Saturday 1 January 2022

Portable Antiquities Collectors Won't Look Up

Don't Look Up

Two Warsaw members of the Barford family spent this New Year in isolation from wider contacts with a bottle of Ukrainian "champagne" (solidarity with our country's neighbours) and a chicken and cheese pie. We decided to watch the film "Don't Look Up" (USA 2021). As many readers will know, it is a satirical science fiction story centred around science denial by media, the 'establishment' and politicians - of course the real story behind it is a metaphor for government, media (and thus ultimately public) indifference to the climate crisis and the way the public as a whole is rendered complacent and complicit through accepting misinformation at face value. Before watching it I'd read a number of reviews - mostly fairly hostile, so was not expecting much. I must say I really liked it, but was at the same time repulsed and disturbed by it. I found it quite thought-provoking, both in general as well as personally.

The story (spoilers here: Netflix, Wikipedia, IMDb) is multilayered, and looking closer behind its seeming simplicity and in-your-face brashness, it turns out there is a lot of clever writing and innuendo. The message about the dangers of our current state of prevalent anti-intellectualism could not be clearer. It is here the film spoke to me. In the telling caricature, the whistle blower astronomers at first celebrate their 'discovery' a new comet, but when they realise the significance of its trajectory they are frustrated in their attempts to get effective action taken. The media treat a serious issue as just part of their usual fare of marginal trivia, politicians think only of their popularity ratings and are afraid to take action, while a third option (big tech symbolised by the ultra-creepy, meek-voiced billionaire Peter Isherwell amazingly played by Mark Rylance) comfortingly reassures that "everything's fine" while at the same time avoiding eye contact (ie looking the facts in the face). Spoiler alert, everyone dies in the end.

This was very close to home for me. Together with a few other folk (Nigel Swift, Sam Hardy and others), we have been trying for some two decades or more to get across to a wider public the issue of the massive damage being done to the historical record by artefact hunting and collecting. I am not for a moment suggesting that this is a problem anything near the magnitude of a planet-killer comet or global climate change, but I hope we can agree that neither is this an issue of totally negligible importance for humanity. Yet, like the whistleblower comet-spotters of the film, the media, the establishment and the politicians not only could not give a tinkers, but actively deflect discussion away from the crux of the issue to some supposed benefits. The media fail to attempt to see beyond the same few easy marginal trivia and tropes that they always use. The PAS and dealer's lobby groups have been 100% in Isherwell mode for over two decades. Governments say the remains of our ancient past are important and they are determined to protect them , but don't (and even see "opportunities" provided by its destruction by artefact hunters). These are the ones urging the public "don't look up" to see the reality but encouraging them to focus instead on their soothing narratives and science denial.

This, I think, is a narrative that is already familiar to many campaigners. Two things about this film that are notable also have their parallels in the fight against damage caused by collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record.

The first is "where are the other scientists?". The storyline is that only two scientists are urging action be taken, and presenting convincing and verifiable evidence that the situation is dire and requires a remedy. the rest are sitting back and watching from the sidelines. That may in part be a desire on the part of the writer to keep the story simple, but it is what is happening. How many of the world's tens of thousands of scientists are actively campaigning against climate warming (how many can you name without looking it up?). How many of even the UK's c.6000 archaeologists about "metal detecting"? Where are these people? In the film, in the end one of the comet-spotters decides to work "with" the establishment, ultimately realising (too late) that this is not the way to influence events.

The second attribute of the film is the assumption that "the world" actually consists of the USA. This is a pretty typical 'given' of US mass culture of course. Here though it is what the Americans do or don't do, by themselves that decide the direction of future events that affect the entire planet (China is depicted just as a passive watcher). The fictional problem of the film plot, like the collection and commerce in antiquities, is one that requires international collaboration. This concerns not just action against culture thieves across national borders, but actually establishing what it is we are faced with and fighting... a task that is not easy given that two major market/collecting countries (UK and USA) have laws and conceptions that not only differ from each other, but also the majority of other countries in the world. And we try to pin the whole thing together under a UNESCO Convention 50 years old, referring to the market of the 1960s, that is not actually about looting at all.

I do wonder however about the point of it all. The film raises a number of questions. The main one seems to be "what can we do about this"? A realistic answer to that escapes me. It seems that in the end, all some of us are left with is the sentiment expressed near the end of the film when Dr Mindy and his family and friends sit out the end of the world, and Dibiasky says "I'm grateful we tried".  

Update 5th Jan 2022
Several interesting reviews:

George Monbiot, 'Watching Don’t Look Up made me see my whole life of campaigning flash before me' Guardian Tue 4 Jan 2022

"No wonder journalists have slated it. They’ve produced a hundred excuses not to watch the climate breakdown satire Don’t Look Up: it’s “blunt”, it’s “shrill”, it’s “smug”. But they will not name the real problem: it’s about them. The movie is, in my view, a powerful demolition of the grotesque failures of public life. And the sector whose failures are most brutally exposed is the media".

Branco Marcetic, ‘Don’t Look Up’ and the Maddening Reality of the Climate Crisis', Science 5th Jan 2022. 

Rebecca Oppenheimer, 'Hollywood Can Take On Science Denial; Don’t Look Up Is a Great Example' Scientific American   December 30, 2021 [though I think she focuses on the comet and misses the main point]. 

Donna Lu  ‘It parodies our inaction’: Don’t Look Up, an allegory of the climate crisis, lauded by activists Guardian 30 Dec 2021. 

David Vetter, 'Why Sneering Critics Dislike Netflix’s ‘Don’t Look Up,’ But Climate Scientists Love It', Forbes Dec 28, 2021. 

Rain Jordan, 'Environmental Activists Praises Adam McKay's 'Don't Look Up' Saying "It's an Allegory for the Climate Crisis", Nature World News Dec 30, 2021 ["I've heard from a lot of activists who say that after seeing the video, they felt heard and recognized"]. 

John Leo C. Algo, ' ‘Don’t Look Up’: A film review by a climate advocate', Rappler Jan 4th 2022.

Update Updated

"Rarely has a film been as divisive as Adam McKay’s climate satire Don’t Look Up. Although it has been watched by millions, and is already Netflix’s third most watched film ever, the response from critics was largely negative.[...] We asked four climate experts to give their views on the film":
Ketan Joshi, Fiona Harvey, Nina Lakhani and Damian Carrington, 'Don’t Look Up: four climate experts on the polarising disaster film' Guardian Sat 8 Jan 2022

the movie has been panned by many critics, with the main charge being that it is heavy-handed, blunt and too obvious. But that is exactly the point.
I'd really like to hear Greta Thunberg's response.

Also, despite many critics suggesting the film is heavy-handed, one notices the plethora of texts appearing on the Internet of the " 'Don't Look Up' ending explained" ilk. Dozens of them, which reveals something about the audience, I guess.

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