Serious Laughs: Environmental Films That Provoke Thought . . . and Chuckles
Those of us involved in the environmental humanities frequently face two challenges when sharing our work: 1) our subjects often have depressing undertones and 2) like all scholars we tend to forget that convincing people requires that we reach them emotionally, not just intellectually. One solution? Make ‘em laugh! These eight environmental films explore serious and difficult-to-resolve issues, but their directors bring a light touch to the material, showing that humor can open minds and hearts.
Automania 2000 (1964, Dir. John Halas, U.K.) (9 min) – How does one keep up with the Joneses these days? This Academy Award-nominated satire about automobile culture, mass consumerism, and trust in science suggests you can head into your garage to find the answer. Now if only you could head out of your garage . . .
Blue Vinyl (2002, Dir. Judith Helfand and Daniel Gold, U.S.) (98 min) – Judith Helfand has pioneered the genre of “toxic comedy”—films that see serious issues like environmental justice as a matter of laugh-or-death. Blue Vinyl is her personal journey to find a non-toxic alternative to the blue vinyl siding her father installs on her childhood home.
Cane Toads: An Unnatural History (1988, Dir. Mark Lewis, Australia) (47 min) – “If anyone could love a cane toad, it could only be another cane toad.” Really? In this irreverent documentary, often filmed from a toad’s-eye view, we learn the perils of introducing species to habitats lacking natural predators. We also learn that human-wildlife relations are never straightforward—some people try to run over invasive cane toads with their cars; others build statues in their honor.
Modern Times (1936, Dir. Charlie Chaplin, U.S.) (87 min) – Perhaps the most memorable scene of this poignant satire is when laboring everyman (Chaplin’s iconic Little Tramp character) literally gets sucked into massive factory machinery and becomes a cog in modern industry. A commentary on a “landscape of labor” from the industrial era, this film is on the AFI list of the 100 Greatest American Movies of all time for good reason.
Plastic Bag (2009, Dir. Ramin Bahrani, U.S.) (18 min) – Seriously, who doesn’t love German director Werner Herzog’s distinctive narration? But making him the voice of a plastic bag’s consciousness? Now that’s comedic genius and a good way to draw attention to the problem of plastic trash and the growing Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Truck Farm (2011, Dir. Ian Cheney, U.S.) (48 min) – Enough with the excuses: if Ian Cheney can grow fresh vegetables even in the heart of urban Brooklyn, anyone can! In this whimsical film, narrated as a ballad like an old Monty Python song, we follow Cheney as he plants a “micro-CSA” garden in the bed of his pickup truck parked on an urban street.
WALL-E (2008, Dir. Andrew Stanton, U.S.) (98 min) – All it takes is a Hello Dolly-obsessed robot, wicked satirical gibes at Wal-Mart and iPhone use, and a cockroach expressive enough to compete for a best supporting actor Oscar and you get a hit Pixar comedy with a serious message about there being no shortcuts when caring for each other and the land.
The Yes Men Fix the World (2009, Dir. Andy Bichlbaum, Mike Bonanno, and Kurt Engfehr, U.S.) (87 min) – The Bhopal chemical disaster, Hurricane Katrina, global warming—these are serious issues. But The Yes Men, a band of prankster anti-globalization activists who reveal the hypocrisy of corporations and governments, know how to use humor to inspire people to make change. An environmental movie with a water ballet during the opening credits? You bet!
Peter Boger is completing his Ph.D. in environment and resources and is the programming director of the Tales from Planet Earth environmental film festival. He has also served as a guest programmer for the Wisconsin Film Festival and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. His student film, In a Badger State of Mind, was featured at Tales from Planet Earth and Seattle’s Hazel Wolf Film Festival. Contact.
Cover Image: Directors Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno of The Yes Men Fix the World in the film’s opening water ballet.
You have seen the cane toad movie! Now read the book. “Cane Toads: An Unnatural History” Stephanie Lewis, Doubleday, 1989. It is a tie-in with the movie. The cover blurb says: “If Monty Python teamed up with National Geographic, the result would be CANE TOADS.”
That’s about right.
I like the sentiment here. Indeed, we often focus on the serious – and this field in particular lends itself to a lot of depressing stuff. But there’s a lot of pop culture (and not-so-popular writing, too) out there that one can use to laugh, and have a good time, along with reflecting upon our relationship to the environment. I have to spend more time with these movies… and I hope you’ll post more pieces like this!