AKA: Blue Vinyl The World's First Toxic Comedy (DVD Title)
AKA: Ble vinylio (Greek Festival Title)
(Premiere Date: January 2002 [Sundance Film Festival])
Does that make Blue Vinyl any less of a Documentary? No.
However, the question is "What is being Documented?" Blue Vinyl is much more of a light-hearted documentary about main character and co-director Judith Helfand's quest to make a documentary about Polyvinyl chloride than it is actually a documentary about Polyvinyl chloride. That's not to say that the valid points don't come across here, but the points are parts of Helfand's story rather than her story being part and parcel of a PVC Documentary.
The film begins as Helfand's mom and dad replace the aging wood of their home with Vinyl Siding molded to resemble wood grain. This is all amid Helfand's filming and her protests that the stuff might be dangerous (for reasons as-yet unexplored). When her parents decline to pay attention, Helfand sets out on her quest to show just why vinyl siding and, in fact, PVC-products in general are either indirectly or directly dangerous to resin-workers, fabricators, recyclers and, in fact, consumers. In truth, this is far from some idle meddling on the part of Helfand and to be accurate, her interest in the unintended side-effects of chemicals springs from a very personal place. Her survival of a rare form of cancer (said to be caused by her mother's use of a pre-natal drug) has given her a unique sympathy for and perspective on such issues.
Regardless of the Whos, Whats, When, Whys, Wheres, Hows and Huzzahs of how the quest began, Judith sets out with her single piece of (obviously "blue") vinyl siding to find out if she's really holding a big slice of plutonium (or its fabricated equivalent). To this end she starts map-hopping from the newly evil home of her Parents to the vinyl processing plants of Lake Charles, Louisiana (hey, I've partied there), to a similar plant in Venice Italy (I've never partied there), to Sunny California (where I am currently partying) to find less-evil alternatives to vinyl siding and all over New England on that same quest.
Judith Helfand does pose some very valid questions (along with her co-director Daniel B. Gold) in her travels. She focuses greatly on the human side of things, especially the link between PVC and cancer, but also discusses environmental impacts, both verbally and through the animations of Jeremiah Dickey and Emily Hubley. Helfand sits in on some plant-held community meetings in Lake Charles, talks to the citizens and former workers, interviews the lawyers on both sides and even asks questions to representatives of the vinyl siding industry. Most compelling are the cases of a Lake Charles lawyer representing cancer victims who have worked at the plant and the studies of an Italian doctor who attempted to reveal the connection between PVC and Cancer 30 years before this documentary was made. Needless to say, she draws some interesting and well thought-out conclusions based on all of this. And, to be fair, Helfand and Gold do allow and, in truth, encourage representatives of The Vinyl Institute to tell their side of the story (which is allowed in a brief, 30 minute interview). However, it's clear from the get go that the makers of Blue Vinyl have an agenda, altruous though it may be, and they intend to prove their point here, much more than report a story. Still, Gold and Helfand don't go out of their way to make the "opposition" look silly. Instead, the vinyl advocates often do a fine job of egging their own faces (even in court).
Blue Vinyl is one of the recent crop of documentaries that is more "behind the scenes" than journalistic. Like many these days the director becomes the main "character" and voice of the film. Many scenes in the film even include what would otherwise be set-up shots, like camera-positioning and microphone adjustment, etc. It's almost as if the directors skipped the actual documentary and, instead, created a "Making Of" extra to show how they did it (or would have done it). The ideas and reasons do come through and this "Toxic Comedy" does do a fine job of exposing the horrors of human and environmental contamination, but Blue Vinyl is less about this contamination than it is about Judith Helfand's search for this information to substantiate her premise.
At the same time, Helfand never claims to be Doctor Manhattan here. She sets out to tell a personal story with scientific foundations, not create a documentary based in hard-science with just a twinge of personal experience therein. The majority of the film is about herself and her parents. This relationship forms a sort of sounding-board for most of the other relationships documented in Blue Vinyl. Seeing the connection Judith's family has to their home makes the impact of entire families who were forced to move due to PVC-contaminated ground-water all the more real. Hearing about Helfand's cancer-survival makes news of the cancer deaths of PVC workers all the more palpable.
It's depth like this that Gold and Helfand attempt to temper with comic relief. Much of the comedy is based on the obvious absurdities the cast and crew encounter. A good bit of this comes from characters seeming to miss their own point. While there are some laugh-inducing moments here, Blue Vinyl, which credits itself as "The World's First Toxic Comedy", is never quite as funny as it thinks it is. The cluelessness can be funny and once in a while Helfand puts in a well timed visual (a certain "sex toy" scene springs to mind). Often the film edits in a long incredulous pause for laughter that doesn't quite make it. This could be due to the serious nature of some parts of this, or this could be because the reality of the scenarios isn't quite the knee-slapper the filmmakers thought it would be.
The end result is an effective film, even if it's less a straightforward documentary than it is a filmed persuasive essay that starts with a thesis statement and documents the main character's quest to prove this thesis correct. Blue Vinyl may be a bit self-satisfied and pretentious at times but its heart is in the right place and it comes from a very personal place for its creator(s). Three Stars out of Five for "The World's First Toxic Comedy". Let's hope those three stars don't contain any polyvinyl chloride. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go home and listen to my original pressing of Frampton Comes Alive... oh wait, gramophone records are made of Vinyl!!! Sigh. Okay, I'll just jump into the modern age and listen to it on my iPod! Oh, man! That's got PVC in the wiring and the headphones? Hell! Okay, then! Fetish club? Aw, man! More vinyl! I've got no clue what do do now. I think I'll just take a pill and... What the-? The pill bottle is made of Polyvinyl chloride??? Tell you what, I'll just close now and I'll see you in the next reel!
What? They make reels out of WHAT now?
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