Pollan Documentary: Botany of Desire

by janet on March 3rd, 2010

It’s an awful title, isn’t it?  That was about the only drawback with the film (and book on which it is based).  Well, also it was a teeny bit boring.

Backtracking.  Choco, R2, U2, Peanut, Choco’s roommate who I will not give a pseudonym because I will likely never see her again and I went to the City Arts & Lectures screening last night of the PBS documentary Botany of Desire.  It’s made by Michael Schwarz and based on that inimitable demi-god of foodies Michael Pollan’s 2001 book of the same name.

We were situated in a box (swank!) with Depression-era style concrete-feeling chairs (derelict!) and settled in to watch the doc.  I have not read the book, but the film’s message seemed to be similar to Omnivore’s Dilemma (which I cannot finish for the life of me but maybe I’ll try again now) – that monocultures are bad and please everyone stop eating McDonald’s.

This was ironic because R2 and U2 were late to the movie because they were in the lobby finishing their McD’s.  They got it for good reason – the Star Wars Clone Wars toys are now out (and R2, indeed, proudly wore his eponymous toy on his belt loop the rest of the night).

An additional message of the film was that just as nature shapes us, we shape nature.  Our desire for beauty has made flower evolution go wild.  Same with apples – they are under selection pressure to get ever sweeter.  Even the cannabis plant, in response to human desire, have evolved to have more and more THC in them.

Other interesante things from the film:

Wowow wee wah.  Apples originated in Kazahkstan.

Johnny Appleseed was the original hipster.  Even though he was from a super wealthy family, he became in essence a homeless guy with unkempt hair who traveled around planting apple trees.  Also, it was curious that Johnny Appleseed created saplings from seeds, which when planted will have essentially zero similarity to the tree it came from.  The way to make a new tree with the old tree’s qualities (sweet apples, for example) is to use the technique of grafting, which was certainly available and known about back then.  But Johnny Appleseed was actually crazy religious, and believed that everything in nature was mirrored in heaven, so he thought grafting was unnatural and an affront to God.  So all these colonial towns (which, by the way, had to plant fruit trees BY LAW) had these crappy tasting apple trees thanks to him, which was OK because those were the apples that make the best alcoholic cider.

The best marijuana plants have resin in them, which is where the THC is concentrated.  The resin is created by female plants that put out more sticky stuff to catch the male plants’ pollen.  Growers, therefore, keep male plants out of their greenhouses and fill them with females only.  So, in essence, a growhouse is a 120 degree space chock full of “sexually frustrated” female plants.  Sux for them.

Why is it that protesters can only come up with the cheesiest chants?  I mean, “What do we want?” “______!”  ”When do we want it?”  ”NOW!” is already pretty bad.  In this film, in protest to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), they came up with “Hey hey.  Ho Ho.  We don’t want no GMOs!”  Awful.

In the section on tulips, the guy kept saying “chulips” which I thought was very cute.

After the screening, the man himself came out – Michael Pollan, IN THE FLESH!  He is one of those guys who is bald but still super handsome.  He has an non-defensive, exceedingly thoughtful, laid-back, and dryly funny persona.  Also you can tell he knows he’s the shit.  But he is, so.

Interesting things from the Q&A portion:

He started by asking Michael Schwarz why it took him ten years to make the film when he himself wrote the book in only two.  Ba-zing!  Schwarz said it was due to two reasons: (1) The marijuana section, which made all the potential funders uneasy, to the point where one of them suggested they focus on a different plant, like… grapes!  That’ll work, won’t it?  (2) No one knew who Michael Pollan was when the book came out so no one cared.  Boosh.

Curiously, though the filmmakers didn’t get an interview with Monsanto (the company who does the genetically modified plants), Pollan did in his book.  It turns out that Pollan had represented himself, in his words, “incompletely” to Monsanto and told them that he was a “garden writer.” lol.

Someone from the audience said “Thanks for this film.  I really enjoyed it, and it’s giving me motivation to actually finish the book.”  lol squared.  Didn’t I just get done telling you that I felt the same way, just about Omnivore’s Dilemma?

Did you know that almonds (another monoculture, also California’s #1 agricultural export?!) are such a huge industry that they have to ship in massive quantities of bees to pollinate the trees?  And that’s not enough so they feed the bees high fructose corn syrup before they release them to pollinate?  Crazay.

So it was a fun night that also made my brain grow.  On the way home, I asked R2 and U2 what they would write about if they were writing this post.  U2 said “the chairs.” I said, “…the chairs??” and U2 said, “They hurt my butt.”  To which R2 said “Buttony of Chairsire” and looked all proud of himself.  Sigh.

One Response to “Pollan Documentary: Botany of Desire”

  1. R2 says:

    Pollan was a fascinating talking head in both the doc and the interview – charismatic, compelling and clearly passionate about his subject. I especially liked his turn of phrase to describe the futile romanticism of a flower’s only practical attribute: its beauty. “Exquisitely useless,” if I’m not mistaken.
    As for Buttony of Chairsire…well, they can’t all be good.

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