The gut-wrenching cars smashing scenes in Rohit Shetty’s films have their share of dirty secrets too.
We all love watching movies – at home, in theatre or on phone – little realizing that we are complicit in the destruction of the film-making unleashes. The images we enjoy do not come from nothing, there are significant material consequences to it. James Cameron’s much acclaimed Titanic had decimated a Mexican sea urchin population and Danny Boyle’s less popular The Beach had wrecked the natural dunes in a Thai island. Not all films are as destructive but film making is not without its ecological carcasses floating in the air, circulating in the water, sinking into the soil, and rustling in the leaves. And it isn’t a recent phenomenon, the dirtiest secrets of film were rarely allowed to surface as we had tacitly accepted to sacrifice the real for the imaginary spectacle.
It isn’t exaggerated, though! Counted as essentials of an industrial process, daily consumption of 200 million litres of water by (then) Eastman Kodak to produce 80 per cent of the world’s film supply had the audiences’ unwritten sanction. The eco-destruction doesn’t end at that, the methodological complexities of film watching and its disposal is beset with hidden environmental costs. Be it the epic spectacle of fire in Gone with the Wind or the grotesque throwing of dust in Singin’ in the Rain or the digital seduction of reality in Avatar, the nature’s five essential elements are at the receiving end of our insatiable desire for entertainment.
Hunter Vaughan’s forensic accounting of film-making secrets is an open invitation for the reader to reconnect with the world of films that exposes our representational inabilities to reflect concerns for the environment and human survival. Film is an effective medium and an activist platform to home-deliver sensory reality towards the social ills and the ecological decline, however, the onus of protecting the environment cannot simply be dumped upon the viewer. Should our collective amnesia to the perils of film-making persist, Vaughan argues, the global machinery of entertainment is doomed to repeat the patterns of the past, failing local communities and traumatizing local ecosystems. What’s more, for being less expensive to shoot in Sri Lanka, Thailand or Mexico the decentralized production from transitory locations has transformed film-making as an invasive species, a roaming environmental hazard.
Hollywood’s Dirtiest Secret reads like a charge sheet on movie making, for causing irreparable damage to the environment. It is an important read that aptly reveals the two-fold nature of film, being both a powerful medium to speak about environmental problems as well as the cause of these very problems. At its core is the issue of our collective ignorance and of voluntary psychosis in accepting the virtual as real. ‘Unless we fully assess the complex relationships among our screens, our desires, and our natural resources, we may not be able to agree on the natural cost we are willing to pay to have art.’ Without getting a deeper sense of such relationships, it hardly resisters on our collective image-space the number of trees smothered to make Transformers tumble on the screen.
Vaughan, a professor of English and Cinema Studies at Oakland University, makes a plea to re-establish the severed relationships between what is communicated and how it is communicated. It is our screen culture’s socio-cultural contract that needs to be put under the scanner, alongside the need for creating a culture of film making that draws a responsive balance between the medium and the message. It would be a fallacy to believe that things are getting better with the advent of digital technology. Conversely, it has major material and political ramifications with profound personal and social consequences. Even the grandeur of Bahubali could not be possible without the acquisition of analog production materials with high energy and resource-dependent digital infrastructure generating enormous e-waste at the end.
For those of us who assume that the home-grown gut-wrenching cars smashing screen sequences in most Rohit Shetty’s films have no dirty secrets may need to rethink. Each car smashed is worth 150,000 litres of water consumed in manufacturing it. While disavowing the distinction between real and the imaginary in the quest for spectacular thrill, the likes of Shetty actually implicate the viewer in the dirty secret of ignoring the material real for the virtual. It is the ‘madness of screen culture’ that Vaughan has put to test his environmental criticism on the methods of film making that externalises almost all costs. Hollywood Dirtiest Secret acknowledges the recent attempts at greening the industry, but argues for serious reworking on the environmental costs of pleasure and communication. Written with passion and commitment, the book holds a mirror to the society in redefining the boundaries of entertainment, as if the environment matters.
Hollywood’s Dirtiest Secret
by Hunter Vaughan
Columbia University Press, New York
Extent: 243, Price: US$ 30.
(First published in the Outlook, issue for the week ending March 30, 2020.)
(Sudhirendar Sharma is a writer on development issues based in New Delhi, India)