Zeitgeist Films // 2007 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // December 2nd, 2007
Pulling beauty from the world's industrial wastelands.
Edward Burtynsky has gained international recognition for his photographs of what he calls manufactured landscapes. He argues that we have reached past the point now where we are at the mercy of the environment -- our planet now lives and dies at our mercy. This is not meant to be a frightening concept, though many of the images are sobering. Instead, these images show the new responsibility that we have for the world. Our economic and architectural decisions are changing the world in more ways than one.
Manufactured Landscapes tells the story of these images, and how Burtynsky came to be so fascinated with the concept of human design. It follows a recent photo shoot in China, showing us a glimpse of what it's like behind the scenes for a famous photographer in action.
There's no question that Burtynsky's photographs are fascinating, for everyone from art enthusiasts to environmental lobbyists. They are fascinating images, a world made simultaneously beautiful and ugly by the involvement of human production. The focus on China is interesting, because the industrial growth there is quickly reaching a scale that's never before been seen. As the nation of billions becomes the home of vast urban centers, our resources will become more taxed than ever before in the history of the world. We enjoy the benefits of Chinese mass production, but we rarely get a truly good look at what it's like there.
Of course, I'm not really reviewing the pictures here. While we get to see some of these, this is a film documentary, and it is slightly less successful. There are fascinating segments here, but the finished product feels almost tossed together -- which is strange considering the incredible detail demonstrated in the pictures themselves. Manufactured Landscapes begins with a long panning shot of a gigantic factory that seems to never end. It is an interesting shot, and one that brilliantly captures the tone and goal of Burtynsky's work.
After this shot is over, however, the documentary becomes significantly less exciting. The rest of the film feels more like a production featurette for his photography, rather than an exploration into the nature of his work. There are occasional awe-inspiring moments, but the moving footage of China lacks the immediacy and potency of the images of themselves. He is a master at capturing single moments and perspectives, and the moving camera does break some of that illusion. At some moments, the footage of Burtynsky taking the pictures actually damages the magic of the pictures themselves. When we finally see the images themselves, they are breathtaking, or at least as breathtaking as possible considering the low resolution of the DVD format. We are trapped with this format, squinting to make out the details that would come alive with either Burtynsky's book or the chance to visit one of the galleries. Because of the nature of the documentary itself, we are robbed of the greatest pleasure of the pictures: their massive resolution and attention to detail. Manufactured Landscapes never breaks out of this limitation as a teaser for something better in another format.
That said, those who are already fans of the pictures and have had a chance to see them as they are meant to be seen will probably relish the chance to hear Burtynsky talk about the images and what he was trying to accomplish with them. At times, it's like being taken on a guided tour with the artist himself, an opportunity that few gallery visitors get. While the documentary never transcends its own limitations, it offers a very clear and unique look at the environmental issues dealing with China and the world in general. Had it spent more time focusing on this aspect, I think it would have turned out much better. Still, it's a film worth investigating, if only for the opportunity to see what so few of us have had the chance to see.
Fortunately, the disc has been well-produced. The image quality is generally excellent, though does show a fair amount of grain and noise in some sequences. Still, the quality is good enough that we can see these stunning scenes clearly. The sound is fine, delivered in a 5.1 track that keeps the dialogue in the center channel, using the front sound stage for ambient noise and music. The real value of the disc, though, is in the special features. There is a photo gallery of Burtynsky's images, which also has a commentary track with explanations from the artist. It's at least as interesting as the documentary itself, if not more so. In the end, it highlights the biggest problem with the film: it's simply can't be as interesting as the subject itself. There are also deleted scenes, promotional footage, a conversation between Burtynski and director Jennifer Baichwal, and an interview with the cinematographer. Zeitgeist has certainly pulled all the stops for this disc, and the results are impressive. Documentaries rarely get this kind of treatment.
Manufactured Landscapes offers a wonderful new voice on environmental issues. It is not simply an assault on the recent changes to the world. Instead, it shows the awesome power of humanity's impact on the world, both the good and the bad. It's an art collection well worth exploring, and this film does the best job it possibly can. Not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2007 Joel Pearce; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes
* Film Festival Footage
* Photo Gallery with Commentary
* Video Discussion
* Official Site