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Mar 28, 2009

Review: Recipes for Disaster

by Michael Brooke

Recipes for Disaster (Katastrofin Aineksia)

It’s traditional to administer a spoonful of sugar with otherwise unpleasant medicine, and the saving grace of John Webster’s film Recipes for Disaster chronicling his family’s year-long “oil diet” is that while it trots out the usual, by now extremely familiar apocalyptic statistics about the long-term unsustainability of typical Western lifestyles, it’s often very funny indeed.

A major reason for this is Webster’s Finnish wife Anu, who gives the greatest deadpan performance I’ve seen since the last Aki Kaurismaki film.  When confronted with her husband’s latest hare-brained scheme for reducing oil consumption and CO2 emission, whether it’s refusing to buy anything plastic (or plastic-wrapped), ditching the car, concocting home-made toothpaste out of salt, baking soda and gelatine, rowing the family motorboat to their country retreat, or proposing a paper bag of organic carrots as a suitable birthday party treat, her reaction remains the same: a quizzical expression, a faux-innocent question, or a put-down so subtly sarcastic that it’s not immediately clear that that’s the intention.  And despite the film mostly being in Webster’s native English, Anu insists on speaking Finnish more or less throughout, albeit occasionally peppered with words like “wanker”.

The tricky balancing act, which the film largely pulls off, is to present Webster as a possibly deranged messianic visionary (there’s more than a touch of The Mosquito Coast’s Allie Fox about him), while at the same time convincing the viewer that what he’s doing is not only worthwhile but even potentially fun.  He’s honest about family tensions (to say his sons Samuel and Benjy don’t take kindly to the new toothpaste or the lack of plastic toys for Christmas is an understatement), but at the same time he vividly shows the upsides: they spend more time together, and talk about important things (like saving the planet) instead of sprawling in front of the television – at least until the solar-powered generator gets installed.

Webster also implicitly acknowledges the problems inherent in living a self-consciously eco-friendly lifestyle.  Although he allows for some wiggle room (no new plastic may be purchased, but existing plastic items can stay), some of his sacrifices seem more exhibitionistically masochistic than productive.  Tellingly, though he reduces his personal carbon footprint by just over half, his final figure is still over three times what the global average should be – and half as much again as that produced by the average Swede.   To cut his final figure to the levels he’s targeting, he will have to make far more severe and permanent alterations to what is still, for all the tinkering, an extremely cushy existence.   Webster has a lot to say about psychological denial, the way those closest to a problem are the least likely to attempt a solution, because it would involve admitting to themselves just how serious the situation is, but he himself leaves some very prominent nettles ungrasped.   

But it’s likely Webster would be the first to admit this.  One of his film’s most disarming traits is its honesty about the amount of willpower necessary to make even relatively modest lifestyle changes.  His research has also led him to ask some fundamental questions about how we live our lives – for instance, why is toilet paper a “better” method than the Indian hand-and-water one, when we wouldn’t dream cleaning dirt off almost any other part of our body using just dry paper?  But the fact that he still favours the Western method after finding a bulk supplier who doesn’t wrap it in plastic speaks volumes in itself: there are some (in this case literally) fundamental changes that we just don’t want to think about.  

Michael Brooke
Curator (Screenonline) at the BFI National Archive and a regular contributor to Sight & Sound

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