You can throw a load of waste into a pile and it will compost into nutrient-rich soil. Unfortunately, as DIRT! The Movie shows, that technique isn't quite as effective in filmmaking. A coincidental companion piece to 2008's Flow: For Love of Water, the documentary focuses on the soil that we take for granted, explaining how we're indebted to it and how we're destroying it with modern agricultural practices and urbanization. It is a film that is at once moving in its alarming content and frustrating in its inability to gel into into a single work.
DIRT!'s main point is that it's important to treat the soil and the earth properly because it's the key to keeping our planet and ourselves healthy. The theme is repeated too often, however, and the scatter-shot structure only engages the audience in fits and starts. Likewise, the filmmaking choices vary from clever and intelligent to downright awkward.
I appreciate the filmmakers' efforts to stage interviews by means other than plopping a subject down in front of a boring backdrop, but some of the footage in DIRT! feels like an infomercial or TV news special. Experts walk through trees or farms and deliver pre-scripted-sounding lectures on dirt-related subjects. It's forced, unnatural and not at all personal.
The most charming moments come in the form of animation that illustrates natural principles, stories and parables. The use of different animators for different sequences doesn't make for the most cohesive whole, but it certainly keeps things interesting. Work ranges from the rich brushstrokes of Luc Perez's paint and pastels on paper to bright, snappy traditional 2D designs that look like they were done in Flash. Cute little characters represent the organisms that live in the dirt, which are happy or sad depending on how people treat the land.
While the film gets away with its different animation styles, it doesn't get away with its ever-changing voice. In one five-minute stretch, the filmmakers insert graphics over people's hand gestures and rewind footage (with the ol' fast-reversed voice) to repeat and re-enforce an interviewee's statement. Then the free-wheelin' zaniness subsides. Its absence could be seen as a blessing, as the attempts are clunky and stink of misguided attempts to keep things interesting. Nevertheless, if a film is to grab our attention and emotions, it needs to speak with one voice.
Docurama Films has made a valiant effort to deliver a quality DVD of this low-profile film. DIRT! appears in an anamorphic transfer of its original 16x9 aspect ratio. Obviously not all documentary footage is created equal, but most of the movie looks sharp with nice details. Certain cover-footage shots have jaggy lines and weird, small-but-noticeable stutters in the details. The color balance feels a tad inconsistent, pushing skin tones a little too red in some shots.
The compression on the disc is good, without many distracting artifacts.
The film's stereo English soundtrack is workable, but not pristine. Volume levels don't vary too much, but there may be some hard-to-hear moments when watching the material at a lower volume. Even Jamie Lee Curtis's narration varies in tone a bit. While some on-location audio isn't quite pristine, most of it is clear.
There are no subtitles other than burnt-in English material during thickly accented or foreign speakers.
If you're really interested in dirt, you're in luck! DIRT!'s DVD boasts more than two hours of extra footage, most of it being interviews and scenes that were cut from the final product. As someone who watched all the extras in one lump, I would have preferred a little more selectivity and less repetition in what was included. But normal viewers without journalistic obligations will probably enjoy the ability to pick and choose.
Wine fans will enjoy Gary Vaynerchuk's discussion of how you can taste the dirt of different regions in their wine, photography aficionados will enjoy the extended bio of Sebastiao and Lélia Salgado's and their re-forestation project. Alternate-engergy enthusiasts can learn more about microbial fuel-cells. Other bits will bore all but the most predisposed viewers. The 12-minute segment on the Edible Schoolyards project grows tiresome, especially since its best parts are already featured in the film.
But if you need a sure-fire sleep aid, go for the 83 minutes worth of extended interviews. If you press "play all," you're basically going to spend the feature film's runtime watching unedited, unstructured interviews. I suppose this feature will appeal to those who love college lectures and/or missed their chance to watch Book TV over the weekend. One of the most exciting things you will discover is that John Adams was obsessed with two things: hot women and manure. You will also see a guy repeatedly picking up handfuls of soil and rambling about nitrogen, without any editing or visual connections. In one interview a cell phone starts ringing in the background. I only wish someone had answered it.
The additional animation contains one deleted segment and longer versions of two extended versions of scenes from the film that don't add anything significant. The longer segment, exploring 24 hours in the life of a dirt patch, basically shows people trashing the little square of nature in a concrete city. Since the film argues that it's good to put some soil in the city and plant trees in areas that are mostly concrete, I'm not sure what point this segment is supposed to make.
The theatrical trailer is a snoozer too, and the filmmaker bios are of the generic sort that many releases gave up on 10 years ago.
DIRT! The Movie contains a lot of strong material, but falters under unsure filmmaking and unsound structure. The DVD is certainly serviceable, with good material in the extras. However, typical viewers will want to be selective when watching the supplemental material, as watching it all could put them to sleep.
Jeremy Mathews has been subjecting films to his criticism since 2000. He has contributed to several publications, including Film Threat, Salt Lake City Weekly, the Salt Lake Tribune, In Utah This Week and The Wasatch Journal. He also runs the blog The Same Dame and fronts the band NSPS.