Manufactured Landscapes
Zeitgeist Video // Unrated // $29.99 // November 20, 2007
Review by Randy Miller III | posted November 18, 2007
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It'll test your patience at times, but that certainly doesn't mean Jennifer Baichwal's Manufactured Landscapes (2006) isn't worth your time and attention. This slow-burning documentary combines striking images by Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky with footage shot at the original locations, creating what some might call a "moving exhibition". This series of photographs includes landscapes and people directly affected by industry---and though the initial idea came to Burtynsky in Pennsylvania over 20 years ago, it flourished more recently in enormous Chinese factories like the one above.

The latter environment sets the tone for Manufactured Landscapes; during the opening sequence, a camera pans across the massive factory floor for roughly eight minutes. The scope of the workers' production is fully realized but never explained in detail; more than anything else, it simply shows consumers how their consumables are made. Workers are lined up like cattle outside, disciplined by supervisors for letting faulty products slip through the cracks. Scavengers extract valuable metal fragments from discarded computer parts. A young woman assembles an electrical accessory at blistering speed, happily reporting that she'll make hundreds more in a standard work day.

It's not always the driving message, but Manufactured Landscapes reminds us that our actions directly influence the planet. Perhaps the best example of this is during the construction of China's Three Gorges Dam, a massive structure that required millions of citizens to move their homes; during the initial release of water, Earth's rotation was momentarily affected. Luckily, these points are driven home without heavy-handed scare tactics and overt preachiness: the documentary is nearly dialogue-free, save for select comments from Burtynsky and several of the Chinese locals.

Those new to the genre may find that Manufactured Landscapes drags in several areas; all things considered, it does an exemplary job of presenting mundane subject matter in an effective manner. The on-location landscapes and stunning photographs have been mixed together with great care, often focusing on subjects and pulling back to reveal the environment that looms heavily over them. It's truly a unique experience---and though it may not be as effective during repeat viewings, Manufactured Landscapes is certainly worth wading through at least once.

This domestic release is from Zeitgeist Video, while Baichwal's film remains visually impressive on the small screen. Roughly identical to the Canadian release by Mongrel Media earlier this year (with the addition of one additional extra), the strong technical presentation and informative bonus features make this a well-rounded release.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio and 16x9 enhanced, it's no surprise that Manufactured Landscapes looks terrific from start to finish. Compositions are carefully composed, the color palette is striking and black levels are generally solid. Only a few of the darker sequences suffer from mild grain, but the film's atmosphere is properly maintained and should impress first-time viewers. No major digital problems were on display, rounding out the visual presentation nicely.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix (also available in 2.0) is equally impressive, often utilizing the rear channels for atmospheric effect. Occasional snippets of dialogue are generally anchored up front, but the wide soundstage suits the film's enveloping scope. Optional French subtitles are included during the main feature; though English captions aren't available, all Chinese dialogue includes burnt-in translations. An optional French menu interface is also selectable at the first menu screen.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

Seen above, the animated menu designs are basic and easy to navigate. The 86-minute main feature has been divided into 16 chapters, while no obvious layer change was detected during playback. This one-disc release is housed in a clear keepcase and includes a few promotional and film-related inserts. The handsome cover artwork is double-sided but not reversible.

Bonus Features

The main supplement here is a rather large Stills Gallery, comprised of several dozen photographs with commentary by Edward Burtynsky (roughly 30-60 seconds for each one). This includes the bulk of his work featured during Manufactured Landscapes, so hearing additional thoughts from the man behind the camera is especially interesting. Aside from general location details and the like, Burtynsky also shares the early stages of his idea and how it gradually developed. In any case, it's about as close to a feature-length audio commentary as we're going to get.

The second highlight is a collection of Deleted Scenes (6 clips, 39:22 total), including "Diana Lu's Extended House Tour", "Karaoke Bar in Qiligang", "Extended Old Shanghai Walkabout", "Stone Cutter Interview", "TED Conference - Monterey, California" and "Wushan", presented with optional audio commentary by Jennifer Baichwal. The director does a fine job of explaining why some of these scenes were trimmed and cut, though they're almost equally interesting on their own.

Also included is a pair of Interviews conducted by Richard Goddard; the first is with Baichwal and Burtynsky (19:04), while the second features cinematographer and collaborator Peter Mettler (5:19). Both are fairly dry and some information is repeated from other bonus features, but they're still worth a look for fans of the film. Exclusive to this domestic release is footage of Al Gore at the Nashville Film Festival (8:18), in which the former VP shares a few thoughts about the film and mingles with select audience members.

Closing things out is the film's Theatrical Trailer (2:02). All bonus features are presented in 1.33:1 and widescreen format, but only the still gallery is 16x9 enhanced. No optional subtitles or Closed Captions are included for these supplements.

Final Thoughts

Deliberate but not heavy-handed, Manufacted Landscapes is an eye-opening travelogue of global industrialization. Photographer Edward Burtynsky's images are detailed and memorable, reminding us that we affect the planet as much as the planet affects us. Zeitgeist Video's DVD presentation is a well-rounded effort, combining a terrific technical presentation with a solid assortment of bonus features. Though Manufactured Landscapes may only reach a select audience, those who enjoy forward-thinking documentaries shouldn't be disappointed in the least. Recommended.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.

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