Chasing IceDirected by Jeff Orlowski
Released in 2012
In a packed theater on the first warm Monday of the year, a rapt audience watches ice melt. Cheers or snores could reasonably follow, but this audience sits in captivated silence at Cornell Cinema. The film is Chasing Ice, the subject is climate change and the evidence is entirely cinematic.
Aside from director Jeff Orlowski, the man responsible for many of the documentary’s images is its star, James Balog. This nature photographer studied science at the University of Colorado, but since he sees “the modern world of science [as] all about statistics and computer modeling,” Balog works in the artful medium of photography. After shooting a popular National Geographic cover story on melting glaciers (“The Big Thaw”), Balog established the Extreme Ice Survey, a study that fuses art and science to visualize the effects of anthropogenic climate change. The task Balog and his crew set themselves seems simple — to take photos of glaciers with secured, time-lapse cameras — but faulty technology, violent weather and Balog’s own health present enough trials to make for, at the very least, a brisk 75 minutes.
The time-lapse montages present the most naked and arresting — “beautiful” would also be apt — evidence of global warming I have seen yet. It is a shame the filmmakers think the James Balog’s story even stands a chance. Balog, who was in attendance at Monday’s Cornell Cinema screening and answered questions afterward, engages through his work, and Orlowski would have been wise to let that work speak for itself instead of padding the film with footage of Balog spending time with his family, getting knee surgery, etc. The resulting melodrama plays like network television programs, or the autobiographical sections of An Inconvenient Truth that your biology teacher fast-forwarded through. It all diverts the narrative from the real protagonist: Earth. This is not necessarily Balog’s fault, as the responsibility lies with the filmmakers to legitimize the material at hand. But there is a whole montage of Balog making the CNN/NBC interview circuit, and one shot in particular of a studio makeup artist brushing up Balog’s face — weren’t we talking about melting glaciers?
We were, and the images, whether still, moving or time-lapse, redeem this film from its dips into bathos or narcissism. I wonder what any global warming deniers could possibly say after witnessing them, but who cares what Sean Hannity thinks, anyway. There is a spectacular sequence where a glacier the size of lower Manhattan “calves” (separates) off its surrounding fjord, and the cameras just watch. The voice-over jumps back in too early for my cinema vérité tastes, but the high resolution digital camcorders show us icebergs three times taller than the Empire State Building rolling forwards and backwards, or, in one stomach-churning shot, soaring miles out from the water and then submerging once again. The five-minute episode sells the whole movie, although, as Balog was quick to remind us in the post-screening Q&A, over 4 million people have already seen the video, for free on YouTube (one of them, unknowingly, being me last December).
After the film, Balog proved to be as aphoristic, ruggedly handsome and self-promoting in person as on screen. I mean that last adjective in good humor, for Chasing Ice has earned its fair share of honors, including a White House screening on April 22, and Balog made a point in listing as many as his prepared notes could accommodate. In all seriousness, though, Balog peddled some real nuggets of wisdom, especially in his survey of the people who should worry about global warming: “If you eat food, breathe air, drink water or pay taxes, climate change affects you.” He also addressed the hybrid nature of his work when he said, “The combination of art and science reveals what one cannot do on its own.” When you realize that the footage of crumbling glaciers represents only a microcosm of an escalating global trend, what is revealed is not so much a number or idea but the urge to let loose all the expletives you know in the direction of your nearest Congressman.
This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.