Mister Green: Internalizing Environmentalism
by Amir Hussain
In the digital sci-fi short Mister Green (2009), a discouraged undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Global Warming, Mason Park (Tim Kang), is biochemically transformed to take in energy directly from the sun just like a plant. The fifteen-minute film is director Greg Pak's insightful visualization of a near future where the environment as we know it has buckled under the strain of global climate change.
In the film, Dr. Gloria Holtzer (Betty Gilpin), a former graduate school colleague of Mason's and the woman behind green technology group Greenpoint Industries, surreptitiously sprinkles a mysterious potion on Mason. The next morning he awakens understandably overcome. He fears the radical experiment he has become an unwitting subject of. He tracks Gloria down and demands an answer to his worry: "What did you do to me?"
"You're wilting," Gloria tells him, and hands him a jug of water. "The process requires both CO2 and H2O," she continues. "It's about reducing the individual's carbon footprint to zero. End the consumption of meat in America and you reduce our carbon dioxide emissions by three hundred billion tons. Eliminate the need to heat and cool homes and you knock out twenty percent of greenhouse gases in the United Sates."
Mister Green creatively develops one possible solution to global climate change. By entirely eliminating their intake of agriculturally-produced foods, especially animal products--the UN reports that meat production accounts for about 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions--the plant-infused characters do not merely eat lower on the so-called food chain but they literally absorb the Sun's direct light and convert it into energy through the complex and rewarding process of photosynthesis.
It's important to note that the film's success does not arise from its tapping into some kind of collective fear that we might be infused with plant fibers in the close future (it is a sci-fi film after all). Instead, I believe the film conveys a fruitful (no pun intended) environmental message because it repositions and reimagines the physical value and integrity of plant life.
We have been debating the intelligence of animals for such an unreasonably long time--a pig, they say, is more intelligent than a dog (and, in my humble opinion, cuter)--that we have forgotten to turn our attention to a much more critical matter: What can they teach us about how to live (sustainably)? It is a similar case with the plant life around us. Plants know a life far different from any of our lives, but importantly, they know it as they have lived it for billions of years. In no uncertain terms, plants are the most efficient group of species on the planet. It's a shame we don't express more respect and awe for the beings that are the integral link between sunlight and everything we do, or can do (without plants, we wouldn't have the energy to do anything). The trouble is that few people with only human interests and concerns in mind consider that fascinating fact.
Mister Green is part of a collection of films jointly called FUTURESTATES commissioned by the Independent Television Service that "asked 11 renowned and up-and-coming filmmakers to take the current state of affairs in the United States, and extrapolate them into stories of the nation in the not-so-distant future." (You can view Mister Green and all other episodes at futurestates.tv.)
I was first introduced to the FUTURESTATES series in late spring with Director Ramin Bahrani's Plastic Bag, a short film which follows a plastic bag on a first-person "existential journey" from its creation until it ends up in the North Pacific Ocean "trash vortex." Plastic Bag anthropomorphizes a plastic bag--a commonly employed method that aims to extend the circle of compassion to nonhuman entities--and it successfully elicits viewer participation to consider the lifespan of a superfluous, everyday object. But I see Pak's Mister Green working in a different way to elicit viewer involvement.
Mister Green overtly poses an ethical dilemma: If we had the capacity to engineer our bodies to accept energy directly from the sun, should we do it? That's definitely something worth considering, but to get at what strikes me most we need to sidestep the overtly expressed dilemma and look at the film's depiction of the transformative change in Mason, because the film takes place in a period where the ecosystem has already collapsed (Mason tells us Canal Street in New York City is underwater).
As they stand to face the sun's rays, you can see the changed characters in the film express a deep, recognizable--dare I say, side-splitting--joy. The doom of environmental collapse is allayed by harnessing the powers of photosynthesis. The solution is simultaneous return and advancement. It is expressed literally as a scientific fusion of plant and human body. In an understatement of form, the human grows no plant-like appendages; nor does a stalk shoot out from the neck. Metaphorically speaking, Mason internalizes the change he seeks to create. In a display of solidarity with plants, Mason bears a yellow flower on his suit's breast pocket.
Pak, who wrote, directed, and edited the film, echoes these sentiments as he speaks about the film's origins: "Mister Green was born from the compulsion to explore how incredibly hard it is to genuinely change on an individual level--and to consider just how extreme that change might have to be in order to confront the massive environmental transformations that threaten the world. . . . With Mister Green, I gave myself the challenge of telling a different kind of story to explore that loaded promise of actually becoming the change we were waiting for."
In the depicted world's only successful attempt to alleviate human strain on the planet--Mason is unable to do so working for years in the government's global warming program and we learn the nation's people have not risen up to demand it of the government--we see that we ourselves must transform. I do not interpret this as a case against the valuable systems approach to resisting environmental destruction but rather as a call to also internalize that resistance.
Upon realizing the inevitable reality that he is changing, Mason follows Gloria to an open field where she convinces him to take off his shoes and walk into the bright field with her.
"C'mon Mason. When was the last time you ran barefoot through the grass?" Gloria pushes.
"I don't want to. I don't want to lose myself."
"Yes . . . you do."
The camera zooms in on Mason's bare feet, then focuses on his hand as he touches a tall stalk of grass.
"That's it. You're becoming a part of everything now. And, in another few weeks, you'll be able to grow roots, if you want . . . You said we have to make you."
Movie still from Mister Green (2009)