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  Geotimes - October 2007 - Geologic Column

Flicking Out on Mother Earth
Fred Schwab

My leap for (choose one) freedom or irrelevancy was four years ago when too many things stood between me and my love of geology. I was tired of departmental assessments, university 10-year strategic plans, committee work on alcohol consumption and sexual harassment and endless piles of papers and examinations to grade. I retired.

Surfing television channels and browsing the Internet quickly bored me. Following a golf ball or tracking the zigzags of the stock market and daily high and low temperatures in New Delhi were less exciting than point-counting sandstone. I’m an obsessive road biker and coffeehouse “habitué,” but my legs, heart and bladder place natural limits on those diversions. Most of all, my mind needed exercise!

Writing occasional Geologic Columns fills some gaps. The columns provide an opportunity not only to learn about a number of topics, but to stimulate awareness in the geological community about subjects with a wider relevancy than those with which we deal with daily. Yet, this still wasn’t enough for me.

Recently, I’ve become afflicted with my wife’s long-standing addiction to film festivals. It began with the Telluride Film Festival, held over the four-day Labor Day weekend. I’ve attended the past three years. (My wife has been going since 1992.) Telluride, in southwestern Colorado, has 2,000 residents (ranging from ultra-wealthy “trustafarians” to ski bums to leftover hippies). The town sits at the end of a 3,000-meter-high glacial valley, surrounded by the 4,000-meter peaks of the San Juan Range. It takes willpower to leave the scenery for a dark theater, but Telluride’s Film Festival attendees (film fanatics mixed in with a few beautiful people) come from all over to see films that are for the most part intellectually stimulating. Numerous panel discussions and follow-up question-and-answer sessions with actors, producers and directors supplement the two dozen or so films. The festival typically includes a film or two touching on geology, mountain climbing or the environment, and the town also sponsors a Mountainfilm Festival each spring with a repertoire of films covering the outdoors.

For two years, I’ve also been attending the 25-day-long Seattle International Film Festival. Held from mid-May to mid-June, it is North America’s largest film festival in terms of length and number of movies shown. In 2007, 405 films from 60 countries were shown, with more than 160,000 “admissions.” The annual budget is $4 million.

Both film festivals are tailored for the true-blue movie crazies, not for the glitterati. But stars do show up to pump up their newest films, participate in panels and discussions or be recognized in a tribute. Even I confess to brief episodes of being star-struck. Last year my seatmate at the first film was Laura Linney. Walking out of the theater later at midnight, having just seen the premiere of The Last King of Scotland, I casually patted Forrest Whitaker (Idi Amin) on the shoulder assuring him that he did a “pretty good job.” The next day, I stopped Ulrich Muhe, the recently deceased star of The Lives of Others, on the main drag to talk about the film, which deals with the East German Stasi. A highlight of standing in line discussing the many festivals with fellow attendees is to be asked, “Are you in the business?”

Ironically, my old and new passions have now come full circle and converged. This year, Seattle launched a serious effort to “go green” in terms of power usage and public awareness. It sponsored “The Greater Seattle Climate Dialogues,” in which attendees were encouraged to join discussion groups built around a study guide prepared by scientists at the University of Washington. Plans are under way for filmgoers to join a Citizens’ Climate Summit and work with political leaders to actively engage the issues raised during the discussions.

The Seattle Festival also inaugurated Planet Cinema, a series of films (documentaries, dramas, horror movies, experimental films and shorts) that explores the relationship between the natural world and humankind. Representatives of the Sundance Channel premiered episodes of THE GREEN, television’s first regularly scheduled programs dedicated entirely to the environment. Developed by Robert Redford, this series examines important environmental issues now confronting us. The series, with a production budget of $25 million, follows in the footsteps of the award-winning Planet Earth broadcast developed for the BBC and co-produced with Discovery Channel and the Japan Broadcasting Corporation

Al Gore’s recent hit documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, is tangible proof of the power of film. It has arguably shaped the views of many Americans on climate change more than all the scientific papers on the subject collectively published in the past decade. The film was produced for about $1 million. Films like it, including The 11th Hour, a film produced by Leonardo DiCaprio that opened with a lot of press in late August, have an uncanny ability to reach the public and capture their attention.

Movies may be the most cost-effective way to raise awareness of an issue and stimulate action. The geological community seems to have gotten the message. In July and August, for example, the Science Channel aired a four-part, high-definition series, Faces of Earth (, brought to you by none other than the publisher of this page, the American Geological Institute.

Schwab is a (retired) professor of geology at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. E-mail:

Faces of Earth

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