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'Recipes for Disaster'

A family tries to give up oil, and home life seizes up.

Dorothy Woodend 10 Apr

Dorothy Woodend writes about film, and life, for The Tyee.

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No oil? No shampoo for you.

The other day I had a conversation with someone about what happens when a relationship is overtaken by ideology. Self-righteousness and moralism versus insurrection, duress, rebellion, resentment. All of that and love mix to an often incendiary effect. Sometimes things blow up completely. Witnessing this at first hand can be quite entertaining, as long as you're not actually part of the couple that's exploding.

Recipes for Disaster, screening as part of DOXA's film series at the Vancity Theatre on April 16th, 2009, is about what happens when one family decides to forgo using petroleum-based products for one year. It is also about what happens when couplehood and ideology get combustible. Hell hath no fury like a woman forced to give up shampoo.

Filmmaker John Webster, and his Finnish-Anglo family, including his lovely wife Anu and two extremely charming children, Benjy and Samuel, give up anything packaged in or made from plastic. The list is endless -- soap, frozen foods, shampoo, mascara, etcetera. The family also gives up its car and begins to try and discover ways of coping without the everyday convenience of modern oily world.

Some things prove easier than others; making homemade hair gel, which John and Anu then test on their children, isn't so bad. The toothpaste made from salt and baking powder is less of a success. The film's environmental message is clear and explicit. Less clear is what their ideological purity does to the people involved.

Testing, testing

Very quickly the polarizing begins, especially between husband and wife. The loaded conversations that take place in bathrooms and kitchens begin innocuously enough, with questions and responses like...

"What's so shameful about this?"

"Are you testing me?"

"Do you think that everything I do is pointless, then?"

"That's why you are a real wanker. A real Jesus!"

...and then spiral into outbursts of anger and frustration.

Every time a new change is proposed, such as turning off the central heating, Anu fixes her husband with baleful stare and says, "You are crazy." I can appreciate her position. No one likes being told what to do, or worse, lectured by their partner. Such behaviour begets worse behaviour and soon enough Anu is sneaking out at 6 a.m. to bike to the local gas station and buy packaged treats for a school party.

Little fibs

Every couple I know (gay, straight or somewhere in between) has a variation of "Don't tell... (insert name of beloved here). As in, don't tell Bernie we ate at Burger King, or don't tell Marshall we went shopping. These little deceptions and rationalizations of bad behaviour are part of being in a couple. Without the constant, soothing application of creamy white falsehood, how else could most people ever get along?

But as John tries to convince his wife of the importance of the project they're undertaking, the conversation often takes place in two different languages. This is perhaps a fitting summation of the difficulty faced by any couple when it comes to communicating genuine truth and feeling. No matter how well you know anyone, it's often as if one of you is speaking Finnish and the other English. The better you know one another, the more complicated it gets, since every bat of an eyelash or twitch of a lip speaks to a world of past argument. This form of relationship semaphore needs no verbal expression at all. And the camera has the capacity to capture the unspoken language of love and resentment in all its wry dyspepsia.

It's a wonder that people persist with couplehood.

As the film's title starts to seem like a step-by-step guide to incipient divorce court, the family struggles on, trying to find ways of living the life they are used to, whether that means riding the bus to work or getting to their lakefront cottage the hard way. The scene where John turns off the outboard motor and gamely rows the family boat to their cottage, while his wife and children glower in the back seat, is excruciating enough. But it only gets worse when practically every boater on the lake stops to ask if they're having trouble with their engine.

Xmas sans plastic

Christmas holidays, that orgy of consumption, presents an especially large problem. Everything from wrapping paper to plastic ornaments for the tree must be rethought. Even pleasure itself becomes suspect. "This looks like some damn war orphan's Christmas," says Anu.

The most ordinary activities of working, eating, shopping and watching TV necessitate some degree of change. The devil is in the details. Whether it's hiding from the people at work when you're lugging home enormous industrial-sized rolls of toilet paper, or making up fake allergies to plastic simply so that you explain yourself, it's far easier to lie than it is to tell the truth. As the frustrations begin to mount, it is also much easier to vent your spleen on those nearest (and dearest) to you.

That's the problem with human beings. No matter how great the goal, they will find some means to fight each other, rather than deal with the problem at hand. This is especially true in terms of something as large and overwhelming as planetary climatic disaster. Or as John says, "Why is it that even if I know exactly what I should do, I go and do something completely different?"

'Just trying to be happy'

As the year of no oil draws to a close, the long-term consequences are what neither John nor Anu could have envisaged, or if they did, perhaps they would have rethought the entire notion. "How could that hurt the world? We were just trying to be happy," says John.

Often it's the littlest things that break backs. When a used eyeliner (passed on from John's dead mother to Anu) begets a conversation about global climate change, you know that something must give, and that's exactly what happens. I won't spoil the film's ending, but the penultimate showdown is well worth witnessing. That's the other thing about being in an ideologically determined couple. If you can't compromise your lofty ideals every so often, you will most likely end up living in a cave or a bachelor apartment, lecturing the silent walls about the coming environmental collapse. To his infinite credit, although he does actually appear to be something of a wanker, John finds ways of making it work. Whether that means taking the train to Italy for the family's annual summer holiday, or discovering the wonders of bio diesel, pleasures, big and little, can combine to create a life that is balanced between happiness, care and open communication.

Of these things, open communication still seems the hardest to achieve. Is it simply human nature (a somewhat contradictory term when you think about it) to saw off the branch upon which we are perched? Why are we the only mammal around that lies as easily as breathing? Not only to each other but also to ourselves?

Self-propelled journey

Once you change one way of doing things, there can be a domino effect. For example, for much of my adult working life I have been a bus rider, but this past year, I decided to ride my bike as much as possible. (Winter did put a bit of a damper on things.) What I discovered somewhat by accident (which is how I discover most things) is that there is no going back.

Once you have discovered the satisfaction that comes from getting from point A to point B under your own power, you can't return to waiting for the bus. You cannot give up a degree of control again. Waiting dumbly like a cow for the bus to arrive feels utterly powerless.

It is the opposite of the freedom of self-propelled movement.

Perhaps somewhere between being alone and being together there must be some happy place of compromise. Perhaps I simply haven't found it yet. But I'm not ready to become a hermit yet.

I have to believe that even if you're really only tilting at windmills, tilting together somehow makes it better. Or at least more bearable.

Related Tyee stories:


Read more: Film, Environment

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