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The Green Life: Movie Review Friday: The Botany of Desire

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March 05, 2010

Movie Review Friday: The Botany of Desire

Escape to the movies with one of our Movie Review Friday selections. Each week we review a film with an environmental theme that’s currently in theaters or available on DVD. Seen a good eco-flick lately? Send us a review of 100 or fewer words and look for it in the next Movie Review Friday.

The Botany of Desire (2009)

Available on DVD

We plant them in neat rows, dice them into our soups, smoke them at parties, and wrap them in plastic to give to our mothers—on the surface, it seems we have the plant world firmly under our green thumbs. But according to this PBS documentary, plants have been enacting their influence over us as well. Based on the 2001 book of the same name by Michael Pollan, the film explores the idea that humans and domesticated plants are more mutually dependent than we realize.

The documentary illuminates this concept with four common plant species—apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes. With high-def photography and narration by Frances McDormand, it chronicles each plant’s origin and how it evolved to satisfy a basic human craving—for sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control, respectively—which ensured its survival and proliferation. The history of each of these plants almost warrants four individual documentaries. Who knew, for example, that during Amsterdam’s tulipmania phase in the 1600s, a rare bulb sold for the price of a townhouse? Or that apples originated in modern-day Kazakhstan, where thousands of varieties still grow wild?

But more important than this engaging trivia is Pollan’s central point about the way animals are hard-wired to seek out these plants. They have satisfied our biological needs and this has allowed for their evolutionary success—it’s a thesis that's sufficiently explained in the first 15 minutes, but it’s still fascinating to watch it proven again and again.

At times, the film tries to fit too many digressions into a limited amount of time, and it lacks the engaging personal anecdotes and elegant structure of Pollan’s books. But when so much of what we see on a day-to-day basis is trying to convince us to want something, it’s refreshing to watch a film that explains where some of our desires originated.

--Jessi Phillips

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