Last Thursday, as I sat in Real Art Ways watching Fuel, I kept thinking that if this film were an essay, I would have given it a very low score, even though I share the core belief that sustainable energy is good and necessary.
The narration of this film was annoying and inconsistent. When Josh Tickell, the director, took the tone of someone providing facts, it was bearable. But for parts of the film, especially early on, he inserted himself into Fuel, when really, his story was not compelling enough to justify doing so. In one scene, he even gets teary-eyed. Barf. I understand that he was trying to make the connection between the personal and the political– at the least, he could have skipped the emo-tastic drama (telling about his mother’s nine miscarriages or how polluted Louisiana is can occur without making the viewer gag) and omitted most of the personal details. It would have been stronger to show statistics about the increase in miscarriages among the local population, rather than to collect anecdotes from people who are not in the medical field.
Which leads me to wondering about his focus. The film’s organization problems are probably not all tied in to the lack of focus, though certainly it would have been more watchable had someone taken the time to prune this. Is this a film about American government conspiracy theories and coverups related to oil and 9/11? Is this about why we need sustainable energy? Is it about which sustainable energy sources are best? Is it a biopic about Tickell’s days as a censored science project-maker and later as a pseudo-hippie with the time to drive around the country talking about biodiesel? At the end, we learn that Tickell is (at the time of film production) engaged to one of the singers on the film’s soundtrack. How is that pertinent to the subject of fuel?
It would have been more interesting had he chosen one of those topics and explored it in depth, rather than race around talking about them all. It reminded me of the pop green books found in gift shops– they give you three hundred ways to save the planet, and none at the same time. Where’s the substance?
It would have helped if some thought were given to audience. Was this for the converted, the non-believer, or the person with no knowledge of biodiesel whatever? The parade of celebrities and politicians made it seem like this film was not for people who already understood the necessity of sustainable energy (and really, in 2009, do those people exist?); after what seemed like years of the narrator’s insufferable emoting, Julia Roberts’ discussion of the topic was a welcome change. She, who gets paid for being dramatic, seemed fairly level-headed. It was this mix of fanfare and unadulterated emotional appeals that both turned me off and made me think this film was beginner stuff.
So, with the inconsistent narrative, lack of focus, and unclear target audience, it is not surprising that the film was teeming with organizational issues. There was repetition. There was a meandering storyline. Some people might call it organic, but the organization merely seemed lazy to me. I think he may have been trying to make connections between several points; however, the way this worked out seemed more repetitive than adroit.
There was this occasional return to war imagery, which could have been reserved for background information at the beginning, had the director been able to control himself and cut gratuitous stuff. We know that war is hell, and we’ve seen plenty of images of the Iraq War. As more and more of the gore flashed by, I could not help but think about how easily this could be pegged as a liberal propaganda piece.
This really needed to be trimmed down to work. It’s runtime is 111 minutes. It could have been pared down to half that. While it’s daunting to edit something that has been in the works for eleven years, it’s really necessary if one wants a product that can be consumed. Recently, I have been working on editing a collection of my writing that has been in process since 2003. I know firsthand that this stuff is tedious. But revision is crucial. Not every thought one thinks has to be included in a project.
What should be included, though, is a hearty helping of factual information. For all of the criticism he has received, Michael Moore has been conscientious enough to publish sources on his website for information used in his films. Josh Tickell would do well to emulate this model. Perhaps his book contains a list of sources, but there is nothing to grasp from the film’s accompanying website. And really, after being disappointed by the film, I am not going to buy Tickell’s book.
One troubling piece of information, which is repeated on the website, was his statement that vehicles with diesel engines need no conversion in order to run on biodiesel. This counters everything I have heard. After the film, a little discussion with a friend who knows far more about cars than I do echoed this concern. At the very least, it seems that filters would need to be changed more frequently. It also seems that hoses might need to be changed to go from diesel to biodiesel. Maybe that does not need to happen immediately, but biodiesel sounds prone to messing up the “regular” hoses and car stuff. The National Biodiesel Board puts it this way:
In general, pure biodiesel will soften and
degrade certain types of elastomers and natural rubber compounds over
time. Using high percent blends can impact fuel system components
(primarily fuel hoses and fuel pump seals), that contain elastomer
compounds incompatible with biodiesel. Manufacturers recommend that
natural or butyl rubbers not be allowed to come in contact with pure
biodiesel. Blends of B20 or lower have not exhibited elastomer
degradation and need no changes. If a fuel system does contain these
materials and users wish to fuel with blends over B20, replacement with
compatible elastomers is recommended.
Here’s the thing– Tickell does not make the distinction between biodiesel blend or straight vegetable oil. He simply does not get into the nuts and bolts, which is really what I wanted to get out of the film.
The closest he comes to that is when–too late in the film–he breaks down how he sees America being able to release itself from the grip of fossil fuel dependency. To me, the film would have been far more enthralling had he tried to discuss algae has a source of fuel in more depth, along with exactly what must happen for vehicles to be run on various energy sources. When he began this project in 1997, (film was released in 2008) fewer people were aware of how dire the need was to look into renewable sources for energy; however, while wrapping up production a decade later, Tickell should have considered what has transpired since. We know what the problem is, so let’s stop talking about why we need to address it, and look at how to really make these changes!
My final gripe about what should have been a powerful film is that the narrator frequently makes use of logical fallacies: red herrings, circular reasoning, nonsequiturs, and possibly false causes abound. He could have built a solid case for the necessity of sustainable energy by simply presenting evidence, but he chose not to.
I feel like there must be an alternative to fuelish films. If really interested in this subject, I’d suggest making a trip to the bookstore or library and doing research, rather than turning to more documentary films.
This film has received numerous awards and glowing reviews. I want to like it, but I feel like it fails as a film.
The Austin Chronicle review puts it this way:
it’s not a movie. It’s a two-hour infomercial for biodiesel
Taking his cues from Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) but lacking their verve and moviemaking instincts, Tickell has put together a good-intentioned but dull mishmash that’s part autobiography, part first-person travelogue, part history and ecology lesson, and part shamelessly inspirational call to action