*. When I first saw Manufactured Landscapes ten or so years ago I was impressed by the photography but thought it an awkward film. I wondered if it was about Edward Burtynsky or about his subject matter: the impact of industrialism on the environment. There’s no reason it can’t be about both, and it is, but it has trouble being about both in any depth.
*. Thus we see flashes of Burtynsky at work and hear his voice, but we don’t find out much about him or his attitude toward either his art or the industrial reshaping of the planet. He is deliberately (and I think, like most artists, wisely) quiet on the matter of his intentions and reluctant to offer up interpretations of his own work. And while what we see is eye-opening (Chinese factories, a ship-wrecking flat in Bangladesh, the building of the Three Gorges Dam), we don’t really learn much about the environmental issues involved since the emphasis is all on the images and not on any information in the form of voiceover or interviews.
*. Another awkwardness of the “neither this nor that”: it’s a movie made about a still photographer. So it’s film shoots of photo shoots, but we never really feel as though we’re seeing much “behind the scenes.” How did Burtynsky select these locations? What went into decisions like the perspective and framing of particular shots? Jennifer Baichwal’s director’s commentary fills you in a lot more on the political issues of shooting in China at the time, but that’s not part of the movie.
*. I’m happy to say though that re-watching it today I was more impressed, and none of this bothered me as much. The basic point is pretty clearly illustrated: that twenty-first century industrialization is a nightmare, creating a hell on earth. It’s hard to imagine people living like this. I’ve worked on a factory floor and to call it soul-destroying isn’t even the half of it. Watching piece-work being done here I couldn’t help thinking how this just isn’t something our species was meant for. We evolved to do this?
*. I also had to think of Adam Smith: “The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.”
*. Except I wouldn’t want to say stupid. What I’d say is bored. The manufactured landscapes here recall another voice, that of Günter Grass in The Tin Drum. In that novel the cement pillboxes that are part of the German Atlantic wall defence system are seen by their creator as works of art (called Structural Oblique Formations), and perhaps the only works of genius of the twentieth century. They come with the subtitle Barbaric, Mystical, Bored. Another character, on hearing this, says “you have given our century its name.”
*. Burtynsky has an eye for this same aesthetic, and the structural oblique formations of mass industry. It’s not so much a movie about man interacting with nature (as Burtynsky says in the intro), because nature feels non-existent here, or is just there to be dug up and shit on. Instead, nature is that massive factory floor we dolly through in the nine-minute opening shot. The “Factory of the World” is what it’s called, and the workers later assemble outside for a group photo that not even Fritz Lang could have imagined. And while the apocalyptic vision of Metropolis has been expanded exponentially, for the workers it’s only Tuesday.
*. The photos show what the industrial sublime of an artist like Charles Sheeler, who made industry seem inhuman but pure, pristine, and coldly rational, has now turned into. Here industry, however gigantic and baroque, is messy, squalid, and dirty. I suppose some sense of mysticism attaches to it, but lots more barbarity and boredom. Meanwhile, the humans have become mere cogs in the machines. They seem almost like microbes feeding on an industrial corpse. Nearly twenty years later, I also had to wonder how many of these jobs have now been replaced by robots.
*. The anti-humanism is of a piece with the anti-naturalism of the film’s vision. This isn’t industry as man’s nature but operating as a force destructive of that nature. This also made the introduction of the Shanghai real estate agent seem out of place. What part does she play in any of this? She’s fabulously rich, but just another microbe. They were wise to cut the scenes of the stonecutter, included with the DVD. He’s an artist from a vanished world in more ways than one.
*. So it’s a movie that has really held up, packing just as much of a punch as it did when it came out. So much so that in 2018 Anthropocene: The Human Epoch wouldn’t have much to add aside from more spectacular imagery and a bit of voiceover.
*. What I miss here though is the other half of the equation. This is the story of mass production, but mass consumption is largely left alone. Obviously that’s not Burtynsky’s bailiwick, but I still found it a present absence. What we do see is Burtynsky’s photos being consumed, in their way, in art galleries. This forces us to see them as being as much a product as the steam irons and widgets turned out by the Factory of the World. Burtynsky even talks about this in the bonus material included with the DVD. Without oil and the industrial economy there wouldn’t be a movie like Manufactured Landscapes, not because there’d be nothing to film but because the film itself couldn’t be produced. I think it’s even called an irony at one point. But it’s also something darker than that.