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The Unforeseen, a documentary on the effect of greed on the American landscape, has suddenly become essential viewing. Americans wondering how the country could possibly get into a financial crisis of astronomical dimensions can find the root of the evil right here. The Unforeseen chronicles the lost battle against land developers in and around Austin Texas. It's more than a cautionary tale, it's an indictment of our national climate of unchecked avarice that has sacrificed all values and the country itself to unregulated "business interests."
Director Laura Dunn unspools her thesis slowly, with the kind of measured pace one expects in an Errol Morris piece. Quotes and recitations lament the passing of the land, while we see Austin's peaceful skyline pierced by one skyscraper after another. The slow start makes us wonder briefly whether The Unforeseen is simply going to be a nostalgic gripe against change and progress. The story that follows puts those notions to rest, awakening us to political crimes likely being repeated in every corner of the nation with an acre of undeveloped land.
Austin is famous for its waterways, and The Unforeseen zeroes in on the fate of Barton Springs, a popular, unique freshwater swimming hole. It's an attraction revered by generations of locals and a symbol of Austin's unspoiled natural appeal. The water in Barton Springs comes from natural aquifers on nearby land, most of which was privately owned ranchland until the 1990s. The Unforeseen picks up the story of Gary Bradley, an ambitious developer of large housing tracts, who built up an enviable record of success -- for a while. Using artful computer graphics, the docu explains the developer's job, which has always been seen as an important aspect of American life. The developer must raise enormous amounts of capital to buy land, lay out plots and arrange for vital utilities. Only when homeowners come -- never a gamble in the attractive environment of a city like Austin -- can the developer reap a profit.
Bradley got into trouble with an Austin development and was forced to look for outside financial assistance. A large corporation bailed him out in exchange for the figurative Keys to the Domain -- the connections that would enable them to initiate their own Austin development program. The outside corporation knows no restraint and honors no limits. Their massive "Barton Springs" housing project planned to almost completely cover the aquifer area above the famous springs.
Local environmentalists and scientists mount an impressive, and initially successful, public campaign against the development, showing through basic geology how the water supply for Barton Springs would be affected. The city revokes permits (actually issued decades before and "grandfathered" in) and the development is stopped.
That's when the backlash starts. The Unforeseen gathers prime news film showing Ronald Reagan endorsing legislation that deregulates the banking industry (hmmm...) calling it the best thing ever to happen to America's future. In the early 1990s Texas Governor Ann Richards can't believe she's running as an incumbent against George W. Bush, describing him simply as a JERK. Bush promises and delivers measures that will bulldoze barriers to business, claiming that the country needs an open playing field. We see a rally in which fat-cat Texans claiming to be true patriots demand that "property rights" be respected and the traitorous actions of local jurisdictions -- like Austin's attempt to control its own future -- be overturned. Back in Austin, we hear from a real estate man who demands that his right to sell whatever he wants for whatever purpose be placed higher than the will of the community: if Austin wants to stop the development of "Barton Springs", they need to declare eminent domain and purchase all of the property -- presumably at his price.
Backed by corporate money resources, a state law passes removing Austin's right to regulate development in the name of the public good. Barton Springs goes ahead, full blast, along with several other projects "grandfathered in."
To assess what's been lost, The Unforeseen shows comparative film of Barton Springs before and after the development. The crystal clear waters, once teeming with fish and turtles, are now milky with contaminants -- auto fluids, household & lawn chemicals etc.. With so much of the land covered with asphalt and concrete, the aquifer can no longer filter the water as it once did. Director Dunn brings on celebrities like Willie Nelson and Robert Redford to eulogize what was once a magical valley, but they're hardly needed considered the evidence that's presented.
The issue is runaway development and deregulation of business entities that are literally destroying the country in the name of short-term profit. Critics might claim that all cities need to grow and that private money is the American way to do it, but none, none of the players give a damn about anything but money. Even Maverick operators like Gary Bradley lose out: the last we see him he's lamenting the loss of his fortune and his good name. Whether a true villain or simply left holding the bag, Bradley simply wasn't high enough in the financial food chain to survive.
Mention civic planning or the public good these days and more likely than not one will be answered with protests of "Socialism!" Here in Los Angeles, instead of regulating the out-of-control billboard advertising that blights what should be an attractive city, everybody from the mayor on down is rushing to claim a share of ad revenue from thousands of proposed computerized, animated billboards ... by companies that refuse to present an accounting of the illegal boards they already maintain.The Unforeseen is mainly about one situation in Texas but similar scenarios are being acted out everywhere. It's an invaluable eye-opener.
Produced for the Sundance Channel, New Yorker and the Cinema Guild's The Unforeseen looks great in a beautiful enhanced widescreen (1:85) transfer. Its only possible fault is a laid-back pace that lingers before getting to the meat of its argument. The film comes with an illuminating commentary by filmmakers Laura Dunn, Jef Sewell, Lee Daniel and Tom Hammond, who often interpret what we see in artistic terms. Believe me, the first time through you'll be too busy developing a civic conscience to notice such things.
A trailer is included as well as a cogent insert essay by Dennis Lim, who credits executive producer Terrence Malick for encouraging Dunn to raise her arguments to a "metaphysical plane", and explains that the other executive producer Robert Redford was galvanized to the project because his grandfather taught him to swim at Barton Springs.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Unforeseen rates:
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