Despite the simplicity of its execution, BP's Oil Spill Live Feed offers something unprecedented in the history of cinema: a $200-billion experimental art film. It audaciously challenges audiences by offering none of the draws big-budget disaster movies generally employ to lure viewers -- no A-list movie stars, no eye-popping special effects (particularly surprising, given its budget), no pithy (or even wooden) dialogue, no comforting resolutions.
Sure, James Cameron's cautionary environmental film Avatar, cost $250 million, a considerable sum, but at least it was a popcorn flick in 3D. BP's Oil Spill Live Feed challenges the viewer with a single, static protracted shot -- lasting, so far, for days stretching into weeks and, soon, months -- and a nontraditional narrative.
Like British auteur Peter Greenaway's The Falls, a three-hour opus -- just three hours? amateur -- it seems designed for viewers to wander in and out on at their whim. Andy Warhol, who once made an eight-hour film about a guy sleeping and a 24-hour film about a day in the life outside the Empire State Building, would tip his fright wig to the filmmaking vision displayed here.
Why it's not already a video installation set up alongside stacks of rotting fish carcasses in art galleries across the country is beyond me.
The plot is straightforward to the point of primitive: An underwater gulf oil pipe gushes oil incessantly. That's it. No action hero to the rescue, no love story subplot, no whimsical shots of the family dog putting its forepaws over its face in seeming dismay. The mise-en-scène is not particularly well-considered. Generally, the oil gushes in one direction, or in two different directions, or the screen is consumed by an ominous wave of burnt sienna.
Nonetheless, watching the imagery for hours upon end has a mesmerizing cumulative effect, not unlike Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi, only minus the bravura editing, the gorgeous scenic and disquieting urban vistas and the music.
Which points out another daring gambit employed by those responsible for the film: It's a silent film, eight decades removed from the death of the silent-film era. The filmmakers might have considered at least an overlay of a musical track - Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, for example, or the song "Under the Sea" from The Little Mermaid. They could have tipped their hat to the regional flavor of the film by featuring such New Orleans-flavored chestnuts as "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans" or "Iko Iko." Tom Waits' "Earth Died Screaming" or Jarvis Cocker's "Running the World" might've sufficed.
In sum, BP's Oil Spill Live Feed is a brave attempt at counterprogramming against such summer hits as Sex and the City 2 and Iron Man 2. It's decidedly not for all audiences, but its historical impact on cinema (and life in general) may prove to be much greater.