Home Video Hovel: The First 70, by James T. Sheridan
“Can you close a forest?” one California park ranger wonders aloud in “The First 70,” a short documentary film from director Jarrett Moody that chronicles the very real effects of a California state legislature decision to close 25% of the state parks in order to save close to 22 million dollars. Moody’s reaction to that devastating shuttering of state parks involved taking a three thousand mile road trip around the state with two friends, visiting parks and experiencing the collective effort keeping these places alive. The film begins promisingly with a line from John Muir (“Wilderness is a necessity) and asks its audience to consider what it means if society cannot afford to keep its open spaces open.
Moody’s tone wavers from reverential (cathedrals of impossibly tall trees, animals frolicking in slow-motion, low-angle shots of waterfalls) to frustration (confused rangers, despair over communication, concerned local activists) as the journey structure of the film quickly fades away into quick snapshots and a collective voice of concern. Instead of a close look at one park or a detailed examination of one ranger or volunteer’s experience, the film favors time-lapse photography, quick cuts from one locale to another, and photogenic leaps into water. Cory Brown’s camera finds the wonder in a flower and in a mountain range creating a catalogue of astonishing beauty, but shouldn’t an inspirational film inspire more?
Moody’s film only scratches the surface of modern society’s relationship to parks and open spaces. Why are there not more people going to parks? What is the role of quiet space in 2013 America? If government abandons its role, will the answer be local businesses taking over parks? Could there be a state park brought to you by Cliff Bars or a brewery? Should parks be handed over to nonprofits? On a practical level, the film clearly stakes its position on the cost effectiveness of keeping parks open. Multiple advocates argue that state requirements, vandalism, forest fires, and public safety will necessitate an even greater financial commitment in the future if the state shuts them down now.
It is impossible not to admire “The First 70” for its committed stance on an important issue as well as its interviewees, from dedicated rangers to fearless activists. The film is clearly a labor of love. However, by avoiding the specific politics of the laws that they fight against and lacking a clear call to action, the film leaves the audience with nebulous platitudes such as “We can only move forward” and “Someday, when California finally breaks even.” I imagine many state and federal programs forging a documentary of this sort like, say, NASA for instance. A 9.2 billion dollar deficit cannot be ignored, but neither can the decision to staff state parks at 1979 levels. If “Wilderness is a necessity,” our relationship to our nation’s land elevates this debate despite the thirty-minute film’s shortcomings, and in our overloaded, increasingly electronic society, the value of such quiet, reflective, and affordable places is incalculable.
Moody urges viewers to do more by going to www.thefirst70.com.