Essay: Participant Media invents an activist aesthetic
By Ann Hornaday,
“The more we know, the more likely we are to do the right things.”
That’s scientist and researcher Peter Gleick, speaking toward the end of “Last Call at the Oasis,” a galvanizing documentary about water and its impending urgencies — the harrowing lack of it and the deadly contamination of what remains.
Gleick’s valedictory serves as an apt summing-up to a film that first plunges viewers into panic, then brings them to the surface, convincing them that they can stem the tide of disaster if they act decisively and quickly.
Gleick’s guarded optimism, as well as “Last Call at the Oasis” itself, also epitomizes what has become the driving artistic ethos of Participant Media, the company that produced the film and that has been making socially conscious movies for almost a decade. Starting with its breakout hit, “An Inconvenient Truth,” in 2006 and with such successive films as “Food, Inc.” and “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” Participant has perfected a house style that, while verging on “Portlandia”-worthy earnestness, has come into its own as a cinematic rhetoric. There’s now such a thing as the classic Participant film — obeying specific, unalterable conventions — in which form is every bit as important as content.
Most if not all of those conventions were solidified in “An Inconvenient Truth,” which began with perhaps the most stultifying event one could imagine — Al Gore delivering a PowerPoint presentation on global warming — and became a bona fide phenomenon, luring millions of viewers to theaters and winning two Oscars.
With “An Inconvenient Truth,” Participant — which was founded in 2004 by former eBay executive Jeff Skoll — learned that even the driest subject matter could be enlivened in the hands of a skillful, sensitive filmmaker, in this case Davis Guggenheim. They learned that charts and graphs were worthless without emotion: Guggenheim wisely opened the film up to include intimate moments with Gore speaking emotionally about the loss of his sister and near death of his son. They learned to intercut bad news with lively graphics and well-placed jokes (“Hello, I’m Al Gore, and I used to be the next president of the United States”).
And they learned that even predictions as dire as an armageddon of floods, droughts and 100 million climate refugees could end on a high note. “An Inconvenient Truth” did so literally and figuratively, with a rousing Melissa Etheridge song and on-screen graphics urging filmgoers to take action by doing everything from buying low-energy light bulbs to driving hybrid cars.
“Last Call at the Oasis” hews faithfully to every one of those tropes, right down to the final credits, when R.E.M. delivers a version of “Walk It Back” and a message flashes on-screen inviting viewers to text “water” and visit the film’s Web site.
Directed with intelligence and style by Oscar-winning director Jessica Yu and filmed with stunning visual clarity by the revered documentarian Jon Else, “Last Call at the Oasis” threads viewers through a huge, intractable problem with lucidity and sweet logic. (We’re using too much water, not paying enough attention to what’s going into it and allowing irrational feelings to stop us from doing what’s needed to conserve and protect what we still have.)
There are plenty of scientific talking heads with Gleick’s expertise, but Yu makes sure to leaven their warnings with compelling personal stories and charismatic characters, among them the real-life Erin Brockovich, who holds a barnburner of a public meeting in a Texas community where the water wells have been contaminated. Who wouldn’t tremble in vicarious outrage as Brockovich inveighs against a scandalously ineffective EPA. (“Superman is not coming,” she flatly says at one point.) Who won’t choke up at the sight of an Australian farm couple auctioning off their beloved cattle in the face of a decade-long drought?
“Last Call at the Oasis” even has the requisite humor, here by way of Jack Black, who gamely agrees to act as spokesman for an imaginary company that has bottled recycled waste water under the marketing moniker “Porcelain Springs.”
With its superb production values, clear arguments and ineffable combination of whimsy and drama, “Last Call at the Oasis” exemplifies what Participant CEO Jim Berk once described as the company’s chief mission to create “an emotional experience” that transcends the problem being diagnosed. “We want to make sure we create a moment where people believe there’s hope.”
The danger of that strategy, of course, is that their films will preach only to the choir. The flip side of their righteous indignation and idealism is that they will simply flatter the sensibilities of their audiences, soothing them with false optimism. Viewers may get the sense at the end of “Last Call at the Oasis” that they’ve done the noble thing just by watching the movie. With Michael Stipe somberly intoning in the background, the on-screen message to text “water” to a designated number seems almost painfully simplistic, the ultimate cliche of bourgeois art-house liberalism.
Still, if Participant productions seem reductively slick and uplifting, consider for a moment the advertising and lobbying power of Big Oil, Big Ag and other corporate interests they often criticize. If Skoll can’t claim that the problems described in his films have been solved, they have arguably changed those conversations forever — and helped fill an important informational hole left by waning investigative journalism organizations.
What’s more, they’ve done it by developing their own genre, now as recognizable and trusted by its constituents as anything from Pixar and Marvel. Better than any movie company in Hollywood, Participant has aestheticized, packaged and marketed a finely calibrated mixture of umbrage and cockeyed idealism. By marshaling not just facts but sound, image and narrative arc, it’s figured out how to capture the stubborn belief that the more we know, the more likely we are to do the right things.
Last Call at the Oasis
(105 minutes, at Landmark’s E Street Cinema) is rated PG-13 for some disturbing content and brief, strong profanity.