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“Manufactured Landscapes”

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By Matt Singer

IFC News

[Photo: “Manufactured Landscapes,” Zeitgeist Films, 2007]

Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky likes to capture scenes of “environment without nature,” places that have been stripped of their beauty and resources by man. He prefers to shoot things in their endless middles, grand vistas with no beginnings or endings, no edges whatsoever. In his eye, his subjects, from decay, to waste, to humanity (or an industrialized approximation), stretch on seemingly to infinity. Documentarian Jennifer Baichwal filmed Burtynsky on a trip to China; that footage forms the basis for this feature-length documentary on the man and the drastic environmental changes that are happening to the place he visited.

Burtynsky has an amazing inquisitiveness about him, something “Manufactured Landscapes” imparts on the viewer to great effect. I learned about things during this film I’d never even heard of before, like the massive danger to the environment posed by “e-waste,” which is what your computer and its affiliated parts become after you junk it. 50% of the world’s e-waste winds up in China, where tiny little villages strip mine these iHusks for whatever valuable materials can be yanked out of them and leave the rest to basically rot in massive piles of circuit boards and plastic. Burtynsky visits places where the mounds of e-waste threaten to contaminate the water supply and wipe out small pockets of humanity.

The film spends a great deal of time at China’s Three Gorges Dam, where somewhere in the neighborhood of one million people have been displaced from their homes and 13 cities and towns have been demolished in order to make way for the largest engineering project in the entire world. This sequence illustrates better than any other the true scope of the way mankind is “manufacturing” landscapes as well as the devastating toll that process has on the natural world.

In another sequence, Burtynsky and Baichwal show the way Chinese industry is transforming its workforce into a featureless mass not unlike the land that had to be cleared to make way for the Three Gorges Dam. The documentary opens with a shot down the length of a factory and it goes on and on forever — you could take a cat nap and wake up and this shot would still be trucking past worker after anonymous worker. Often clothed in identical jumpsuits and masks, these laborers work with a robotic efficiency, assembling complex electronic equipment by hand in a few well-practiced seconds. The analogy is clear: the industrial revolution that’s hit China has transformed these workers as much as it has revamped the places they live.

Baichwal does a fine job of reminding us conspicuous consumers of our impact on our environment, but she goes on about a half hour longer than she needs to in order to make her point, and a sequence about the real estate business in Shanghai’s poorer communities is thematically irrelevant to the rest of the film. The initial shock and horror begins to fade with repetition and she threatens to leave the audience with a sense of exhaustion at the scope of problems rather than with a resolve to fix them. At its best and its worst, “Manufactured Landscapes” is a bit like a photograph itself: a beautiful, clear representation of something, but a representation frozen. By its nature, nothing can happen or change. Not until we see the photograph ourselves and do something about it.

“Manufactured Landscapes” opens in New York on June 20th (official site).

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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