Hell is beautiful.
A profound meditation on what the human species is doing to the planet we live on, "Manufactured Landscapes " is also the art-curio event of the year: A film that begs to be hung on the wall, studied, absorbed, and learned from. Director Jennifer Baichwal takes the industrial landscape photography of Edward Burtynsky and unfreezes it in time, releasing images of unparalleled loveliness and damage. The result is a hymn to disorder and, implicitly, a warning.
There's little narration, no former vice president explaining what it all means. Baichwal and Burtynsky prefer to show rather than tell. The director followed the photographer on a trip to China, and much of the resulting footage testifies to the scabbed ecological underbelly of the Chinese economic miracle and, by extension, ours.
It's a macro subject, demanding a macro approach. The opening image of "Manufactured Landscapes" is a mighty eight-minute- long tracking shot along a vast factory floor in Xiamen City , and as one aisle of machinery relentlessly follows the last, you either flee the theater or find your sense of time and proportion irrevocably altered. The film demands we pull back -- way back -- from our daily business and consider the long tail of consumption, creation, and decay.
Burtynsky's photographs uncover the beauty in what he calls "industrial incursions": strip-mining, waste runoff, slag , and scree. He finds the ruined poetry in extraction industries and also at the other end of the consumer life span. A series of brightly colored crushed cubes in a junkyard have an eloquence belied by their meaning: They're America's technological cast offs, sent to China to be picked down to wire and motherboard. (Fifty percent of our e-waste goes this route.)
Whole towns are devoted to this recycling ; kids strip discarded computers as heavy metals drip into the water table. A side trip to Chittagong shipbreaking beach in Bangladesh shows families wading through toxic sludge to pull apart tankers plate by plate. (The average life expectancy there is 30.) Mountains of coal pile up in Tianjin Harbor , while, inland, 1.1 million people in 13 towns are relocated to make way for the Three Gorges Dam, a hydroelectric project so massive that a wobble in the earth's rotation was detected when the gates were first opened.
The relocations, we hear, were accompanied by deception and not a few broken bones. Are the people happy with their new homes? "Do not ask me this question," replies a Three Gorges spokesman. "I am not in charge of this."
"Manufactured Landscapes" zooms in close, as well, recording the repetitive gestures of factory work. Mechanical or human, it's much the same: A line of steam irons acquires the grace of a slowed-down Busby Berkeley routine, while workers snap together electrical breakers in seconds, striving for 400 a day. The components are bound for the United States on container ships that look like outsized conduits of globalization.
The film's pace is inexorable, the rhythms aggravating, and strangely lulling. Baichwal makes use of an industrial-music score by Roland Schlimme that's like organized static; it's ugly, but anything else would be lying.
Taken as a whole, "Manufactured Landscapes" is a mesmerizing work of visual oncology, a witness to a cancer that's visible only at a distance but entwined with the DNA of everything we buy and everywhere we shop. We are not in charge of this, you may want to reply. If not, who is?