Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Holy land underwater -- a Carbon Based original

    For Easter, the TV schedule teemed with biblical epics (although no Life of Brian -- how odd). The procession included one of the most intelligent and thoughtful examples of the genre -- The Greatest Story Ever Told, directed by George Stevens, with Max von Sydow as Jesus, his hair dyed black. I'd seen it before, and been impressed with its virtues and willing to forgive its flaws. 

    Sure, the Hollywood piety and celestial choruses are grating. Too many of these middle eastern Jews are blond and speak with plummy British accents.  The pace stretches out much too long, especially for us nonbelievers.  Von Sydow struggles bravely to breathe some life into his Gospel-only solemnities. Everybody laughs at John Wayne's line reading as the centurion at the foot of the cross. 

    But many of the performances are superb.  Donald Pleasance portrays Satan as an ineffectual geezer who doesn't have much heart for tempting Jesus, but turns powerful and malevolent when inciting a crowd or steering Jesus to his fate.  Claude Rains does a memorably creepy rendition of Herod doddering on his throne as he orders the death of children.  Charlton Heston devours his role as John the Baptist, and was rightly proud of it.

    But what interests me most are the locations, beautifully shot by Loyal Griggs and William C. Mellor, in Southern Utah near the Glen Canyon Dam in Page, Arizona.  The message board on the film at the Internet Movie Data Base contains several sniffs that the Utah desert is much dryer than the ancient Palestine, which is certainly true, but irrelevant. These desert vistas are otherworldly, some of them of a scale and significance that you might wonder why you haven't seen them before. 

    The reason is, many of them no longer exist. The locations vanished not because of climate change, but as a result of human decisions. Weeks before the filming of the Greatest Story in March of 1963, the gates of the Glen Canyon dam closed, trapping the river.   Many of the locations would soon vanish under Lake Powell.

    A major environmental controversy swirled around that dam. David Brower, head of the Sierra Club, battled the Bureau of Reclamation's plans to contain the Colorado River. The Club argued that the dam would destroy a unique wilderness, and set ominous precedent for plundering America's protected lands.

    In the mid-1950s, the Bureau of Reclamation agreed to forego two other dams, but only if they could proceed unopposed with dams at Flaming Gorge and Glen Canyon. The Sierra Club agreed. Congress authorized the Colorado River Storage Project in April 1956, and groundbreaking for the Glen Canyon followed quickly. 

    At first, many celebrated this outcome a major victory for the American environmentalists -- after all, they'd stopped two dams. But in a few months Brower regretted the Sierra Club's compromise.  With the dam under construction, he traveled down the Colorado River and was shocked by the beauty and grandeur of the landscape he had consigned to submersion.  Brower later wrote, "Glen Canyon died, and I was partly responsible for its needless death. ... Neither you nor I, nor anyone else, knew it well enough to insist that at all costs it should endure. When we began to find out it was too late."

    In the Sierra Club's magazine in 2000, he reflected, "But as surely as we made a mistake years ago, we can reverse it now. We can drain Lake Powell and let the Colorado River run through the dam that created it, bringing Glen Canyon and the wonder of its side canyons back to life. We can let the river do what it needs to do downstream in the Grand Canyon itself."

    In addition to the loss of a landscape and an ecosystem, the environmentalist objections stressed the inefficient water use the dam made of the Colorado River.  The larger the size of Lake Powell, the greater the volume of water lost to evaporation.  "Draining Lake Powell means more water for the Colorado River states and Mexico, especially Colorado and Utah. The hundreds of millions of dollars now being lost, growing to billions in the future, should be enough to give even Bill Gates pause," Brower said. " ... The sooner we begin, the sooner lost paradises will begin to recover."

    The Glen Canyon Dam still stands, but Brower's counterintuitive strictures against dams are especially relevant for the parched Southwest, where larger reservoirs result in more water loss.  The Southwest needs the water more than ever. 

    But even if we make only correct decisions, the long-range outcome will probably be the same.  We'll need to move people out of the desert.

    I suspect that a number of decisions we make about climate change are going to follow this pattern -- environmentalists will support or oppose a project, based on their knowledge at the time, only to discover something later that makes them change their mind.  Long-range impacts are impossible to gauge, even for high-status glamour projects, such as building dams.  And once we reach that point where we know the consequences, it will probably be too late.  To add to the sting, there won't be a biblical movie being filmed to inadvertently document what we're going to lose.

    In the moment we make our decisions, we never know the ultimate outcome. At the George Stevens version of the last supper, getting exasperated with the gnomic utterances, one of the disciples says, "Speak plainly and speak no proverbs."  Good luck to anyone trying to wangle a straight answer out of Jesus, or out of the future -- we won't know the meaning until much later, when the waters are rising.

Paria, Utah, where other moviews were filmed, but not The Greatest Story Ever Told. Shot by John Fowler, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license


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