Saturday, 6 November 2021

No 122 - On Deadly Ground


Deep mine (c) Dan Wylie

Well, that was – predictably – a pretty bad film. I had decided to give it a look because it promised to be about a campaigner fighting heroically against Big Oil. (Objecting to Big Oil being trendy at COP 26 and all.) The film in question, On Deadly Ground, was predictably bad because not only is the lead actor Steven Seagal: he was also making his directorial debut. The film was roundly panned by critics, one of whom was rude enough to compare Seagal’s “lardy posterior” to the grandiosity of his ego. Predictably, Seagal’s acting comprises growling, wearing frilly leathers, and occasionally narrowing his eyes.

His role (I won’t worry about spoilers, because you’ll never want to watch it) is as a disillusioned oil company employee, Forrest Taft, who turns on his Big Oil boss, Michael Jennings, acted by Michael Caine. It must be the estimable Caine’s worst performance ever, as a monochromatically angry, foul-mouthed exec who has to complete a slew of pipelines and a gigantic refinery on Alaskan territories before his leases run out. Those leases, of course, are carved out of exquisitely beautiful lands belonging to Native Americans, who naturally object. (Such scenarios, as Donald Trump forcefully reminded us quite recently, are no idle fiction.) 

Jennings’ mercenary heavies try to kill the whistle-blowing Forrest (get the symbolism?), who is luckily rescued by local Native Americans. The heavies then sort of accidentally-on-purpose murder the wise old chief, who has already sort of initiated Forrest into the tribe via a myth-laden hallucinatory experience. Many feather headdresses, screeching hawks and incantations threaten to bury these people under a sludge of stereotyping, though their recourse to a man-bear legend of origins is well-enough attested. (Some critics call them Inuit/Eskimo, which is just wrong.)

Forrest is rather unimpressed by all this traditionalism, interestingly: he says to the chief’s bereaved and very pissed-off (and very beautiful) daughter Masu, that such mumbo-jumbo won’t cut it against Big Oil and their army of gun-toting mercenaries. His methods will. Masu (Joan Chen) joins him, and between them they go at it: super-efficient hand-to-hand combat (oh ja, Forrest also happens to be ex-CIA, which organisation has, as we all know, a spotless legal and environmental record), explosives conveniently cached nearby, swathes of gunfire and sprays of blood, downed helicopters, and a numbingly prolonged finale of spectacular explosions that reduce the refinery to wire wool. Each of the main heavies (including a young Billy Bob Thornton) get their come-uppance, and the chief’s daughter has the satisfaction of dropping Mr Jennings into a vat of his own crude oil.

So much, so Seagal, and the critics I read were almost uniformly scathing. What really upset them, however, was the very final scene, in which a suited-up Seagal soberly reads a speech to assembled reporters, tribal members and others. Against a backdrop of documentary footage of gas flares, highway traffic, smog, oiled seabirds and polluted rivers, Seagal lays out the venality of Big Oil, its collusion with governments, its knowing but shrugged-off damage to pristine environments, its roughshod mistreatment of the first peoples’ rights, rites and wilderness, the deliberate sabotaging of progressive technologies, and so on. The critics merely raged: how dare he get so preachy!

To be sure, the sermon fitted ill with the action genre: blowing up the refinery alone probably spewed more CO2 into the skies than the whole of Los Angeles on a bad day. Some doubted the sincerity of the environmental message. Yet it encapsulated what Bill McKibben, James Hansen, and a thousand other environmental scientists have been warning for decades. It might have been Greta Thunberg standing there, though Seagal’s a touch taller.

"Riot" (c) Dan Wylie

Note: the movie screened in 1994.
No one was listening. A quarter of a century later, nothing has changed, except we peer through an ever-thickening murk of rhetorical obfuscation and hollow promises from the very players who might make the greatest difference. I watched the film, after all, in the very week when the Big Oil execs were trying to fudge their way through questions in the US Congress. (Doubtless smug in the knowledge that government, the banks, and Big Oil finance and back one another in an Unholy Trinity.)

I thought to ferret out other ‘entertainment’ feature films concerning Big Oil, and turned up a couple of lists. One of them purported to survey the top 5, and included the superb Let There Be Blood, featuring Daniel Day Lewis, a truly corrosive exposé of early Big Oil’s horrors. This particular list, however, was compiled by one “Petroleum Service Company”, whose raison d’être was clearly to sell oil products  And guess what: you would swear from their brief summaries that the films were advertising the benefits of fossil fuel, and not – as they actually are – attacks on it. Either the site’s compilers are woefully ignorant of the films, stupidly misconstruing them, or deliberately concealing their critical content. Whichever way, I find this deceitfulness disturbing, short-sighted, and self-serving, arguably a minor case but symptomatic and frankly frightening. As noted by one slightly woolly but more academic article on the subject, “there are no positive portrayals of  oil executives in feature films after the 1950s”! Clearly, said executives don’t care. Or: they care just enough to try to cover their butts in such fraudulent ways.

Look, no one thinks a transition away from fossil fuels will be simple, so dependent has global society become upon them. Though many technologies already exist to make that transition, implementing them at scale will cause widespread disruptions to existing structures of industry and finance. (This is Australian PM Scott Morrison’s argument for doing nothing to reduce coal, though continuing the way we’re going is inevitably going to cause exponentially greater disruptions world-wide.) And panelling the egregious lies of Big Oil, however much they might deserve it, is to narrow the history and absolve all us users from responsibility. Big Oil also tries to shift the blame to consumers, in the way that cigarette, firearm and opioid manufactures repeatedly have: “Oh, we’re just responding to demand; it’s no concern of ours that our products sicken and kill people!”

"Toxic event" (c) Dan Wylie

But we are also in this situation
because over the last century or two millions of people have made trillions of little everyday decisions, in perfectly understandable and non-evil ways, to participate in petroleum’s benefits: from electricity to vehicles, from plastics to soaps, from syringes to paints, from telephones to tweets. Only today do we face the inescapable realisation that at the present massive scale we – the Six Billion Plus – are now over-poisoning the planet even as we benefit, while consuming its resources way, way faster than they can be replenished. And changing that – whether or not governments legislate, whether or not fossil fuel production and dependency shrinks voluntarily or otherwise – will entail millions of individuals making trillions of little everyday decisions to do things less damagingly. We might as well start. The greatest impediment to change is not so much technical as cultural.

OK, I’ll stop preaching now. Good night, Steven.


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  1. Another great post, Dan! Very timely, too, as government and corporate leaders obfuscate and muddle the waters at COP26.

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