On a gallery wall, one of the slag heaps or pit mines or ship-breaking beaches captured by Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky is impressive enough. The acid-green lakes, fire-blackened earth, pyramids of coal, checkerboards of crushed auto bales—these become even more powerful on a movie screen, all the detritus of our material needs traced back to the source, the waste, the contamination, the toxic legacy of our desires. (One little iPod produces all that waste.) Then, as you realize when the accompanying documentary film crew pulls back to show how Burtynsky frames one of his images, no movie screen could ever be as big as these monuments. Or monuments-in-reverse, since they're mostly formed by extraction, gouging, and removal. Taking its title from one of Burtynsky's prior books, Manufactured Landscapes can be a little dull, and his ecological comments tend to echo Al Gore, but there's no way you'll be able to forget these terrible vistas. Most of the film follows Burtynsky through fast-developing China, where we visit the Three Gorges dam project and what must surely be the largest factory on earth (rendered in a solemn eight-minute tracking shot). Yet if the theme to this documentary by Jennifer Baichwal is how we reshape nature to suit industry, one of the more eloquent and damning images is simply that of a female factory worker's hands rendered in close-up. Assembling dozens of electrical switches per hour, probably working a 12-hour shift, her fingers become giant, disembodied tools—just another industrial process to serve our endless consumption.
Burtynsky captures globalism.
Runs at Varsity, Fri., July 13–Thurs., July 19. Not rated. 90 minutes.