Last night's viewing: Surviving Progress, BBC4; Revenge, E4
It's hard to imagine that this film won't find a sympathetic audience
Surviving Progress opened with a bit of chimp-teasing, one of our primate cousins having been trained to prop two L-shaped blocks upright in order to earn a piece of fruit. On this occasion, though, the centre of balance of one of the blocks had been invisibly altered so that the task was no longer possible. Anyone well versed in the rhetoric of admonitory documentaries like this might have been tempted for a moment to assume that the hapless chimp was us, baffled to discover that what had worked so many times before was now failing. But the point was that the chimp wasn't us. Faced with the same conundrum, a small boy almost immediately started to investigate the offending block to discover why it wasn't co-operating any more. That curiosity, it was suggested, is at the heart of human technology, and thus at the heart of progress.
Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks's film, based on a book by Ronald Wright, proposed that progress might not always be a good thing, and it almost immediately showed its hand with a rhetorical trope that was more straightforward, that Koyaanisqatsii trick of speeding up film of a busy city, so that human society becomes alien and faintly repulsive. The problem, Wright argued, is that we are "running 21st-century software on hardware that hasn't been upgraded for 50,000 years". Driven by assumptions that the bounty of the world is limitless and more is always better, we're on the brink of consuming ourselves to death.
This is a fairly familiar ecological theme, but Surviving Progress turned out to be a pick'n'mix of old and new pessimism: over-population, resource depletion, Occupy anti-capitalism, scientific pessimism and then – right at the end – a few concessionary gleams of light. Some of its substantive facts were striking: it took 13 centuries between the fall of Rome and the year Columbus set out for America for the world population to grow by 200 million. Now it takes just three years. What's more, an increasing number of that bigger number are getting as acquisitive and resource hungry as we have been for years. Meanwhile, the conventional wisdom insists that growth is the only solution to the problems of growth. "Conventional economics is a form of brain damage," said the biologist David Suzuki, rightly pointing out that describing the environmental costs of advanced technological civilisation as "externalities" is crazy.
But Surviving Progress seemed a lot less certain when it came to explaining how we might get out of the mess. "We have to use less," said one contributor, without explaining how those used to more could be persuaded to sign up for this ethical diet plan. Stephen Hawking and Jane Goodall were briefly allowed to make the case for human ingenuity as a source of hope ("We always do pretty well when our backs are to the wall," said the latter). But others almost immediately contradicted them, to sustain the prevailing mood of enraged gloom. It's hard to imagine that this film won't find a sympathetic audience, as bankers and politicians desperately try to prop up the crumbling remnants of a notionally "free" system. But it would have been nice if it had offered just a little more complexity and at least a vague hint of a solution.
I take it that the American success of Revenge is partly driven by the rage of the 99 against the one per cent. Not sure anything else could explain it, since the dialogue is driftwood and the performances match. An updated version of The Count of Monte Cristo set in the Hamptons, it's essentially like Made in Chelsea with added murder. Which isn't that terrible an idea when you think about it. I think even I might be able to watch Made in Chelsea if there was a guarantee that one or two of its cast members ended up face down in a pool of blood every week.
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