Nice guy, nice smile, soft black and white lighting, the kind of guy who you’d know from church or youth soccer, the golf course maybe, always active in the community. He’s telling us something. He’s relaxed, but he has something to say. “A lot of times things are right underneath our feet, and all we need to do is to change the way we’re thinking about them.”
The gent turns out to be Erik Oswald, an Exxon-Mobil geologist, and he’s telling us about the rich new resources of gas found in America. What he’s alluding to every so obliquely as the ‘new way of thinking,’ is accessing previously unavailable gas trapped deep inside rocks in the earth through a new process called hydro-fracking: shooting water into the earth under high pressure, making a mini-earthquake and capturing the gas that’s released. This process is highly controversial, because it’s not easy to control where the newly released gas goes. The independent film, Gasland, shows a man living in a hydro-fracking area who can literally light his tap water on fire. A national movement to fight hydro-fracking is a new battle in the continuing war between environmentalists and big oil.
Here’s a quick look at how both sides sell their stories:
Exxon is selling myth, movement, the Great American Exception of innovation, enterprise. We have always overcome challenges with intelligence, and determination, and we didn’t let fear get in the way. We cut away from smiling Oswald to a color point of view of trees and the sun, natural as anything, drifting by from inside a fossil-fuel-burning automobile. It’s an image of health and green balance.
We come back to Oswald for “we didn’t even realize…” and now we pick up speed, as we whiz past a southwestern looking environment… a scrappy field with low mountains in the distance (nothing worth preserving here); a billboard flies by (echo of how we’ve built the environment up to now, perhaps). Now, we go to split screen and see: first, highly technical looking glowing red numbers and lights – then pan to an oil derrick tower lit up at night to look as majestic as the Eiffel Tower – a symbol of American grace. On Oswald’s words, “safely unlock” we see the Tower turn from a ‘real’ representative image, to a schematic on a computer screen, as a technician turns his head to the right… (one of Oswald’s concerned and kind colleagues at Exxon Mobil). And what is he looking toward? The comforting site of a white vinyl-sided (made from oil, saves money on paint) modern version of a traditional Colonial Style American home, at dusk. Any threat or danger sensed by the evening is dispelled by the warmly glowing (from their yellowish appearance, apparently energy-burning incandescents) outside lights. We come back to Oswald, tight enough in close-up to see some of the flaws in his skin, as he says evenly, “These deposits can provide us with fuel for 100 years.” We cut away now to a less subtle message: A spotlessly clean and shining small-town American Main Street, so full of warmth and red-white-and-blue bunting that nothing has been seen like it since the 1984 Ronald Reagan “It’s Morning in America” presidential campaign. As Oswald talks of “energy security,” two attractive apparently single young women walk by — a subconscious echo, maybe, of all those “protect the women” images from westward expansion stories that would have men urging suicide or actually slaughter ‘their’ women before allowing them to fall into “Injun” hands. Significantly, the biggest sign on the street is “Open” – an open for business sign. We come back to the geologist for the finish: “It’s just takes somebody having the idea,” Oswald says, making a grasping motion with this hand, “and that’s where the discovery comes in.” All that other stuff… protests, objections, long-term considerations, amount to not very much… Once you have the idea, the ad suggests… ‘just do it.’ An equivalence is being made between fossil-fuel… and civilization.
Gasland, with far fewer resources, uses the tools of David to fight Goliath. The shaky camera, the poor video quality, the outsider’s camera angle, the executive walking out on the tough question… these we associate with another America, the America of the rebel, the people’s champion, fighting against overweening power.
And which best deals that other American demand, “Show Me”? Well, without knowing anything else about the issue, no one could look at a man setting his water on fire and not want a little better explanation from Mr. Oswald and company as to how they know this procedure is safe. —- Bill Lattanzi