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BP's oil spillcam: A horror movie about the gulf that's deeply compelling

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 26, 2010; C01

For all the gunk on television, it's hard to think of a more depressing show these days than the "spillcam," the live, continuous underwater footage of the broken BP pipe that has been gushing away deep, deep down in the Gulf of Mexico for more than a month now.

(Watch live feed of oil spill )

Spillcam combines the dread of horror films with the monotony of Andy Warhol's eight-hour silent movie of the Empire State Building. There is no sound and nothing happens, except the inexorable, unending flow. You watch a little, and then a little more, and then you can't stop watching as a steady plume of dark brown oil belches upward from the floodlit, rocky ocean floor.

Depending on the depths of despair that spillcam can take you to, you might find yourself thinking of spillcam even when you're not watching it. At dinner. In the shower. During Sunday night's "Lost" finale, when a Target commercial featuring the show's evil "smoke monster" made you think of the underwater oil plume. (The resemblance is uncanny.)

You can be in bed and wake up in the middle of the night and think to yourself: It's still coming out. Then you think: What if it never stops?

The Weather Channel shows spillcam in the morning. CNN flips to it all the time. And you can watch it online at work all day, in a browser window you can't help but return to. The House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, chaired by Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), firmly requested last week that BP make public its live, continuous monitor footage of the spill. BP may own the camera, the committee said, but everyone needs to see the scope of the problem -- and see it at the source. The company agreed late last week and spillcam went live.

The angle occasionally changes but the focus is always the leak. Every few seconds there's a larger undulation within the pulsing rhythm of the gush.

According to CNN, BP officials said Tuesday evening they would keep the spillcam feed running during the "top kill," an attempt to inject tons and tons of mud into the pipe to plug up the leak. After a series of tests, the top kill plan might be put into action as soon as Wednesday morning.

The top kill would be a lot of plot and drama for spillcam, and hopefully a season finale. Otherwise, spillcam almost never changes: Beneath the digital identification numbers imposed on the screen (with coordinates, the day's date, and a clock ticking away), it is always gray rock, yellow pipes, nasty plume.

There are, of course, other ways to show this disaster, such as all those unsettling aerial pictures taken of oil slicks on the gulf's surface. And on Tuesday's "Good Morning America," the show segued from spillcam to a boat off the Gulf Coast, from which the show's dashing weather anchor, Sam Champion, donned scuba gear and dived beneath the gulf's surface, accompanied by a camera and Jacques Cousteau's even more dashing grandson, Philippe.

There, beneath the blue surface, the two men were enveloped in a sick fog of brown globules. They came up looking like they had rolled around in the bowels of a Jiffy Lube. A crew hosed them off.

And spillcam continues and continues: It has a way of highlighting one's ignorance about geology, marine biology, energy exploration and ecology. It makes us wish we'd been better earth-science students.

Alas, everything I know about spillcam's world I learned from "The Abyss," James Cameron's 1989 sci-fi film about deep-sea drillers who encounter underwater aliens. It's on cable all the time -- Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and that black lady in the cowboy hat, and that scruffy tech guy with the pet rat. With their submarine robots and plucky know-how? Spillcam aches for such heroes.

Tuesday evening, the mud begins to swirl, and spillcam moves its position, and devoted viewers sit and stare, with a remote sense of hope for a happy ending.

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