Monday, March 19, 2007


*Water, algae, light by Laurie Wajima

The Unforeseen

Director: Laura Dunn
Cast: Robert Redford, Willie Nelson, Ann Richards, William Greider, Gary Bradley, Wendell Berry

Synopsis: (from SXSW catalog)
A west Texas farm boy heads to Austin in pursuit of the American dream. Skillfully capitalizing on the rapid growth of this late 1970s boomtown, he rises to the top, transforming a 4000-acre ranch into the state's largest and fastest-selling subdivision. As development threatens the local treasure, a fragile limestone aquifer and a naturally spring-fed swimming hole, the community fights back and forms one of America's strongest environmental movements. This is no simple story, but a tale of personal hopes, victories and failures; a series of debates over land, economics, property rights and the public good; a meditation on the destruction of the natural world and the American dream.

Of course, the title is ironic.

It was also ironic for me to see the film almost a year after two propositions to fight globalization failed in a city-wide vote because of "unforeseen consequences," code invented by developer lobbyists to kill environmental measures.

Irony. In a brilliant thread of film woven in and out of the narrative, the politico named Brown, who lobbied to get grandfathering laws passed at the State level to negate local water ordinances, brags while gluing together a model bomber, full of thumbsize rockets, which he glues, tapes up with blue masking tape, paints and blows dry.

Historical clips and the clear, powerful graphics, the documentation of events and forces that have resulted in the near destruction of one of America’s most beautiful springs, the dramatic red-lining of planet earth are to be applauded.

For the most part,
The Unforeseen, brilliant as it is, however, is not the film I would like to have seen, or thought to see. The synopsis above is a far cry from the "film about Barton Springs" I understood Laura was making after we met during a long lunch at the beginning of her work on the project. I knew the film had powerful backing and thought it might do important work. It think it will. I thanked her afterwards, in the hallway, when the credits were running. And I meant it.

It was a brave artistic decision to tell the story from the developer point of view, in Austin, anywhere, to cast Gary Bradley — the likes of Ken Lay — as a tragic hero, caught up by forces greater than himself, washed through with tragic irony. Laura said during a Q&A after the showing, she didn't want to demonize him.

During the growth war Laura recaps in the early 90s, I ran into Freeport MacMoran’s front man, David Armbruster, in the grocery store. He was looking for a birthday card. Knowing that didn't make me a more effective environmental activist.

It is a service to trace the lines of globalization from Freeport MacMoran’s obscene strip mining in Indonesia to their fertilizer plants that dump raw poison into the Mississippi River in Louisiana, killing the estuaries that might have saved New Orleans, and then let us see how that devastation has spread to our/anyone’s home town. This cannot be said too often. Throughout, overviews were beautifully done, shot from the windows of airplanes, scenes of devastation spread out in the light, making it obvious that a huge movement for moritorium on all building on the aquifer be demanded by all sane citizens of the region, now.

Too often Americans don’t get it that our brand of global capitalism is the lion that eats itself, and tiring of foreign fodder, will consume our own homeland.

What the film doesn’t do is explain how it is that we allow this.

While she was busy making Gary Bradley, [old crony of Ann Richards, who Molly Ivins once told me --"has always been a liar" -- the developer who eventually sold off to Freeport, aka Stratus, now itself for sale] look like a human being — Austin was turning itself into a perfect case study of how we feed the giant.

We, and by "we" I mean the environmental movement and the people of Austin, let them get away with it. We helped them. They couldn’t have done it without us.

We chose to work for "consensus" with developer nice guys for the good of the whole community, and stopped paying attention while these same nice guys worked behind our backs to pass grandfathering laws. We let old feuds discount brilliantly conceived tools for regulating corporate greed. We fought each other, tossings millions into the frey. We let developers get away with race bating and have been left with a movement divided along lines of culture and race, when water is a human issue, not a white one. We approved "bmps" and "green building standards", "mitigation deals," state of the art watering with "treated" sewage on golf courses, and all kinds of stragegies that made it "feasible" to build-out the aquifer. We embraced Wise Use strategies like the ones Gail Norton brought to the Bush Cabinet. We turned blind eyes when our pals sidled up to special interests. We let them into the movement, and they played us against each other. We let our elected officials at state and local levels off the hook when they said it was too much touble to protect the environment.

David Armbruster, the old Freeport point guy, is now the Director of the Board of the Hill Country Conservancy. Maybe when his term runs out, Gary Bradley can do it. On their watch the Hill Country and Edwards Aquifer will be built-out, and they will get awards for open space strips that make Freeport spin-off properties flip for more money.

While the the film threads mostly from the developer island of reality, it features a narrative by SOS director, Bill Bunch, architect of those recent anti-globalization measures. However, anything he might have said about this most recent growth war doesn’t show up in the film — ironic, in my view, because it was this last set of conflagrations that clarified the problem in my eyes.

I’d never believed complaints about "greenwashing" about "sell out" until I saw the developer master plan fold out in the board rooms of an Austin environmental non-profit group — Bill the attack point of developers and environmentalists both. The point being to me how profoundly corporate hogwash streams throughout our culture. And we don't get it. And attack our own for pointing it out.

I have long thought that one of our most important errors was that we have seen environmentalism as a single point issue, ignoring globalization and the war machine, which is the real foe. This film addresses that. But the choice to play the narrative out of the developer perspective led Laura Dunn to leave out significant details, choose others oddly.

She left out that Bradley drove the city into a "takings" case forcing us to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy out his losses "caused" (odd use of the word) by our water ordinance. She picked Sally Shipman to be the councilmember to announce the defeat of the Barton Creek Pub (which has been completely built-out anyway) when, actually, Shipman tried to de-rail the whole thing right before the vote, then left town to join her developer husband in Houston. She left out scores of important activists, whose wisdom and experience bring light to the struggle to protect the earth — this in favor of the Gary Bradley thread.

I know politicos who are breathing huge sighs of relief because Laura Dunn left them out. While the farmer in Hutto is another iconic (male) character, the farm in Hutto she features isn't on the aquifer. There have been iconic women in the movement — Shudde Fath, Mary Arnold, Margueritte Jones, for instance. Bill Oliver, not Willie Nelson, love his bones, is the Austin musician who heralds Barton Springs and works non-stop for the environment. Robert Redford has been a revered advocate for Barton Springs for decades; we need his voice.

National Geographic came here, interviewing some of us, and produced a spread on Austin, I wondered whose hometown they were talking about. I felt a little like that watching Laura's film, and was startled to hear my own voice in it, and honored to be included.

The condition of the water in the springs was somewhat sanitized in the film. The bottom of the pool is a wasteland, stringing globs of algae climbing up to the light, choaking underwater plants, filling up the water column with fur that makes swimmers choke and gives us sinus and lung infections.

Ann Richards got way too much credit for protecting the environment, which was not one of her priorities. When I see Gary Bradley weep because his mother died while he was in bankruptcy, and his hometown judged him harshly, I think of what Pam Thompson said in the lobby after the film, "His mother died. And he killed ours."

So I wonder if
Irony – the sort that burgeons in classical tragedy – works. Or working, if it says enough about what has happened and why.

An iconic American hero crashes and weeps.

I don’t care about that nearly as much as I mourn the loss of our beautiful pool, or the mothers, fathers, children, human figures who will die when our coastal cities fill up with water unless we motivate people to insist that our government reign in corporations. And that's not going to happen without relentless, informed, public pressure.

The Unforeseen will help people in other places understand this, or will they think it can't happen to them?

Mostly the soundtrack is a dirge. It is a dark vision indeed because, perhaps, it stopped short of the answer to these societal and environmental catastrophes. And it didn’t have to because the answer was being played out while she was at work on the film. We have to come together as Americans, change the political culture, reject wise-use, regulate the corporations on the scale of the anti-trust movement in the middle of the last century. We must admit our mistakes, grave as they have been, and move on. That is what the last growth war in Austin taught me.

I know why she chose to ignore this, I think. It was a messy fight, complicated, lots of raw feelings, lots of people who used to work for the environment, working against it. Artistically impossible.

The Unforeseen shows us how the big boys work. It avoids what makes their victories possible. We help them. We allow it.

So world-scale,
The Unforeseen, is a brilliant film about an environmental disaster caused by globalization. For us, the ones who have worked for decades in Austin to combat this horror — the question is where do we go from here? How do we stop feeding the giant?

I'd like to see the film she didn't make.

Ironic, because artistically, the one she made is nearly perfect.

© Susan Bright, 2007

Susan Bright is the author of nineteen books of poetry. She is the editor of Plain View Press which since 1975 has published one-hundred-and-fifty books. Her work as a poet, publisher, activist and educator has taken her all over the United States and abroad. Her most recent book, The Layers of Our Seeing, is a collection of poetry, photographs and essays about peace done in collaboration with photographer Alan Pogue and Middle Eastern journalist, Muna Hamzeh.

Announcement: The Plain View Press e-store has just gone online.


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Blogger Charlie Loving said...

We do not care because it is someone else's problem; or it is too big for me to be able to do anything about it anyway.
and we seem to love the guys who lie to us or is it we can't tell truth from fiction?

11:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


That's a mouth full. Thanks for writing and kicking off the conversation that I was hoping the film would spark. I've started writing something as well and encourage everyone who saw the film to do likewise.

No one film can do it all. Those that try usually fail. The film suggests -- actually cries out -- for fundamental change. But by not writing a recipe, one which like most of us the filmmaker only has ideas about but no cookbook, Laura has done what she set out to do. It's the same as your main point -- its up to us, as inviduals, as families, as neighbors, as city dwellers, as Texans, American, Planet Earthers, to figure it out and to stop facilitating just because certain folks are absolutely hilarious, adorable, shrewd, or, often times, innocent or unaware of their individual role in what we are doing to our world.

As Laura said in the Q & A, the question is not so much what she will do with the film but what we (the viewers) will do with it.

So what will we do?

Bill Bunch

1:19 PM  
Blogger SB said...

Thanks Bill

I hope more people will comment -- I think the film can be a catalyst.

Hopefully a far ranging one.

What to do --

Consciousness raising re. global warming, global capitalism and globalization and free trade, related to home

Paper ballots

Internet tools for us -- like move-on

Moratorium now -- on aquifer

Relentless, informed public pressure to save the planet --
local to global, global to local

Hats off to SOS! speaking of relentless --

And thanks to Laura.


1:59 PM  
Blogger oZ said...

I thought the film was a work of art and like many works of art, it can and will be many things to many viewers.

For me, the music, the poetry,the cinematography,the many satellite views, the connection of this kind of development to cancer cells, and the reappearing "walking man" all conspired to bring a few tears to my eyes.

In my view, this film was a sensitive and nuanced statement of the connectedness of the micro with the macro.

A small pool of clear cool water connects to an up and coming "war mongering" future president.

A land developer likens the earth with its pristine undeveloped land to a "blank canvas" for his so called art.

A business lobbyist builds a miniature model of a high speed, advanced device for global murder, as he speaks proudly of his own contribution to the local murder of the environment.

A red neck ranch broker asks "where did the 5 million dollars go" as he defends the property rights of his client, yet fails to even acknowledge the rights of those who he would offend through his actions.

I thought the film was an impressive and meaningful stroll through the complicated fields of self vs other, freedom vs justice, and power vs right...

Maybe not perfect, but a distant galaxy from fatally flawed.

3:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was so looking forward to the film and thrilled that someone had finally tackled this ongoing saga of Austin's fight to preserve Barton Springs pool and the Edwards Acquifer from degredation and slow death by impervious cover and rampant development. While I thought the film made many strong points, it was not the film I was anticipating. It seemed a bit long, a bit too focused on trials and tribulations of Gary Bradley. I'm sorry that he had to disappoint his mother but he did rape the land, our land, and the tears he shed were not tears of shame or remorse but of regret that he didn't succeed in doing even more damage. Marshall Kuykendall is portrayed as a big villain and, while he is certainly on the wrong side, he doesn't compare to Bradly and Jim Bob in my view. The story that I always wanted to see flushed out and which Laura touched on is the notion of Freeport McMoran, multinational corporation and consummate polluter, destroying the mountain in Indonesia that was sacred to sub-literate tribal peoples all in pursuit of gold for their stockholders (and themselves) and doing the same thing here in Austin to a community of highly literate folk ... degrading our sacred icon, Barton Springs, in equal pursuit of the almighty dollar - and the impotence of both populations to stop them and their ilk. And I wonder about the film's title - while I realize it refers to the poem that was a thread throughout, Unforeseen is exactly what this outcome was not ... many of us have watched and protested and despaired as the roads were built, as AMD won its battles, as the subdivisions marched on - but I do hope that, by making this film, Laura Dunn has started a conversaton that we can continue to have with this community and maybe it will cause a few more people to wake up! Nancy Scanlan

9:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To me, the movie is an artistic statement about the dark side of the American Dream -- upward mobility through endless growth.

Part of the American Dream is the hometown boy made good -- Bradley personified this. If you get out and talk to folks besides your own circle of like-minded, you will discover that many people admire the type of tenacity, pluck, and yes, "vision," that Bradley had.

They will say "what's wrong w/ someone getting rich supplying shelter?" & they can feel the pathos of the Bradley self-pity that he failed after flying so high. Sympathizing w/ his fallen charlatanism makes sense in that context.

Why else was Bradley so successful w/ his B.S. for so long? Because people on some level wanted to be fooled (i.e., they believe in the American Dream and were charmed by the man's ambitions). The way any 'con' works is that the 'mark' wants to believe it. Bradley wasn't born rich, but he became rich b/c he had a dream, etc. And people sympathize w/ this idea.

Another, more mundane version of the Dream is the humble family that just wants a simple home, not to get rich. So the newly arrived family in Hutto symbolizes this pole of the Dream. Maybe they are less complicit or witting in the rape of the earth, but are not both consumer and producer of suburban housing involved in this particular problem?

The film makes transparent the otherwise unseen links between gold mining in Papua New Guineau and strip mining the aesthetics of Barton Creek, between Circle C which is on the aquifer and Hutto which is not, between these suburban subdivisions and the downtown skyscraper - which is probably just as unsustainable despite being touted as "smart growth."

The untenability of endless growth is explored in the extended metaphor of the cancer cell. And the film did a wonderful job w/ that.

The question of personal blame for this is arguably evaded w/ Bradley & the suburbanites, but more elaborated w/ the lobbyist. This unseen prescence is revealed only by a voice barking commands and a pair of manipulating hands. We're prevented from holding the person personally responsible b/c we're not even allowed to see them. They fly over a landscape that they lay waste to from on high with war machines, like malevolent omnipotent gods.

Jim Bob didn't need to go in front of the cameras and microphones, & it proved counterproductive. He started succeeding once he became occult once more, retreating behind the paneled doors and the Stratus mask of publicists, lobbyists, and lawyers.

But by allowing us to identify with some of the humbler practioners of the Dream and their aspirations, the film denies us the comfort of distance from the problem. We are all involved, not just faceless corporate monsters.

Maybe we can feel smugly superior to the couple at Circle C who celebrate their lifestyles but lament the abscence of a nearby Wal-Mart or McDonald's. But we can't feel any superiority, or even ironic distance, from the child who hopes his suburban 'wilderness' doesn't vanish "too soon." We can only feel sadness that someone so young already knows the rules of the game.

I think criticisms of thise movie as misleadingly incomplete are inevitable - but yet, not too consequential.

This problem of incompleteness is an artifact of the medium and of needing to make the points that the filmmaker wanted to make within the average running time of a movie. All these critical viewers are simultaneously saying that the movie is "too long." If you want to add, then you must take stuff out at some point.

All films "lie" in the sense that the camera can only point one direction at a time. Also, truth in all its complexity can get in the way of a good story. Even when rigorously fact-checked & "true" to the points made, any film will only say some things and not others.

She could have slagged Gary more and praised Ann less. But these are quibbles really. Going there would have been an obstacle to winning universal appeal for this movie. The film's great value is speaking to the people in and outside Austin who don't know anything about this situation yet can connect it to events in their own lives.

The film sneaks up behind people's defenses to confront them w/ their own role in the problem. Had you started out moralistically bashing the viewer for their aspirations and lifestyle, they would've reacted against it. Instead you draw them in sympathetically by portraying heroic entrepeneurs and ordinary homeowners then spring the consequences of their choices on them.

Had you allowed them the comfort of easy villains, they likewise could have distanced themselves from personal responsibility.

As an activist, my one serious regret about this movie is the lack of much solution or hope being presented. William Greider has a single sentence where he suggests we can further develop without growth - that we can supply housing needs w/o further suburbanization over the next generation. Are we otherwise to all to join Despair, Inc? I hope not.

In the end, I think the film was both a plus for our movement and a triumph for her artistic talent. People I spoke to who weren't activists or even Austinites spontaneously stated that they were touched and inspired by the all night hearing in 1990. I think they can see that we aren't all hippies, oddballs and weirdos, that there's a real problem and real people with real concerns that are valid.

the film vividly depicted the people and places we love and what is of value that we are losing. It is a beautiful valentine to the passions of Austin greens over the last two decades, whether they are mis-spent, "effective," or not.

Four stars & two thumbs up!

5:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Unforeseen discusses dense development in Hutto which has nothing to do with Barton Springs or the Edwards aquifer. The film is entertaining but not as educational as I expected. I spent much time with Laura but much of the science ended up on the cutting room floor.

I'm still hoping that a documentary film on the aquifer will be made. I think such a film can be entertaining and educational and thus beneficial to the aquifer and the people who use its waters.

In my opinion, what is needed in a documentary film is:
1. historic and current importance of Barton Springs;
2. an entertaining approach (creative 3-D graphics?) that shows how the aquifer works;
3. summaries of threats and lack of protection for the aquifer (BS flow has decreased and water quality degraded, discussion of history of Austin environmental ordinances, lack of TCEQ protection for most of the aquifer, State legislation and other tools and tricks used by developers to circumvent aquifer protection...;
4. limited but precise discussions by experts on historic, current, and predicted flow and water quality of the aquifer and Barton Springs (show examples of the problems rather than faces of experts as they talk..); and,
5. procedures and actions that can save the aquifer.

Raymond Slade

8:05 AM  

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