More fizzle than sizzle
Like many on the blogosphere, I’ve had the opportunity to view Randy Olson’s latest production Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy. Billed as “an effort to understand the confusion around the global warming,” the movie claims to be a “novel blend of three genres – mockumentary, documentary, and reality” and that alone illustrates the problem with the movie – it doesn’t know what it’s trying to be and after spending 85 minutes with it, I had no real clue what point Olson was trying to make and to whom he is making it. Indeed, it is only out of a sense of duty that I continued watching beyond the first fifteen minutes.
As a mockumentary the movie doesn’t work. I’m sure someone (who doesn’t know me) will call me humorless, but I honestly didn’t laugh once. Hell, I didn’t even crack a smile once. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t expecting Spinal Tap, but some humor would have been nice. Olson and his co-writer, Ifeanyi Njoku, seem to have two types of humor they can write – “Hapless Randy” not being able to make his movie (that gets old very fast) and stereotypes of gays and African American (unfunny). The ending – skeptic becomes believer and Prius owned – is forced. Message from the mockumentary: Randy Olsen cannot write comedy.
As a documentary the movie doesn’t work either. We get interviews with climate scientists (Richard Somerville & Gerald Meehl) and skeptics or denialists (George Chilingar, Bill Gray, Fred Singer, Patrick Michaels, Steve Hayward, Marc Morano). But these are brief moments and the “mockumentary” intrudes. Statements made by the latter group are never challenged but are actually validated by the words of Olson’s faux cameraman Marion. The best we get is Olson just asserting that they are wrong. No attempt is made to convince the audience that there are evidential reasons why the skeptics and denialists are wrong. We get told about “the famous curve which everyone knows” (everyone? really?) but never get to see the evidence for global warming. I do realize that Olson is trying not to replicate An Inconvenient Truth but some attempt at presenting the evidence for (anthropogenic) global warming would have been good, even if only to show that the general public often is incapable of processing that evidence. In short, there is no attempt here to educate the audience about science and how it works. Message from the documentary: unknown.
It is only when “reality” intrudes does there seem to be any message. We are give eight excellent (and I mean this sincerely) minutes of New Orleans residents talking about their experiences during, and after, Hurricane Katrina. Olsen and his faux soundman Antwon largely sit back and let the people speak. After 80 tedious minutes of “mockumentary” the audience is finally given something to think about. Here we see what Naomi Oreskes terms “the human face of global warming” and are faced to realized that the most developed country in the world is as susceptible to natural disasters as impoverished nations. This important message – that global warming is not just about cyclones in Asia or polar bears in the Arctic – is so disconnected from what went before as to essentially comprise a separate movie. And indeed that is what it should be. Olsen could have made an effective documentary about the human face of global warming and how that is an effective way to engage the public with the importance of the issue. But he didn’t.
Olson at one point says "this is a film about the truth. It’s a pretty serious topic". This in the same movie where he comments that scientists are "handicapped by their blind obsession with the truth". So that is "the truth"? Is it that global warming occurs, is (at least partially) anthropogenic, and that we can do something about is? Well those claims are never backed up. Is it that presenting facts and figures doesn’t work (despite Al Gore’s effectiveness at doing that)? Perhaps. In the end, I was left thinking that the message was the one delivered in the twelve minutes of “reality” – that there is a human face to this, a face that is very effective in making us realize that there is a problem, and that this problem is one that we all are going to feel the effects of.
If this indeed is his message it could have been transmitted a lot more effectively without the use of unfunny “mockumentary” enveloping “documentary.” As I say to my students about effective written communication – make your point, make it well, and use only the tools you need to do so. As someone has consistently claimed that scientists are generally not good communicators (a point which I agree with, by the way), Olson has demonstrated his own ineffectiveness in this movie. There is the germ of a good documentary here. It is a pity Olson doesn’t even deliver a mediocre one.