In 10 Words or Less
One woman, one piece of vinyl siding, one mission
It's a story as old as time: a woman loses her uterus thanks to a drug given to her mother, ends up hyper-sensitive to industrial chemical concerns, and finds herself frustrated when her parents replace the natural wood on the outside of their suburban house with chemical vinyl siding. Sure, it's a movie you've seen hundreds of times before, but stick around.
Judith Helfand, the voice behind the video-diary film A Healthy Baby Girl, takes her crusade against corporate lies and the chemicals they lie about across the world (or at least to Italy) as she tries to convince her parents that the powder blue vinyl siding they chose was the wrong decision, due to the damage the production, use and disposal of vinyl causes. After a while, you can start to feel bad for these people. They just wanted to get rid of warped, rotting wood in a way they could afford. They never asked to be dropped into the middle of a political, legal and ethical crossfire.
Helfand takes a piece of her parents' siding as a constant reminder of what the story is about, and visits the sources she needs to find out the truth behind the material. These locales include a production plant in Louisiana, a lawyer's office that contains information about vinyl than any place on Earth and an Italian plant that was the scene of many deaths related to vinyl production. After she confronts pro-vinyl people, she contradicts their statements by interviewing scientists and activists, including people from Greenpeace. Depending on your view of environmental matters, you'll take your own side, but its hard to argue with many of the scientific factors or the simple ethic issues.
Smartly, as she discusses very complex scientific matters, she simplifies them by using animation to illustrate the ideas. The look of the film is unlike most documentaries, as many of the scenes were blocked and shot with style, instead of a real feel. Crane shots, almost unheard of in this genre, are used to make otherwise ordinary shots look great. There's a question of whether staging scenes like this makes the film less of a documentary, but that's for the experts to argue. All that matters is, the film is entertaining and informative.
Word of warning: the word comedy is thrown about on the packaging, but it's really not that funny. In fact, several scenes are simply heartbreaking, as she interviews victims of cancer and their family. But if you can them out, the power of her message shines through.
Blue Vinyl arrives on one DVD, packed in your standard keepcase, with a Docurama catalog. The static main menu, which follows the understated Docurama style, is preceded by a subtle animated transition. Options include play, scene selection and extras. There are no set-up options, no subtitles and no closed captioning.
Presented in full-frame, the video is, as is the case with many documentaries, a mixed bag. Depending on the type of camera used, the set-up, the time of day and the setting, the video can be anything from crisp and clean to muddy VHS. In several scenes, there are some compression artifacts, and there's some pixelation evident. Generally, the movie looks good for a documentary.
The audio is presented in Dolby 2.0, but is mainly a center channel effort. I tried listening for anything interesting in the mix, but there's not a lot going on. It's a documentary, so I didn't expect much, and wasn't disappointed.
The bonus package for Blue Vinyl is incredibly in-depth for such a relatively unknown documentary. The biggest extra is a feature-length audio commentary by Helfand and Gold. Helfand dominates the track, as her personality would suggest, but Gold chimes in with info when he has something to say. Much of the commentary is behind-the-scenes info, but there's some occassional humor too.
The first of six featurettes is a 17-minute addendum to the film, titled "Ek Velt: At the End of the World." As mentioned at the end of Blue Vinyl, Helfand's parents were planning on selling the house. The rest of the story is told in this featurette. This is a much more Helfand-focused story than the main feature, focusing on her emotions about the house. It's not quite as interesting, but it's an OK capper to the story.
"Animating Blue Vinyl: An Interview with Emily Hubley and Jeremiah Dickey" runs a bit over 10 minutes, and looks at how the animated portions of the film were created. For indy film and animation fans, it's an interesting behind-the-scenes look at this part of the movie.
"Habitat for Humanity," a 13-minute segment, is a bit more important for those interested in the environment. Part of it is seen in the film, but the whole story of how Greenpeace helped create a PVC-free house as part of the charitable housing campaign. The materials used and the reaction of the vinyl industry to the effort make for an interesting story.
A couple of shorter bits cover the European portions of the film and the effect the film has had on those who have seen it. "Venice Vinyl Verdict" is six minutes of footage from the Italian vinyl trial, with commentary by Helfand and Gold. It's sad to see people get the legal shaft, especially the way it occurs in this trial. The filmmakers add some background, and fill in the blanks, making the commentary track valuable.
"Carnivale" is five minutes of Italian scenes shot by Gold while Helfand was in the hospital. The roaming piece of vinyl siding meets the beauty and pageantry of the Italian celebration, with a twist of grave-side mourning. It's disjointed, but absolutely worth watching.
"Let the Consumer Revolution Begin!" looks at what changes have been made regarding PVC use, thanks to the film's findings. At almost 10 minutes in length, there's a lot of info, presented in the same way as the main film. The impact of the film has been widespread, and very surprising.
A selection of deleted scenes are also included on this DVD, each with commentary by the co-directors. These scenes have basically been completely excised from the film, including an alternate ending. It's an extra 17 minutes of Blue Vinyl for anyone who found themselves needing more.
The rest of the extras are made up of a well-done photo gallery (complete with informative captions), biographies for Helfand and Gold, Resources for Action and Education (which includes DVD-ROM content, and three Docurama marketing links, About this DVD, About Docurama and Catalog/Trailers.
The Bottom Line
It's hard to not compare Helfand with Michael Moore, as she builds her film around her own experiences, putting herself front and center, as something of a main character, armed with her ever-present piece of blue vinyl siding. She's also not afraid to stage scenes she needs for her film. Unfortunately, she doesn't have his comic timing or his low-key ability (or perhaps willingness) to let people hang themselves with their words. Also, her message isn't exactly clear-cut, as she is obviously against vinyl, but she admits that it simply can't be replaced at a reasonable cost. But it's that real-world point of view and a lack of bulldog mentality that makes her much more palatable, as she pursues her goal of spreading a difficult-to-explain gospel. Impressively, the DVD is one of the most packed and informative presentations for a non-Moore documentary that's been released in recent memory. This isn't exactly a fun Friday-night flick, but anyone with an interest in the environment will find it fascinating.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or his convention blog called Conning Fellow
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.