to heart, and keep it in mind as they listen to the storytelling of populist voices like Josh Fox, Michael Moore and even Morgan Spurlock. These are filmmakers who thoroughly bastardized the term “documentary,” as they have ridden huge waves of popularity based on their ability to tell simple stories that have at their heart, clear villains. Whether it’s McDonald’s (“Supersize Me“), heartless corporations (“Roger and Me“), or the fracking industry (“Gasland“).
One of the best courses I had in film school at U.S.C. was Script Analysis from the legendary Frank Daniel who started the screenwriting program at Columbia before moving to U.S.C. When he died, David Lynch spoke at his funeral. He was amazing.
And this was one of his central principles he told us numerous times — “Your story is only as good as your villain is evil.” Which means that if you want to tell a powerful and compelling story, you need to find a simple villain, then paint a picture of that villain that is as evil, cynical, vile and vicious as possible. You want to see how ridiculously powerful this principle is, just look at the KONY 2012 campaign last year where school kids (with their limited critical skills) decided African war lord Joseph Kony was the most evil thing ever created as they ran the Kony video on Youtube up to record numbers of views in record time like nothing anyone had ever seen (then quickly lost interest as their movement leader ran naked masturbating in the streets of San Diego, for real).
Josh Fox is riding a tidal wave of popularity by doing similar vilification. He has found his villain, which is the process of natural gas mining known as fracking.
A couple weeks ago NY Times blogger Andy Revkin joined he and Alec Baldwin and some journalism dude (who was full of vacuous, uncritical sycophancy for Josh Fox) for a panel discussion at the Hamptons Film Festival.
Alec Baldwin actually can do no wrong (he is charismatic, funny at times, and to be admired for the depth of his commitment to major issues), Andy tried to speak the truth (but they seemed to give him a defective microphone, at least for the video), and Josh Fox is riding such a popularity surge he can afford to just be smug.
THE VILLAINS: FRACKING AND PROCESSED FOODS
I can’t really recommend watching the entire video (though I did) — probably just a few minutes gets the general idea across. But what I think is important is to see the parallels between the two journalists David H. Freedman and Andy Revkin, whom I think are on the same largely unpopular path of seeking the complicated truth in these issues.
Two weeks ago I wrote at length about David’s article on the snobbishness of the “wholesome foods” movement. His article was pilloried by bloggers at Forbes, Mother Jones, Salon and elsewhere. The Forbes blogger called him “racist” (which is just silly).
The problem both of these guys face is the idea of trying to fly in the face of a broadly popular “narrative.” For Freedman it’s the idea that processed foods are just plain evil. For Revkin it’s the idea that fracking is just plain evil.
All I’m trying to say here, and encourage among the public, is an awareness of these simple, inescapable human failings due to the storytelling nature of our brains. We like a good, simple story. We like good, simple villains. We are susceptible to this.
But for both of these issues, these two brave journalists are just trying to say, “It ain’t that simple.”
Which is the real truth.
BEWARE THE SIMPLE STORYTELLERS (like disgraced science writer Jonah Lehrer, telling simple stories of neuroscience that weren’t true, or even famed evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould who eventually fudged his data for part of his masterwork, “The Mismeasure of Man” — it is definitely a human failing, fed by popularity).