ASSLAND: Dispatch from the Los Angeles Premiere of a Pro-Fracking Documentary


SANTA MONICA - Josh Fox probably had no clue that his 2010 documentary Gasland would blow up like it did. Consider it – what young activist filmmaker would ever expect their raison d'etre to not only resonate around the left wing echo chamber, but also bust deep into mainstream consciousness and rile the vitriolic right into a frenzy? Had Fox known that his longtime passion project was a shoo-in for Sundance and Oscar honors, he might have played a few things differently. Namely, he would have likely approached the now-infamous flaming faucet scene more carefully.

Gasland condemns hydraulic fracturing for a vast array of reasons – most of which are both damning, and vetted by scientists who aren't handcuffed to Big Energy. Nonetheless, the scene that emerged as a defining moment – the movie's hit single – was of Colorado landowner Mike Markham igniting his tap water. Like the methane in Marham's sink, the image caught fire, spurring detractors into a fact checking stampede from which they emerged with a startling truth that naturally occurring methane has made wells flammable since forever. Who knew?

Of course, the selective sensationalism in Gasland is not unlike the cheerleading in most other great socio-political docs, from Inside Job to Bowling for Fahrenheit & Me: A Love Story. As such, every Food, Inc. whopper inspires torrents of praise as well as criticism, the latter of which often comes from ideological adversaries. In the best case scenario, this leads to a healthy dialogue, in which constructive critics help shape the big picture in an honest manner. In the worst case, you get FrackNation, which is far more obsessed with liberals than it is with fracking.

This fixation comes as no surprise, as the married director duo of Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney have a history of not just neglecting the forest for the trees, but of blindly backing those who want to raze the scenery. Their 2009 documentary, Not Evil Just Wrong, was a response to Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth; before that, they took on environmentalists in Romania. McAleer is an accomplished journalist - as well as an incendiary global warming denier - having contributed to The Economist and other reputable outlets. Nonetheless, he's a darling of the fringe, and this is why.

McAleer's far-right contingent was out in force on Friday night in Santa Monica, where McAleer and McElhinney premiered their latest touche piece – a pro-fracking, anti-Josh Fox collaboration with young associate Magdalena Segieda. One fan had a giant patch on his canvas coat with Andrew Breitbart's image over the word FEARLESS. All throughout the theater, attendees expressed relief that someone finally had balls brassy enough to counter Gasland. For this crowd, the dangers of environmentalism are far too serious to ignore.

McAleer spends the first quarter of the film proving that, like spread ass cheeks on Taco Tuesday, some faucets will inevitably spark ablaze if provoked. From there, he brings us to meet landowners in the Upper Delaware River Valley and elsewhere who have suffered economic setbacks on account of fracking moratoriums and long study periods. Their stories are compelling, heartbreaking tales from the sad front lines of modern farming. McAleer is also somewhat endearing, and even quite funny in his host role.

Because real muckrakers wear silly hats!!!

About half way through, though, after landing some haymakers on Gasland, FrackNation unwinds into a vortex of illogic about how fracking is the best thing since sliced budgets. As one defense goes, like shale gas, there are carcinogens in cabbage, too, so obviously shoving pipe deep into the ground and hitting puree can't possibly impact the surrounding ecosystem. Furthermore, rural farmers who have seen their livelihoods erode need to hit the shale lottery to survive – so it's impossible that there could be any environmental fallout whatsoever.

From start to finish, FrackNation demonstrates the right's inability to simultaneously process disparate thoughts – a deficiency that's best exemplified in a voiceover line toward the beginning: “Despite all the good news, fracking is controversial.” It's too bad, because like Fox, McAleer is a skilled enough storyteller to move an audience outside of his immediate, fire-breathing fan base. That won't likely happen with this project; while FrackNation is impressively produced, it's unabashedly one-sided, and consciously devoid of any real concessions.

While McAleer and McElhinney suggest that only half of the whole fracking story has been told – because of Gasland and a complicit left-leaning media – only a fool would believe that gas companies haven't also had their say. Between countless conservative op-eds and a leading cable news channel that would drill under its own anchor desk if a squirt of petrol so much as seeped through the carpet onto Bill-O's trousers, the friends of big oil even have a public megaphone. And let's not forget the billions spent greasing politicians.

There are a number of solid points made in FrackNation – like how the plights of some characters in Gasland were exaggerated. But for every ringer, there are countless laugh lines that push the overall impact into satirical territory, like the claim that “Wind turbines are massive, 24-7 bird-killing machines.” There's also a whole Russian oil angle that is absolutely interesting and worth a further look, but that's seemingly unrelated to the rest of the doc, and also somewhat creepy in its non-ironic Cold War imagery.

Overall, FrackNation is a remarkable exercise in the victimization charade that the Breitbart right has only accelerated since their leader's death nearly a year ago. Never mind that they're doing crowd-sourced volunteer dirty work for energy barons – they're the underdogs. As for Fox and anyone who cares enough to question the environmental stain that fracking projects can potentially leave – they're anti-American. They must also be blasphemers since, according to one subject, “Shale gas is a gift from god." 

It's cute that McAleer keeps dropping dis tracks against the green team. Wide open debate is always positive, though difficult since extreme conservatives reject the base notion that we need safer ways to fuel our lives. With that said, considering how much effort the FrackNationalists spend on tearing down the right's number one perceived enemy – the latte-sipping left – their flick hardly offers much education on shale gas drilling. Running back over it in hindsight, I guess the only thing I really learned is the extent to which radicals enjoy their red meat served on a shamelessly partisan platter. Then again – I already knew that from watching Gasland in a theater back in Boston.

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