By Scott Kirkwood
Every time I start writing a magazine article, I’ve got to make decisions about the way I tackle the story. Who will I interview? Which quotes are the most compelling? What are the 3-4 key points? What anecdotes will best tell the story? What will I leave out? (Something always gets left out.) I always wonder, if I’d made different choices, or if I’d given the piece to another writer, how would the story be different? Filmmakers face the same decisions. You can only make one film. But what if two filmmakers made a short film about the exact same subject? Well, they did.
Last year, director Jason Baffa and Farm League Films produced “Deep Dive: The Langs,” an 8-minute profile of Richard and Judith Lang, a couple that creates art from plastic found on the beaches of Point Reyes National Seashore in California. At about the same time, Eric Slatkin and Tess Thackara of High Beam Films produced “One Plastic Beach,” an 8-minute profile of the same couple. Both films are great—among the best I’ve seen since writing for this blog. And by watching each of them, we can see the decisions the filmmakers had to make before even turning a camera on, while filming on location, and even in the editing room.
Before you read any further, watch them both, and try to get into the heads of the filmmakers.
Here’s my take:
“Deep Dive” has great music and a more artistic approach in terms of composition, shallow depth of field, and panning across a scene. This is essentially a story about artists who happen to be environmental activists, not the other way around. We see Judith at home, in the studio, on the beach, and in their storage space. We see close-ups of them working with their hands, and we watch Judith’s bare feet walk across the floor (such an artist thing to do!).
Richard says, “You’ve never been to Kehoe beach?!” while recounting a story, or perhaps talking to the director, but it feels like he’s talking to us—and no, we haven’t been, so the next shot takes us there. We learn about their first visit, the trophy fish, their first project and first gallery show. As Richard says, “Something is going on in that this whole beach can tell the story of the whole planetary mess.” Judith explains process of using shape and color to “ensnare” people in the beauty of it, and how long-term action comes when you’re in love, as they are. Near the end, we see her hand rubbing the back of his neck—a simple act, like the simple acts each one of us can take to make a difference.
“One Plastic Beach” takes a more straightforward editorial approach, starting without any music, just the close-up of the plastic diver and the Lang’s explanation of the item. They introduce themselves as people who find things on the beach—environmentalists who happen to be artists.
We learn about their first meeting, the juice-lid caps, and the trophy fish again, but it all has a very editorial feel to it. We see a slice of the process unfold before us, as Judith shows us a group of items she’s discovered, and the couple discusses whether one item belongs in the arrangement. We learn about the North Pacific Gyre, a swirling soup of plastic the size of Texas. “We’re not cleaning the beach, we’re curating the beach,” they tell us. There are a lot of important numbers in this piece: In two hours they can collect more than 70 pounds; in one year, 2 tons. Judith says there are 46,000 pieces of visible plastic in every square mile of ocean on the planet, so the Langs determined what 10 city blocks would contain. We see the oil truck that was last produced in the 1950s, and the plastic hair curlers that no one uses anymore, and we get a little nostalgic and a little nauseous at the idea that these items are still floating in the sea. Richard tells us the opposite of beauty is not ugly, it’s indifference, and the message returns to where it began—two environmentalists helping us to see things in a new way.
Each film accomplishes a lot in 8 minutes. Which film were you more drawn to, and why? (Leave a comment below, or join the conversation on Facebook!)