“Why make a film about plastics?”
That’s a good question, and one I’ve asked myself many times while working on it. Surely there were more important topics to consider amid a global pandemic, the endless turmoil and reckoning going on in 2020 into 2021. But as the film suggests, this too is a pandemic — for every one. By the time COVID hit the world, the idea had already gotten under my skin. Both the problem it has now metastasized into, as well as the story behind it.
The invention of plastics yielded so many benefits in the beginning. But, as the saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Simple objects such as a comb were luxury items in the 19th century. The slaughter of animals for ivory and bone carvings is gruesome, and the invention of celluloid provided a merciful and ingenious way to both spare this slaughter while lowering the cost and availability to most people. One of my main intentions starting out in this project was to create a more expansive view of plastics. It wasn’t intended to be an advocacy piece on pollution, though that is the disturbance that motivated me to “question the magic.”
Susan Freinkel’s book Plastic: a toxic love story is the book that hooked me on the history and problem of plastics. I read this at the start of 2020 and decided I wanted to tackle the topic in a visual form. In her book, Freinkel skillfully takes the reader through five everyday items to consider the phenomenon, history, and cultural dynamics of plastics at large. If you want to know more, particularly about other types of plastics, the nuances of environmental impact, etc., this is the book to read. For my film, I chose to only focus on polyethylene, which is both our most dominant type of plastic and the one guilty of most of our single-use products. This is often experienced by us (as consumers) in its two density variations: high and low density (HDPE, LDPE).
The other idea that I couldn’t shake was the idea of this quotidian form being a riddle of time. Another marvelous insight into the idea of deep time and fossil fuels is presented in Bill McKibbon’s book Eaarth. “—each gallon of gasoline represents a hundred tons of ancient plants.”1 I was so startled by this image when I first read it, and in the years since have always thought of this as I pump my gas. It’s an impossible concept to fully reconcile; so much of what we have normalized in our everyday conveniences is both an engineering marvel and one built on power that has taken millions of years to develop. Reading the words of Thomas Tranströmer, about time has a labyrinth helped me embrace a lyrical way to approach this film.
The emotional reason why I made this, however, is the film’s dedication. I made it for my daughter, for all she taught me all about whales during her elementary school years. I think of these magnificent animals as our ambassadors of the ocean. For all the sophistication and innovation we’ve created for our own benefit on land, we are still woefully ignorant and careless in how we understand the sea. I’m quite terrified of the ocean, as well as deeply captivated by it. For my studio MFA exhibition twenty-five years ago, I created a multimedia installation that looked at the corporate landscape within the format of a deep-sea nature video. Halfway through the making of this film, it hit me: “Wow, I’m still obsessed with consumerism and our relationship to the sea.”
These are all lofty and weighty topics, on a quite boring subject. I chose to put them into a simple story based on my own experience, my own life. I wrote the narration as a daughter and mother, a curious consumer. Thinking through time on the scale of a generation is much more relatable than trying to depict or describe deep time. I told it as a true story, a snapshot of my life during the lockdown of COVID-19. During the writing of this film, my mother was in the end stages of a long-term illness; her life and my feeling of distance wears heavy on my heart and made its impression on the story. She died two weeks after I posted the film on vimeo.
About a substance that is truly inscrutable, forms so intentionally impersonal, this film is (oddly) the most personal thing I’ve ever made.
Here are some of my daughter’s self-directed study of whales at age 7.
1 Richard Heinberg, “George W. Bush and Peak Oil: Beyond Incompetence,” Energy Bulletin, March 21, 2006.