Saturday, September 17, 2016

REVIEWING "CHROMO", an Argentine TV series

Guarani Aquifer.  There were no images from this TV series on Google. 
In fact, it doesn't show up on the print list.

Because I read subtitles easily (maybe because now they are made by computer in fonts and sizes easier to read), I indulge in a lot of foreign films   This lets me a see a cross-national genre of films like “The Constant Gardener” where intense personal relationships are the doorway to a whole ecology, a landscape we might never see in real life, and the growing destruction of it in the name of profit.  “Cromo” (Chrome) is an excellent example.  The new class of roving scientists — both sexes but no children or else willingness to leave families for long times, highly educated and yet physically vigorous, observing the new ethics of intimacy — these are almost a 19th century return to experiencing natural history but with a crusader intensity.  (David Quammen comes to mind.) They are hunter/gatherers with loose academic ties across national boundaries, who make their livings by monitoring and maintaining the recording equipment in remote places or maybe by doing environmental studies.

Capybaras are a mild sort.

The original premise of this series is that a woman named Valentina is studying the sudden drop in the population of capybaras in an Argentinian marshland of grass and waterways.  A capybara is a great big block-headed rodent like a beaver with eyes high on its head, giving it a look of arrogance — so much nose to look down.  But curiously we see almost no wildlife in this marsh: one little alligator, one capybara from a distance, and talk about wild boars.  This story is about humans and landscapes, and what happens to them as industry contaminates them.

Argentina is a sort of version of the US because it has that same N/S cordillera which there is called the Andes and here is called the Rockies.  The marshland looks like Florida or Louisiana.  As the people cross the prairies in between, they pause at small settlements, economically challenged buildings, undecided whether to stay or to go and not very defined in the first place.  The city (Buenos Aries) of skyscrapers challenges any in America or Europe.  Scientists are in touch with Madrid.  Corrupt bureaucrats, police and corporation denizens control everything, however they think is necessary, including death.

Like the Oglalla Aquifer left under the North American plains by glacial melting and withdrawal (now nearly depleted), there is in South America another underground aquifer, the world’s biggest, called the Guarani Aquifer.  The corporation in question is a tannery, a huge industry in the country.  The skins come from legitimate sources but also from poaching, and the “chrome” that is the crux of the story is from “chrome tanning,” then covertly dumping the sludge and saturated water into the marsh, where it kills both capybaras and people and endangers the Guarani Aquifer which supports whole nations.  Most of the people doing this are also the ones who are dying from the chrome.  Only the tanning corporation’s owner is skimming the profit and escaping the sickness.  But this is just the story structure.

The opening is lyrical and foreboding: dead people floating under marsh water.  In the series of a dozen episodes, we see it twelve times, gradually realizing who the people are and why they died.  This “form” that one can watch in a streaming marathon is a relatively new development, so it’s a bit repetitious with the flashbacks necessary if one is watching a week’s episode at a time.  There is talk of re-editing it as a stand-alone film.

It is the transcendent environment that justifies everything and there are three: the Antarctic, the Andes, and the marshland.  The cinematography lays it all out in sweeping panorama, so that we see how these scientists are so bonded to it.  The key woman is involved with both her husband and her lover, who are good friends with each other — not quite aware that they are sharing.  Her death pushes them away from each other and then together. The sex is beautifully filmed but the men never make love.

A set of sisters is a very strong element.  From the little kid who is fighting to breathe to the corporation cop who is near death, they are tough, competent, and affectionate.  The other characters, the law and the corporate goons, are pretty stereotypical, but a group of locals we might call rednecks are violent in the name of preserving what they know, even though it’s killing them.  At the end of the series, two of the floating bodies have not been killed, but I won’t tell you which ones.  They’ve been kept for the next year’s series, I expect.

Balancing the unreal and macabre but lovely underwater scene is the brutal reality of the tannery.  As it happens, I know a bit about tanning because of the taxidermy business that was Bob Scriver’s transition to a sculptor.  The skins of heads to be trophy-mounted were skinned by us, tanned by us, and mounted on papier maché forms made by us.  In the basement was a huge wooden open vat that the building was constructed around.  Once the capes had been skinned out, they were salted to remove the water and scraped to remove fat.  Then they spent the winter floating in the vat of mild acid solution that ate the glue between the fibers.  When they were ready, Bob thinned and softened them while sitting at a grinding wheel, holding them against the abrasion, which is how he got his massive shoulders and arms.  

But the furs he sold to Beckman went off to the dealer simply dried.  The other hides were sent to a chrome tanning business.  I never saw a huge operation like the one in this film and I will never forget it.  I’m sure it inspired that chilling Scarlett Johanson sci-fi film where she attracted men only to dissolve them.  The limp wet hides in this factory look like Satanic souls of animals, images of death, which is what they are.  Overhead hanging conveyer belts of them, grappling arms of what we used to call steam-shovels lifting them, and poisoned men doing mysterious things — we are not shown the clean, smooth, final product as you might see them in a Tandy Leather advertisement, and yet our jackets, belts, gloves and shoes are made of them.

The real issue of the film is particulate toxic sediments and metallic solutions, but we can’t see them without a laboratory.  We’ve been warned that we are seeding the planet with bits of plastic, tiny spheres from makeup, pharmaceutical molecules meant to be maintaining meds for chronic conditions, ag chemicals and so on.  The brilliance of this film is finding visible images, metaphors.  

When I was in Great Falls at the doctor, I dropped off some discards at Good Will.  I hadn’t been in their warehouse before — usually someone rushes out to the curb to take everything.  I was stunned.  The huge space was stacked with baled clothes.  I’d read about the old clothes industry and how it dresses Africa.  But I’d never just confronted those bales.  They looked very much like chrome-tanned hides in the long lines on conveyor hooks and stacks of flat stuff.  Sometimes I think it is not the debris of war that will end us, but the debris of prosperity in the ignored places.

No comments: