Earth and the American Dream
1992 Directed by Ching Sui Tung/raymond Lee. Starring Bridget Lin, Yu Rong Guang, Joey Wang.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 17, 1994
The dream is over, and Bill Couturié's provocative documentary about America's blithe destruction of its natural resources sounds the wake-up call. This ambitious film takes on the gargantuan topic of our country's cultural and intellectual history. (Couturié's previous documentaries include the acclaimed Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam and Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt.) Beginning with the arrival on these shores of Christopher Columbus, the movie examines the modes of thinking that got us into the ecological dead end we find ourselves in today. Not so much concerned with the mechanical practices employed throughout the centuries to strip the land of its natural wealth, the movie's aim is the discovery of the specific American attitudes and belief systems that implicitly foster such wholesale destruction. Conceivably, it is possible to halt individual practices like clear-cutting, strip-mining, buffalo massacres, nuclear generation, etc. But until we, as a people, alter our modes of thinking about our relationship with the earth, we will never shift course off the path of destruction. Thus, Earth and the American Dream examines the last 500 years of American culture for the roots of why the white settlers had such confidence in their dominion over the land, and the animals, and the Native Americans who inhabited it, and how they went forth and multiplied to such staggering degrees. Using photographic imagery culled from years of research, as well as newly shot footage for the years before cameras, the movie presents a chronological account of our ecological patterns. The soundtrack consists of well-chosen remarks from historical figures and observers from the likes of George Washington to Andrew Carnegie to Jacques Cousteau. Delivering these voice-overs are dozens of Hollywood personalities such as Edward Asner, Alec Baldwin, Ellen Burstyn, Mel Gibson, Dustin Hoffman, Jeremy Irons, Michael Keaton, Bette Midler and many, many more. It is a moving compilation which makes its points with great clarity. And no matter how many words you use, nothing is more devastating than the slowly panned image of a three-story-high mound of buffalo skulls. Another point the movie makes, though I'm not sure it's intentional, is that these destructive patterns of thinking are a white male purview. Of all the tens of quotes, only about half a dozen were from women. Most were from anonymous farm wives and the like; Rachel Carson was the only widely recognizable woman who was quoted. Also, most of the faces in the photographs and film clips are of white male Americans -- hunting, mining, and generally conquering the frontier. If Americans, as a whole, are to rewire our thinking, it is essential that we all share responsibility for our national inheritance.