Fox's film about fracking captures audiences' attention

Thursday, February 17th, 2011 at 8:52 PM
Fox's film about fracking captures audiences' attention by Ben Speggen

Love him or hate him, Michael Moore permeates each film he makes, and if you take him away, you take away the film and leave nothing but a subject people are still begging to hear about—even if from a slightly slanted position.

Such has become the standard for mainstream documentary films: the same person sitting in the sound room behind the mic reading out the narrative is the same person in front of the camera. They sound the same, they look the same and they never seem to miss a beat, and together, because there’s no noticeable difference, they become the center of the film.

At least that’s what we’ve come to expect from filmmakers like Michael Moore.

But perhaps that’s what makes Josh Fox’s documentary about “fracking” so appealing. “Gasland” is different. And pleasantly so. Probably because we get two Josh Foxes. One sits sipping peppermint green tea while reading his well-prepared script loaded with polysyllabic chemicals, and one that runs around with a camera, nervously collecting jars of water from people begging for answers, only to tote the jars around hoping not to catch fire. After receiving a letter offering nearly $100,000 to lease the rights to drill on the Fox land, both the off and on-screen Fox try to come to terms with the barrage of legislation surrounding drilling for natural gas and what that means for our country’s future.

The off-screen Fox narrating sounds cool, calm and collected, and at times, almost out of place, like he’d be better off hosting a late night smooth jazz hour between ten and eleven as he croons on suggesting why David Sanborn should be on everyone’s playlists. The gravel growl of his voice rakes over stats and facts surrounding the dangers of hydraulic fracturing at such a breakneck pace that the inundation becomes memorizing, and at times burdensome to keep up with. It’s almost as if Fox hopes the sheer number of stats and complicated names of the chemicals involved in fracking will be enough to frighten people into action.

Luckily we get his better half—the true cinematic half.

The on-screen, camera-toting, banjo-plucking Fox rattles easily and at times can’t even put together a sentence to save his script. But he seems comfortable in his journey, so we seem comfortable as his co-pilots.

Cruising along beside him, we jump and try to find air to stuff back into our lung just as Fox tries to do as he watches a Denver man light his tap water on fire with a Bic. And then next we find ourselves right beside him, together begging the man to hand over the red lighter to let us try—as if the smell of burnt hair hadn’t sealed the deal for us, hadn’t singed in our minds that yes, this water is flammable, no, we have to try it ourselves.

And we too try to push the rocks to the sides of our mouths with our tongues as we try to find the right words, the words a professional documentarian would know to ask a lady who’s swallowing the cotton in her mouth as she tries to hold back tears as she considers how fracking is draining the life out of a stream she grew up playing in. So as Fox managing to stammer out: “So, um, did you ever think you’d, uh, be freezing rabbits, doves and animals in your freezer that, uh, you wanted to get autopsied?” we know we couldn’t have asked it any better than he did.

All along she’s been waiting, much like everyone else, for someone to show up, and in this case, it’s Fox. Even he admits in the film that the faces he’s encountered blend together and the stories become the same: the water turned bad after the drilling started and the gas companies tie up the cases in the court system.

But in a way, Fox’s film manages to bring hope because of the awareness it’s created and the conversation it’s still sparking not about him but about his film’s subject matter.

People with real problems were just looking for someone to listen, and a young guy with Buddy Holly glasses and a wrinkled T-shirt happened to show up on their doorsteps willing to take water samples and hear their stories. Love him or hate him, Fox’s raw reactions capture our attention, endear him to us and regardless of whether his facts are laid out nice and straight, make this a must-see film about a must-discuss topic.

Erie Reader: Vol. 7, No. 21
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