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The Rosendale Theatre Collective

The greening of america… from ideological seedlings
An interview with Earth Days director Robert Stoneby Jay Blotcher

When Robert Stone was a boy, the growing pollution in his hometown of Princeton, New Jersey, inspired the 11-year-old to make an amateur film on the subject.

Filmmaker Robert Stone

Four decades later, Stone is an award-winning documentarian who has revisited the subject in a larger, more profound way: Earth Days is a meditation on the fitful beginnings of the Green Movement and America’s growing ecological awareness. Stone’s film debuted at Sundance in 2009, drew unanimous critical praise on the art house circuit, and will now have its first TV airing on PBS’s The American Experience on April 19. Fittingly, this premiere coincides with the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, now an internationally recognized celebration.

“There’s certainly a direct connection between that little Super 8 experiment and Earth Days,” said Stone, 51, who also wrote and produced the film. “Earth Days is that movie writ large.”

Stone, a fearless and sly filmmaker based in Rhinecliff, tackles high-profile moments in American history and their effects on our culture. His first film, the Oscar-nominated Radio Bikini (1988) recorded the after-effects of 1946 American nuclear testings on the Bikini Atoll, and was screened at Sundance. The same ferocious intelligence is on display in 2004’s Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (also at Sundance) and, three years later, Oswald’s Ghost, a sobering analysis of the Kennedy assassination’s effect on America. (See the interview with Stone in Roll, August, 2007.)

Earth Days originally began as an historic exploration, Stone said. A resourceful gatherer of archival imagery, the director compiled extensive footage of the first Earth Day celebration in 1970, images of middle-century urban pollution and the still-powerful “Keep America Beautiful” commercial depicting a Native American named Iron Eyes Cody shedding a glycerin tear over the littered landscape.

Denis Hayes

But Stone soon realized that the environmental movement was more than a series of cultural, political and chemical events. Between pioneers like Rachel Carson and latter-day crusaders like Al Gore, a group emerged to effect a collective shift in American attitude. They warned that Spaceship Earth was on a dangerous course to early extinction due to pollution and overpopulation. The mantra was quickly picked up by students, hippies, naturalists, community organizers and politicians.

L. Hunter Lovins
and Stewart Udall

The director reconfigured the narrative of Earth Days to make nine individuals the core of the story. Ranging from entrepreneurs to community activists, from politicians to free-form dreamers, they are Denis Hayes, former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall (who died March 20 at age 90), Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, astronaut Rusty Schweickart, L. Hunter Lovins,

Rusty Schweickart
and Stephanie Mills
Dennis Meadows, Stephanie Mills, Pete McCloskey (R-Calif.), co-author of the 1973 Endangered Species Act, and Paul Ehrlich, author of the influential 1968 jeremiad, The Population Bomb. These people explain how and why they first wrestled with questions of man’s arrogant dominion over nature and the consequences of his enormous carbon footprint.

“That’s what’s missing today,” Stone said. “People are getting bogged down in ‘cap and trade’ and not the big picture.”

Those familiar with the cerebral intensity and visual feast of Stone’s previous films may be puzzled by Earth Days. There is plentiful ironic archival footage—notably kids gaily splashing in a municipal pool while dosed with pesticides from a huge hose. But such signature Stone moments are offset by the often-ponderous testimonies. This departure in style, Stone said, was deliberate. “The film became more abstract,” he said. “It became a history of an evolution of an idea rather than of specific movements.” Complementing these philosophical meditations are a series of high-definition images of nature. They recall the visual poetry of 1982’s Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance.

Stewart Brand

An unapologetic liberal who gleefully takes the stuffing out of conservatives, Robert Stone was blindsided by the outcome of his research for Earth Days. Whether acting out of concern or political expediency, a Republican president emerges as the champion of the movement, approving numerous landmark laws.

“I never thought I’d make a film that would be favorable to Richard Nixon in any way.”

Nixon's heroics notwithstanding, the film affords ample opportunity for GOP-bashing: Ronald Reagan broke rank with his Oval Office predecessors on the issue. Soon after taking the White House, he dismantled the solar panels installed on its roof by Jimmy Carter. He then gutted the government’s fledgling renewable energy programs, claiming that naysayers were trying to undermine our American way of life.

Not that Stone depicts Mother Earth’s defenders as untarnished saviors; by the mid-70s, their rhetoric grew strident and their tactics against Big Business’s pollution escalated. A backlash began: blue-collar workers, protecting their livelihood, decried the longhaired protestors for their “anti-American” mission. (Here is where the pejorative “tree-hugger” came into vogue.) The name-calling on both sides was belatedly toned down, and eventually some industry leaders were convinced that green business could be good business.

By then, conservationists had evolved from grass-roots cells to mainstream organizations, poised to become major players in Washington power games by effecting compromises.

The Green Movement, Stone said, has lacked both numbers and passion since the first Earth Day in 1970. “We’ve been talking the talk for decades, but we haven’t been walking the walk.” The reason has been a harping on a singular topic of urgency rather than several of them, as evidenced by the recent gathering of world leaders in Copenhagen.

“The environmental movement has become solely focused on climate change,” he said.

The filmmaker is hopeful that lasting solutions are imminent, citing “a whole generation of CEOs who were children during Earth Day.” However, a day before this interview, climate change legislation gained a new opponent on Capitol Hill. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV) presented a bill that would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency, already bruised and bloodied by the Bush administration, from flexing its muscle to regulate greenhouse gases from power plants.

On April 11, Earth Days will have a special screening on Facebook (8-9:45 PM), allowing viewers to interact with director Robert Stone and American Experience executive producer Mark Samels. After the PBS airing, Earth Days will be released on DVD.

An exacting filmmaker, Stone will not fill his disc with deleted scenes. But he promises one extra: his 1970 Super 8 anti-pollution film.


PBS The American Experience presents Earth Days by Robert Stone on Monday, April 19. For local times, visit www.pbs.org. More information at www.earthdaymovie.com

All images courtesy Robert Stone Productions



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