By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 21, 2010; C01
If you need a break from worrying yourself sick about the still-gushing BP oil leak, I can tentatively recommend you watch Josh Fox's artful and disturbing documentary "Gasland," airing Monday night on HBO.
It's about the natural gas industry, which might be on the verge of insidiously ruining America's water supply. As such, "Gasland" could push a certain sort of viewer -- me, for example -- into the realm of panic attack. (First the oceans, now the streams and rivers?! And nobody cares about this stuff! Nothing can be done! And, as "Gasland" indicates, Dick Cheney and Halliburton still call the shots! Gaaaah!) We can all just get adjoining padded rooms -- a whole psych ward of neurotics who binge on documentaries and tumble into permanent despair.
"Gasland" is one man's (Fox's) attempt to educate himself about the six-figure offer he received in 2009 for the drilling rights beneath the hippy-dippy Catskills/Poconos farm where he was raised, near the Delaware River -- which, as it happens, sits on a potential swath of gas deposits, which are deep, deep underground.
Fox -- a banjo-plucking, horn-rimmed-hipster filmmaker in his late 30s -- appears to have inherited his place from his parents ("Gasland" never makes this quite clear), and he wants to know more about gas exploration techniques before he signs the paperwork. Though I doubt he was ever going to sell his drilling rights, Fox presents "Gasland" as a quest that quickly moves from naive questions to discoveries of corporate evil.
In that spirit, "Gasland" ventures where so many other environmental-outrage documentaries have gone before and returns with more questions than answers. What's different is that Fox makes for a warmhearted and darkly humorous road-trip companion. It's less about inconvenient truths and more of a memoir wrapped around an unfinished "60 Minutes" exposé.
He starts in the small town of Dimmick, Pa., near his home, where some residents sold their rights only to have their wells turn suspiciously toxic soon after the drilling began. There are even rumors of a faucet where the water will ignite if you hold a lighter to it. That's not good.
Fox starts learning about the vast natural gas reserves spanning from the Northeast, down to the South, then across Texas and up the Western states; the gas is frequently tapped through a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" in industry parlance.
Fracking pumps millions of gallons of chemically treated water deep into the earth, shattering the shale so that a gas well can be tapped. The chemicals used in the process are so many and multi-syllabic that they make for a frightening-sounding list, especially when the gas companies are not legally compelled to name them all, citing proprietary secrets. The craze to find natural gas really picked up with the 2005 Energy Act, which, Fox accurately notes, exempted gas exploration from federal water safety laws. (That's where Dick Cheney comes into Fox's narrative.)
Fox expands his journey far west, to Colorado and Wyoming, where he befriends farmers and rural residents who blame unregulated fracking for their ruined water supplies. Here, Fox finds and films many examples of the hitherto mythic flammable faucet. Also: mountain streams that now bubble with toxic vapors and a frantic woman who's helpfully kept in her spare freezer all the dead animals she's discovered on her land. Gas wells surround all this.
Shot against the chilly and bleak American expanse, "Gasland" quickly becomes a dirge. Fox winds up standing in a field next to some wells, wearing a gas mask and playing forlorn ditties on his banjo.
That's because "Gasland" never loses its sense of jaded artistry; it is first and foremost a movie, made by a Gen-X smartie who likes quick-cut montages of skies and clouds and water interspersed with telltale trendy Helvetica title cards.
In the Michael Moore spirit of things, Fox provides many glimpses of his attempts to get gas company executives and PR people to return his phone calls, including the predictable scene of a man in a suit removing the clip-on microphone and abruptly ending an interview. Although this is presented as sticking-it-to-The-Man material, it instead hints at Fox's failings as an amateur journalist.
Mesmerizing and thorough as it is, "Gasland" is one of those documentaries that will send you into the Google quagmire in search of some answers, which, I can report after a few hopeless hours of looking, you won't easily get.
* * *
Our documentary cup runneth over each summer. It seems to be the preferred American art and journalistic form these days, thanks partly to inexpensive filming technologies. Documentaries are almost always more interesting to watch than you think they'll be, and although HBO is airing a slew of new docs, it's not the only place to find them.
Our PBS affiliates don't always make it easy, however. If you have a DVR, I'd encourage you to ask it to hunt down and record "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe," Sarah and Emily Kunstler's elegiac and evenhanded biography of their iconoclastic father's legal career. (It airs in some markets beginning Tuesday evening and repeats over several days.) In the film, his daughters, who were born after his rise to fame as the defender of the Chicago Seven, struggle to understand the man who put his principles above all else, including the family's sense of safety.
(105 minutes) premieres at 9 p.m. Monday on HBO.
William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe
(90 minutes) premieres Tuesday on PBS; check listings.