8 film companions for the great Drought

So … reading Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner was intense. The great and terrible history of the American quest to tame the desert is one in which the intentions never matched the outcomes. It added one more thing to my guilt load. Discussing this with a few other women, we had the same reoccurring thought “what should we do?”

I don’t know. I live in Los Angeles and I LOVE it. Los Angeles is an amazing, vibrant, scary, surreal, beautiful … dry, dusty, desert city. I conserve water. Am, as I can afford it, re-gardening with native (read: drought tolerant) plants. But I’m one of millions. The answer will have to come from us as a civilization. We have so much work to do.

So lets put our collective minds together and solve this. Don’t have time to read Cadillac Desert? Take a few hours and watch these films that address some of the broader issues we face:

Young Ones (2014) is an intense family drama set in the near future and water is scarce. So many elements of Reisner’s story are captured in this atmospheric tale. Some large political machination work to divert water to the wealthy city, while small farmers must strive in the dust to try to carve some sort of safety and save their land. pointlessness the struggle is what really brings the parallels to the surface. Maybe one year there will be water for the crops, but what about the next? Or the next? Our own vast history in the west exemplified by one family’s struggle. Strong performances by Michael Shannon and Nicholas Hoult make this worth watching. When I first watched it, I would have given it 3 out of 5 stars – after having read Cadillac Desert … I give it 4.5. Water and our constant need to tame the land, the futility of the effort, and ultimately the destruction that comes about because of it. (on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video)

Solarbabies (1986) is one of my favorite guilty pleasures. A 1980s film for sure. A group of kids in a state-run orphanage in another near future, must use their special skate-ball skills (like a cross between lacrosse and roller derby) to fight the evil Warden (played by Charles Durning) and the even more evil company who has stolen the water and scorched the Earth. Our evil corporation leaders are played by Richard Jordan, who will show up later in this post, and Sarah Douglas who is perhaps best known for her role as Ursa in Superman II. The intrepid kids are led by Jami Gertz and Jason Patrick – 80s fans will recognize the pairing. They follow the youngest team member’s (sigh, Lukas Haas) hunch that the magic orb they find will help free them from the Warden and free the water the corporation keeps behind a great dam wall. The image of the dam breaking at the end, water gushing out and the formerly enslaved kids frolicking in the waves might be a little cheesy but it strikes me as fitting that this movie came out the same year as Cadillac Desert. Were we really beginning to think more deeply about our relationship to water? (on Amazon Instant Video)

If so, I wonder why we’ve done so little. NO answer. This is a fun movie. It may not have held the test of time, though I, having been a teen when seeing it the first time, still love this. It makes me giggle every time.

Even before Solarbabies was David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune (1984). You’ll meet plenty of people who think this film was a travesty. I am not one of them. This is a gorgeous and quite brilliant adaptation of the novel and I love every second of it. A young man must step up to lead a great army of desert warriors against an enemy that assassinates his father and would steal the planet (Arrakis) and its vital resource: Spice. I’m listing this here because of the desert people’s relationship with water. Rather than adapt the land to the need, the people adapt to the land. I imagine some time in the future, LA fashion will involve special suits to recycle our pee. We’re already talking about recycling our sewer water … Frank Herbert. Futurist. (on Amazon Instant Video)

Of course I have to include Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) on this list. Ostensibly this movie is about power and survival in a lawless future world in which powerful overlords keep humanity in check by consolidating resources. The villain, Immortan Joe (played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, recognizable from the original films in the Mad Max oeuvre) rules with an iron fist, and sole control of water. It’s one of the more striking images from the trailers – water gushing to the parched land and people below from great skull-like windows of the mountain dam. Water here is both literal and a metaphor for freedom. If you haven’t seen this yet, it’s an amazing film. It’s an action film that also got a bit of plot and is gorgeous to look at. (Theaters near you … )

O’ Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) represents a bit of a change of pace. This retelling of the “Odyssey” is set during the great depression. Effects of the Dust Bowl which bombarded the west penetrated the country – and the building of great public works were  both a way to get people to work and bring much-needed water and power to the ever-expanding population. Ulysses, played by George Clooney, escapes from prison and the film follows his epic journey home to find hidden loot. Along the way, Ulysses and his clumsy companions are met with many water and man-made obstacles, including sirens along the river and a house soon to be flooded as a new dam opens. (Stream it on Amazon Instant Video)

Chinatown (1974) uses the crazy story of how Los Angeles stole water from the Owens Valley as backdrop for a typically LA noir murder. Corruption, greed, land grabs, and murder … all related to the thirsty city’s water supply. This classic stars Jack Nicolson and Faye Dunaway, and if you haven’t yet seen it, do.

What’s striking about this list so far is how white it is. We really have work to do, don’t we … especially since the story of water in America includes the vast dehumanization and destruction of indigenous lands and water.

The Cherokee Word for Water (2013) is set in the 1980s and focuses on a woman’s drive to help the Cherokee Nation reclaim water for the community, where many houses lacked running water (yes, even in the 1980s). While more a biopic, this important film touches on some important water rights issues. Native American water rights are hardly touched upon in Cadillac Desert, Reisner may have been more of an environmentalist than a humanist. This film looks at the community (Available on iTunes)

To cool you off, here’s a reminder that not all of the Western land should be inhabited by humans. Craters of the Moon (2011) is described as a horror film, it’s the story of a couple who get lost and then stuck in the middle of the deserts of Idaho. Where the landscape and each other become the horror, not some monster or evil corporation. I haven’t found this streaming yet, but look for it soon … and if you happen to be in LA on November 12-22, 2015, it’ll screen at the Red Nation Film Festival.


What’s your favorite water conscious film?