The day after I watched the documentary “Earth,” I spent time working in my garden, digging, planting, getting my hands dirty. I didn’t grow up gardening and I’m not especially good at it. Even so, when I’m not inadvertently killing plants, I find it satisfying tending the yard. It’s a small pleasure, though given what the domination of nature has wrought, also a paradoxical one. More than 12 million acres have burned in Australia as of this week and, as this movie reminds you, there is no escaping complicity in what the environmentalist Bill McKibben has called “the end of nature.”
While gardening, I kept thinking about “Earth,” which offers a look at how humans — by excavating, by tunneling, by fetishizing Carrara marble countertops — are changing material existence. The displacement of earth in the documentary is on a far larger, more dramatic scale than what any casual gardener does, true, but the movie is a stark reminder that someone, at some point, cleared and gouged the land to build that gardener’s house, streets and city. This isn’t news, but it is still sobering to see the planet ruined one backhoe at a time.
The movie opens with a fixed, perfectly framed shot of a dun-colored, gently sloping terrain. The place is somewhere in the San Fernando Valley, a huge swath just north of the Los Angeles basin. Centuries ago, the area was a prairie alive with people, flora and fauna, including the now-extinct California grizzly. Over time, much of this life was supplanted by non-native settlers, livestock, citrus groves, film studios, tract housing and that pop-culture cliché called the Valley Girl. In “Earth,” the area’s continued expansion is bleakly expressed by a parade of bulldozers and backhoes that, from a distance, appear to be engaged in a perverse, choreographed dance.
The men operating those machines are cutting mountains for a development, which is as mesmerizing to watch as it is appalling to think about. You grasp the enormous scale of this project from the long shots that the director Nikolaus Geyrhalter (“Our Daily Bread”) liberally uses. These shots tend either to render people invisible (when inside the machines they operate) or to turn them into undifferentiated specks. There’s a strangely paradoxical and dystopian quality to these visions, which are at once wholly human and inhuman. If this were science fiction, you could say the machines had already risen, which would be almost reassuring in its nihilistic finality.