What might happen to an idealistic marine biologist after he decides to leave the Ivory Tower? If you're Randy Olson, you become an independent filmmaker. First, you make a splash with a short music video about the sex life of barnacles. Then you take on intelligent design and the failure of the scientific community to make their counter-arguments about evolution convincingly to the public with a quirky documentary called Flock of Dodos. And then you see that Al Gore movie, An Inconvenient Truth, and decide there really needs to be a documentary about global warming that lets the scientists speak for themselves.
Unfortunately, in the eyes of Hollywood producers, scientists rank right down there with, well, barnacles on the list of Least Telegenic Life Forms (nor do scientists have disproportionately large sex organs to compensate for their general lack of pizazz). Olson finds there are very few people willing to invest in a documentary featuring scientists. "My neighbor's a scientist, and I certainly wouldn't pay to see him on screen," one potential investor bluntly says. Olson finally gets some meager funding from a flamboyantly gay couple, Mitch and Brian, who care deeply about the problem of global warming (when not distracted by unsightly skin rashes). "We're really, really upset about it," says Mitch. "We just don't know why."
The quest to find out why Mitch and Brian are so upset about global warming -- and why the rest of us should be, too -- provides a handy narrative framework for SIZZLE!, Olson's latest film, opening later his week. It's his bid to make his case for the environment with offbeat humor and a refreshingly light touch. Sure, it's a bit contrived. SIZZLE! is a celluloid hybrid, as much mockumentary as documentary, blending the real with selected fictional elements, and that makes for the occasional stilted scene, particularly when the non-show-biz sorts are involved. But it's not always possible to get the footage you need without a bit of staging -- especially given the microscopic budgets allotted to most independent filmmakers.
The film's greatest strength is its delightful cast of characters. You've got Mitch and Brian (actors playing exaggerated versions of themselves), so obsessed with finding a celebrity host for their documentary that they take to stalking random celebrities on the streets of Los Angeles -- who are understandably less than thrilled at being accosted. ("Okay, Christina Ricci ran away from us... that was bad....") There's the sound guy, Antoine (Ifeanyi Njoku) and a chronically late cameraman named Marion (Alex Thomas), who is skeptical that global warming is real and keeps interrupting Olson's interviews with the scientists: "I just think it's a scam, man...." There's even a cameo by Olson's 83-year-old mother, Muffy Moose, who sneaks off with Antoine and Marion to go dancing at a hip-hop club (my favorite scene is watching "Muff-Diddy" get her groove on).
Frankly, Marion steals the entire movie. He represents the Everyman, asking the "Man on the Street" sort of questions that most scientists would never think to ask. If there's global warming, how come it snowed two weeks ago in Johannesburg? Why was this past winter so cold? How can what I do in Los Angeles affect the polar bears in Antarctica? Does it really matter if the Earth's temperature goes up a couple of degrees over a century? These are all excellent questions; some of them are even answered.
Olson wisely lets his cast take center stage and opts to play the straight man: the quintessential buttoned-down scientist with an uber-tight sphincter and earnest belief that data is all that matters. He wants to call his documentary The Heat is On? -- because that question mark is, like, the perfect punchline. (Considering all the other alternatives suggested in the mock-brainstorming session -- GloboCop, Emission Impossible, Honey I Shrunk the Glaciers, To Live and Fry in LA -- we should be grateful everyone settled on SIZZLE!)
Given their tight budget, and his belief that Marion has ruined all the footage from their interviews, Olson's focus for the film's visuals shifts to (what else?) PowerPoint slides, because data is "what always works." The kicker is when Olson soberly announces he's snagged yet another interview with some scientists in Seattle: "The data these scientists have got is going to blow everybody away." The same sub-theme ran through Flock of Dodos: exasperation with the all-too-common assumption among scientists -- and even scientific organizations -- that all they need to do to effectively communicate with the public is get the facts out there.
Olson has a valid point. Like it or not, the public doesn't actually make up its collective hive-mind based on careful factual analysis; they're more inclined to favor a nebulous "truthiness." (Thank you, Stephen Colbert, for coining such a perfect word for it.) Most people have a far more complex relationship with "facts" than the average scientist, a la these timeless lyrics from Talking Heads:
Facts are simple and facts are straight
Facts are lazy and facts are late
Facts all come with points of view
Facts don't do what I want them to
Facts just turn the truth around
Facts are living turned inside out
-- "Crosseyed and Painless," from Remain in Light
This is only partially an excuse to groove nostalgically to Talking Heads in the middle of an ostensible film review. There's a connection! As Olson's film makes clear, the "facts" of global warming "come with points of view": even the denialists don't dispute the scientific consensus that global warming is real. They disagree vehemently, however, on how those facts should be interpreted, and that disagreement can make it very difficult for John and Jane Q. Public to grasp the gist of the science. Is it any wonder the public becomes confused and opts to base their budding views on global warming with whatever best fits with their pre-existing assumptions? (EG: "I hate Al Gore and therefore I don't trust anything he has to say about global warming.") Facts don't always do what we want them to, and for a non-scientist that can give rise to some serious cognitive dissonance. (Heck, it can even make some scientists go a bit dissonant now and then.)
If Olson had decided to make a global warming edition of Survivor, pitting proponents against denialists, viewers might decide to vote denialist Pat Michaels (of the Cato Institute) off the island because they find him abrasive, or don't like how he chews his food -- not because of their careful assessment of his analysis of the data on climate change. This is why it's so very important to show the human face of science; "likeability" matters.
Case in point: John Q. Public would be far more likely to warm up to the eccentrically charming "Dr. Chill" -- a.k.a., denialist George Chillingarian, a professor of petroleum engineering at the University of Southern California, who believes we are headed for another Ice Age. With his lilting accent, meticulously groomed mustache, retro suit, medals, and Honduran cigars, he cuts a far more colorful and appealing figure than poor, well-meaning Richard Somerville (Scripps Institute of Oceanography). Sure, Somerville is one of the top climate scientists in the world, but he is stiff and humorless in his featured scenes, clearly uncomfortable with the on-camera shenanigans. And that adversely affects his ability to connect with a broader audience. It's not enough that he's right.
Fortunately, Antoine convinces Olson to let Marion fully participate in an interview with Naomi Greske, a history of science professor at the University of California, San Diego -- because when the subjects answer Olson's questions, they respond as scientists; when Marion asks the questions, they respond like human beings. The "experiment" is a smashing success. We see footage of Greske earlier in the film, speaking before a scientific audience about her analysis of almost 1000 scientific papers from both sides of the debate -- all of which conclude that there is a definite warming trend. Her demeanor is perfectly appropriate for that professional setting, but it's unlikely to resonate with the general public. Her message doesn't really sink in with the viewer until Greske makes the same points while informally chatting with the filmmakers in a cafe. Here, she is relaxed, laughing, and eminently likeable -- and she is finally being "heard."
Naomi (because now we think of her on a first-name basis, as someone we might hang out with in a coffee shop) urges them not to interview still more scientists in Seattle, and to go to New Orleans instead to document the human toll exacted by Hurricane Katrina, because people aren't interested in an endless recitation of scientific facts, graphs, and climate models. They want to know how global warming will affect them personally. She is 100% correct about needing to make that human connection. So it's ironic that I found this segment of the film to be the weakest and least compelling.
I think it's partly to do with the fact that the scientific jury is still out on whether global warming is giving rise to an increasing number of severe hurricanes (see Chris Mooney's excellent Storm World for an exhaustive examination of that issue), although it does seem likely that we will see an upswing in the number of natural disasters, which can exact a hefty toll on heavily populated areas. Olson carefully makes this point at the end of the segment, but it comes a bit too late, and leaves one feeling vaguely misled -- even though the intent is to be thorough and honest. Facts, again, muddying up the waters.
Furthermore, the footage of Katrina's residents, while deeply affecting, focuses as much on issues of poverty, racism, and the apathy, ineptitude and broken promises of the Bush administration. These are all critical issues that tug at the heartstrings -- "Wealth is health," indeed -- but they detract from the film's central focus: global warming. "Staying on message" might be a GOP cliche, but if you're trying to influence people's opinions, it's sound advice. It's best to tackle one politically charged issue at a time.
The thing is, Olson makes the same point much more effectively earlier when Muffy Moose is talking to Antoine about how winters have changed in her hometown in Kansas. "Winter time isn't winter time anymore," she observes, reminiscing about how folks used to routinely break out sleds and ice skates when the lake froze over -- equipment now rusting and gathering dust in storage because the lake is no longer freezing over. Maybe Olson and Crew should have gone to Kansas instead, especially if Mitch and Brian tagged along in their "loud and proud" kaleidoscopic party shirts. Muffy Moose could have taken them square dancing. Good times!
It's easy to sit back and pick nits; ultimately, only the message matters. In the end, I enjoyed watching SIZZLE!, even more so on the second viewing, because I was better able to appreciate its understated subversiveness. Sure, a couple of points might have been made more clearly, but at least the film doesn't feel the need to club you over the head with didactic preachifying. People might not get it! Oh noes! We have to drive the point home again and again! But sometimes it's easier to win over a hostile audience -- and make no mistake, certain sectors of the public can be quite irrationally hostile when it comes to climate change -- with a more indirect approach. It's harder to pull off, but worth the effort.
Hopefully we will see more films from Randy Olson. His offbeat sensibility owes more to the low-key pointed satire of Christopher Guest (This is Spinal Tap, Best in Show) than the brilliantly provocative but more ham-fisted, fiery approach of Michael Moore. Besides, I like films that dare to take artistic risks, even if the risks don't quite work in the final product. It's far more interesting to me than achieving perfection by playing it safe. Olson isn't afraid to take risks. I mean, really: how often do you find a documentary about global warming that includes a surreal dream sequence showing the beleaguered director being ravaged by an angry polar bear? Now that's fearless dedication to the cause.