Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Back to petroleum

Burning Capital, "a documentary on BP's fourth quarter and full year results 2007" by Platform (see note 1) was published on the web on 5 Feb. I watched it a couple of days ago and hazard a few comments here.

As its subtitle makes clear, Burning Capital is not trying to be 'art'. But neither is it 'just' a documentary either. The film has a strong polemical intent, coloured by a concern for aesthetics, feeling and imagination that is typical of much of Platform's work, and one of the reasons that work is often interesting.

The film has a clear message: that far from starting to move beyond petroleum, BP is refocussing its strategy for half a century ahead on heavily polluting fossil fuels (BP goes back to petroleum); and that this strategy is fundamentally at odds with avoiding dangerous climate change. The narrator, James Marriott, asks pointedly what responsibility named individuals bear for this, and says that BP's strategy will, or should, put in question its social license to operate in countries like the U.K., U.S., and Germany. Were consumers/citizens to demand that BP factor in the cost of carbon of its operations and products, the balance sheet and share price of Britain's largest corporation would probably go into free fall.

So far, so predictable: the leopard does not change its spots (see, for example, The metamorphosis of oil?). Oil executives are 'bad', even sociopathic. And, as the professors of business at the major schools observe, the most important technological and social disruptions often come from new entrants, not established players.

Less easy to judge, but potentially interesting and important, is what contribution Burning Capital may make to changing minds and provoking actions. What might it add to the sense that things can be different, to making something happen...such as the fundamental strategic shift in energy investment that some environmentalists have been recommending for at least twenty years (but which climate change science now indicates is more urgent than ever)?

Activists and others may see Burning Capital as a useful educational and motivational tool ("Did they really sneak out the TNK announcement at midnight during the Bali conference? Have they really been playing a multi-year game in Iraq all along, and deep into the Canadian establishment since 1919? The absolute rotters! I am shocked, shocked!, to find gambling taking place in this establishment" [see note 2]), and that may be fine as far as it goes. Their opponents may see it as simplistic, and criticise the film for what they think it leaves out. That's for them to say.

But I will speculate about two moments in the film which are among its most 'artistic' and least 'political'. The first is the account, in Act 1.2, of the "vast liquid clock" that is the Forties extraction and pipeline system in the North Sea and the refineries to which it is connected. The system takes ten days to turn crude oil into aviation fuel that powers a 747 across the Atlantic:
The liquid clock takes ten days to run its course, ten days for the oil to move from 8,000 feet below the sea level to 31,000 feet above it, for liquid rocks to melt into air, ten days for geology laid down 57 million years ago to be incinerated into gas.
The second, in Act 3.1, features footage of freefall from extreme altitude. (Perhaps Joseph Kittinger's 1960 jump from about 31,300 metres which put him into free fall for four and a half minutes, reaching a speed of about 990 kmph before he opened his parachute at 5,500 metres? Burning Capital does not say.)

In my view, the power of these moments, which help to make the film watchable, inheres in the way they touch on profound questions for human existence: time and death. While much of the film is full - perhaps too full - of busy (but very well spoken) narrative with explicit designs on the intellect (carrying it over a few clunky bits to end deftly located in front of a filling station where 'we' as consumers 'choose' to fill up), these moments (with antecedents in the likes of Koyaanisqatsi, 1982) communicate directly to the imagination. Their relationship to the main narrative is not solely instrumental, and may even question its designs: not with fatalism, exactly, but with an invitation to step beyond a normal way of perception (as, for example, "inhabiting the instant of one's
 death...knowing that this is the last breath that you are 
going to draw and not being afraid" as Simon Critchley puts it in his analysis of Terrence Malick's Thin Red Line), only to return in a state of being that is more engaged and open to change...or not.

Note 1. Disclosure: I have followed Platform's Carbon Web project for some years, and on occasion have been peripherally involved with it. I reviewed And While London Burns here, and a very long time ago created a student project -- a version of Brecht's Man Equals Man set in the Falklands War -- that carried a Platform 'stamp'.

Footnote 2: one of my favourite examples concerns Tony Blair's jaunt to Libya just before he left office. See John Company.

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