Directed by Laura Dunn. (2007, NR, 88 min.)
REVIEWED By Josh Rosenblatt, Fri., March 28, 2008
In August 1992 a battle was raging for the soul of Austin, Texas. In one corner, weighing 100 pounds soaking wet and wearing tie-dyed T-shirts, stood the environmentalists: good-natured activists and community organizers out to save the city’s “spiritual center,” Barton Springs, from degradation. In the other corner, weighing countless tons and clad in black hats, stood the developers: corporations like strip miners Freeport McMoRan, their lawyers and their lobbyists, and – most prominently – developer Gary Bradley, a former farm boy who would grow up to become arguably the most reviled man in Austin. Together, these groups waged a war over what kind of town Austin was to become – hippie paradise or capitalist playground; sleepy artists' town or suburban monstrosity – and over the whole nature of American capitalism and Texas identity. At the heart of Dunn’s first full-length documentary – which is part history lesson and part anthropological study, part geological survey and part nature special (complete with profoundly gorgeous views of the Springs and other Austin landmarks shot in the style of the film’s co-executive producer Terrence Malick) – lies Bradley, who came to Austin from the wilds of West Texas in the 1970s, the product of a world where nature, like God, is the source of both abundance and destruction. Upon arriving in his new home, this defiant, ambitious young man from the flatlands looked out over the landscape, with its exotic trees and endless water sources, and saw a world he could – at long last – control. He imagined Austin as a “clean canvas” upon which he would paint his masterpiece, using maps as his brushes and buildings, sewer lines, and highways as his palette. It must take a very peculiar kind of mind to see the building of subdivisions and shopping malls as an act of creativity, and it’s to Dunn’s credit that she takes the time to understand such a mind. Forgoing partisanship, she resists the temptation to demonize Bradley, instead looking at him as a full man – full of contradictions and pain, full of boldness and arrogance – rather than just a one-dimensional heel. Building out from Bradley, she uses underwater shots of the springs, chiaroscuro footage of the vast West Texas countryside (courtesy of local cinematographer Lee Daniel), expert scientific analysis, and interviews with some of the era’s most important players (including former Texas Gov. Ann Richards and development lobbyist Marshall Kuykendall) and others (co-executive producer Robert Redford speaks of learning to swim as a child in Barton Springs) to tell a story that pushes front and center the conflicts that have come to define the American social identity: private property vs. community rights, individual liberties vs. corporate responsibility, growth vs. nature. The result is an expansive and ambivalent testament to human ingenuity, human intransigence, and nature’s endangered yet enduring power to move.