No Impact Man (Oscilloscope Pictures, NR)

film_noimpact_sm.gifIf this sounds like a stunt, it is. But it’s tough to get a book contract these days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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When we first meet Colin Beavan in No Impact Man, he’s rehearsing sound bites in the green room of The Colbert Report. It’s an interesting choice for directors Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein, as it highlights the tension between Beavan’s publicity-hound nature and his repeated protestations that he’s really just interested in making the world a better place. It also sets the stage for the many media appearances which are to come over the remainder of the documentary’s 93 minutes. This is a 21st-century tale of the blog that became a book that became a film, and that kind of commercial success doesn’t happen unless you court the commercial media.

No Impact Man is the story of an experiment by Beavan, his wife Michelle Conlin and their two-year-old-daughter to drastically reduce their impact on the environment for a year. Measures taken to this end include eating only food grown within 150 miles of home, not buying any new consumer goods, disdaining motorized transportation, and turning off the electricity in their apartment, making do with candles and ice mooched from a neighbor. Beavan began by blogging about their experiences and the rest, as they say, is history.

If this sounds like a stunt, it is. But it’s tough to get a book contract these days. Other people have already tried traveling around the world without ever getting on an airplane, cooking all the recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and climbing Mount Everest at age 76 (not to mention the blind person and the amputee who have also conquered the world’s tallest peak). Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Mineral sold pretty well, so why not try a little one-upmanship and really deprive yourself? Composting with worms in a New York apartment and watching the milk go bad in a Nigerian cooling pot is much more heroic than growing produce on a farm in Virginia, wouldn’t you say?

You can probably tell that I’m not particularly taken with Colin and his experiment, and that’s a problem because if you don’t buy in from the beginning then he just looks like the most self-centered yuppie in the world. The film was shot hand-held by Justin Schein and edited together nicely by William Haugse and Matthew Martin, but much of the time it just looks fake, particularly when Beavan and Conlin are supposed to be having their heart-to-hearts. If you’re not going to let us in to your world, don’t expect us to sit through an hour and a half of you performing for the camera. I should add that I don’t watch television (hey…maybe I should write a blog about that! Do you think the Weinsteins would be interested?)m so what seems like unbearable posing to me may seem normal to people who include that medium as part of their daily life.

One problem with stunts is that they beg you to find the contradictions: Why is natural gas OK but electricity is not? If motorized transportation is out, what’s up with the two train trips that we see? Right, it’s all for the good of the film because it lets us meet some farmers who, thankfully, do not look like they just walked out of the pages of New York Magazine. And even electricity is OK as long as it’s for the computer. At one point we see Beavan rigging up a solar panel on the roof, because a blogger without electricity is a blogger silenced, and a blogger silenced sells no books.

Conlin is not entirely sure she wants to go along with the experiment, and we’re supposed to identify with her as she frets about foregoing designer handbags and Starbucks. But there’s something creepy about her interactions with Beavan, as if he’s a stern father who knows what’s best for her and there’ll be no further discussion. At one point she’s begging him for a cup of coffee so she can finish a story which will help his project. What century are they living in? The most embarrassing moments are when he refuses to consider her wish to have a second child and doesn’t seem to appreciate the sacrifices she has made to further his career.

The one interesting bit of conflict in No Impact Man comes from an urban gardener who points out to Beavan the contradictions of his project. The impact of doing without toilet paper for a year doesn’t mean much compared to the depredations of the capitalist culture fostered by his wife’s employer, BusinessWeek. Nor does Beavan seem to consider that he’s become part of the consumer culture he disdains: The family may have gotten rid of their television, but he depends on that medium for free publicity, and it’s paid for by advertising of the very consumer products he so pointedly does without.

Beavan has a change of heart near the end of the film and starts doing practical ecology projects, meeting with Representative Jerrold Nadler in a sequence which screams "photo op!" even more than the rest of the film. We even get to meet a person of color in the last five minutes or so — and that’s in a documentary taking place in one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world. Due to a defect in the screener, I didn’t get to see the last few minutes of the film, so perhaps there was some brilliant conclusion which tied it all together. And although it didn’t work for me, I suspect No Impact Man will find an audience; after all, slick packaging of political correctness is usually a winning combination. | Sarah Boslaugh

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