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Rose-Colored Lens

The movie is filled with the trademark Imax shots of lush landscapes seen at dazzling speeds and throughout it the implied promise of a happy ending.
The movie is filled with the trademark Imax shots of lush landscapes seen at dazzling speeds and throughout it the implied promise of a happy ending. (MacGillivray Freeman Films)

In any case, Katrina meant rethinking the project. The original intent had been to look at the impact of a hypothetical killer hurricane, especially given the loss of wetlands, which serve as a natural safety valve, protecting the vulnerable city of New Orleans. And then a real hurricane showed up, and the damage was all too real. But the producers didn't want to go down the path of laying blame. The focus, says Noles-Bewley, was "the unique culture and beauty of our state."

Imax was the ideal format, and one has to wonder how much the form influenced the content. According to the Imax Corp., which is expanding from its roots in "institutional" settings such as museums to tap the big bucks of commercial fare, Imax "stands for the highest-quality, most immersive filmed entertainment."

Immersive it certainly is. With images so big there's nothing to distract your peripheral vision, with tiny holes in the screen to allow the high-powered digital sound system to penetrate straight through, with steep rows of seats giving everyone a perfect view, Imax is a major sensory assault. What the Electric Light Orchestra did for vitiated rock music in the '70s, Imax does for film: It is a big high-powered end-run around a declining art form. Music and scenery -- the sublime -- were once the hallmarks of Imax.

But the sublime has yielded to films such as "Hurricane on the Bayou," which uses too much motion, too many special effects, too many shots of boats racing through the bayous. They needed hurricane footage to give it yet more punch, so they manufactured it in special-effects studios. In press materials, the film's director of photography, Brad Ohlund, gets at the basic aesthetic of Imax when he describes filming the local culture and its festivities: "If only we could also let the audience taste the food with that same IMAX theatre realism!"

Realism isn't really the right word. Imax is hyper-realism, images so voluptuous that they break down the distance between the spectator and the film. They overwhelm rational response, seduce the eyes and neuter the intellect, reducing the viewer to happy cooing at the sheer beauty of it all.

It is the perfect format for a little aesthetic "green washing," the substitution of a nexus of happy things -- beautiful images and a bland statement of environmental concern -- for a serious film about what went wrong, who did it and who should pay to fix it. According to the Audubon Nature Institute, the money from Dow Chemical came in because Dow had been forced by a lawsuit to contribute to environmental projects. The company picked the perfect film at which to throw its penitential dollars.

MacGillivray argues that Imax is not the right format for dealing with "a complex web of environmental issues." He says: "Imax films, by their nature, are generally noncontroversial, apolitical films that play to family audiences in the world's prestigious museums and science centers."

Which is to say that Imax, by its very nature, can't deal with concepts or raise much above the level of eye candy. So why is the Smithsonian showing this film? Why was it screened this week as part of the Environmental Film Festival? On the surface, "Hurricane on the Bayou" seems innocuous enough. Its failings are primarily sins of omission -- no real content, no real message, no real integrity. So perhaps it's not worth holding the Smithsonian to account for a film that feels like a sop to industry.

The Smithsonian, these days, sits at another intersection -- of culture and business. Imax is the perfect cultural product for that intersection -- lush, beautiful, expensive to make, and very popular with audiences who demand that museums entertain them. But the Smithsonian should be above this sort of thing. If the environmental crisis is grave, then our premier museum institution should insist on a more serious Imax product, or get out of the Imax business.

"Hurricane on the Bayou" isn't the worst sin committed down there recently. Its message is superficially pro-environment, and the hearts of the filmmakers may have been in the right place. But it turns one of the pivotal disasters in U.S. history into entertainment. It dilutes a vast tragedy with a narrative little better than a Hollywood feel-good flick, it teaches little, it points no fingers and it demands no change in the viewer. If Katrina can be reduced to corporate-sponsored entertainment, if the Smithsonian embraces that sort of thing, if environmentalists sit through it without any outrage, then there's nothing in America that can't be Imaxed into saccharine meaninglessness.

Next up, Imax: Iraq?

Hurricane on the Bayou (not rated, 40 minutes) can be seen at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History daily at 12:05 p.m. and 2:50 p.m., and at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly at 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. For more information go tohttp://www.si.edu/imax/index.htm.


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