That rainforest really ties the planet together
The Big Lebowski, doom art, and my love of deformed cakes. (Yes, really.)
The Dude abides. I don't know about you, but I take comfort in that. It's good knowing he's out there, the Dude, takin' 'er easy for all us sinners.
— The Stranger (Sam Elliott)
When I was 18 I won a seemingly wonderful paid summer internship at the Jewish Community Centre in South Florida. My job was to catalogue their entire film library. It was the perfect gig for a film student who hated the beach in August. Ninety percent of the library was Holocaust films. I’d watch hours upon hours per day, and emerge blinkered and blinking into the scalding light of the late-afternoon Boca Raton sun. The relentlessly dismal film fare was interesting (especially to a child of Holocaust survivors) but mood destabilizing. Weeks of chronicling humanity at its most depraved, in films that ranged from boring to emotionally devastating, took their toll. To this day, when people tell me there’s a new film or book about the Holocaust, my initial response is, “another one?”
Wow, I meant to do a light post, after last week’s fem rage and revolt. Where is the Lebowski you promised me, Sarah? It’s coming, dudes. The point I’m crudely inching towards is one about the horrible things we choose to make art about, and whether they change behaviour. Yes, we need films about the Holocaust —but do I have to watch them? Yes, we need art about climate change — but do I have to look at it?
It’s a heathenous thing to admit, I know. And a bit rich coming from someone who soaked up her fair share of Canada Council grants making self-indulgent animations about her grandparents’ lives. But at the same time … I am the person who is NEVER in the mood to watch Schindler’s List. I’ve been 32% of the way through Tanya Talaga’s horrific account of life in Thunder Bay for a year now (I WILL finish it). I generally feel so beaten up by the state of the world that when I get home I have no bandwidth left for the horrible. I just need to look at Nailed Its.
But lately something has shifted. I saw the incredibly smart and hilarious film Booksmart, and pretty much laughed for an hour-and-a-half straight. And yet the next day I puzzled over how there was not a single mention of climate in the film. I know … what kind of weirdo thinks about these kinds of things? But in a movie that was so on point, so perfectly of the moment in every other way (The two main characters have a safe word: Malala) the lack of even the palest acknowledgement of our climate crisis felt strangely off.
Last week Globe and Mail writer Marsha Lederman published a pretty great opus about her efforts to explore climate art. She writes about feeling similarly attuned to art that doesn’t even nod to climate:
In the middle of my climate-art immersion, life – and work – went on. I saw two plays at Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, both excellent, but I walked away those nights thinking, “Yes, but climate change.”
And while I ripped through both seasons of Fleabag and didn’t think about the apocalypse even once, I have mostly been consuming art and reconsidering, through a new lens, art that I’d already seen.
In the piece Lederman reads climate books, interviews climate authors, goes to climate art shows, and generally muses on the question of whether art will save us. (Answer: maybe?) She talks about art’s power to move the action dial when nothing else will. I’m skeptical, but interested. Especially when she talks to The Dude.
Or, as Jeff Bridges put it when I spoke to him about this, “Artists, man. They have tremendous things to kick in as far as the health of our planet. God, absolutely. From music to paintings to movies – everything.”
I asked whether he felt an obligation to make art about this issue, given the platform his fame offers.
“It’s a combination of responsibility, but it’s kind of like love too,” he answered. “My wife comes to mind. I have a responsibility to be a good husband, but it’s also a joy, a pleasure. I love my wife. So doing things in her favour, that’s in my favour, too; it makes me feel good." (As if we needed another reason to love the Dude.)
If it makes the Dude feel good, and moves change even a tiny bit, I’m on side. I’ll drink a White Russian and try to watch his climate change documentary, Living in the Future’s Past. But I may need to follow it with a Lebowski palate cleanser. In fact, if you would like to join me (and live within the KMs to do so, let me know!)
I think my ultimate feeling is that I like my damning information delivered in less arty forms. I’d rather read an IPCC report than hear Leo Di Caprio narrate one, though I know I’m in the minority there.
Where I think climate art is most successful is when it’s embedded into everything, as it will only continue to be as the crisis escalates. I took my kids to catch the last hour of the Brian Jungen show at the AGO last week (as you do), and marvelled at how he weaves the story of humanity’s materialism into art that doesn’t scream THIS IS ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE. Instead, the effects of consumerism are literally woven into his work. Non-Canadians, if you don’t know Brian Jungen, he is our most amazing living artist!
I love a giant straw installation as much as the next beverage aficionado, but if the point is to get people to move and change and react and engage, who knows. I’m still puzzling over the efficacy of a 90-foot tall Shepard Fairey mural that doesn’t explicitly state that its about the climate crisis. It’s a beaut. But will it get anyone driving buy to vote climate? Will it do anything?
Anecdotally, I think the lighter stuff works better. Heavy documentaries about climate change have been around since Al Gore first opened KeyNote...and we’re not getting there. We know facts don’t sway people. We know social comparison and social norms often do, which is why art that embraces climate change and its havoc as part of the essential state of existing may do more than grave and gravelly-voiced documentaries and their portentous soundtracks.
You? Have you watched all the climate docs and not wanted to crawl into a hole and die? LMK.
Is there a piece of climate art that you love? Share it? And send to me pretty please.
The Daily had a great podcast on the Amazon yesterday.
Have a wonderful week!