Fascinating combination of hippie dreamer and determined pragmatist, Julia Butterfly Hill became an unlikely celebrity when she clambered 180 feet up an ancient California redwood in December 1997 and vowed not to come down until, as she later put it, “I was sure that I had done everything in my power to stop what was happening.” What was happening, as documented in Doug Wolens’s scrupulous Butterfly, was the wholesale stripping of vast swaths of forest in northern California by the Pacific Lumber company. Redefining the sit-in, Hill lived for two years on a six-by-eight-foot plywood platform nestled in the branches of a tree she called Luna, protected from rain, hail, and 100-mph winds only by a thin sheet of tarpaulin.
At once stoic and effervescent, Hill has taken up permanent residence in the ether (“My one thing that I would tell the world . . . is love“), and the most illuminating testimonies in Butterfly aren’t from the heroine but the lifelong Humboldt County residents who have witnessed the steady ruin of a demi-ecosystem. With fewer trees to siphon excess water, the hillsides begin to drown; landslides erupt, salmon disappear.
Butterfly leaves unclear what exactly Hill’s vigil accomplished for Humboldt County. Though Pacific Lumber finally lured her down with the promise that Luna would be permanently protected, that concession hardly addresses the ongoing crisis of mass-scale “cut and run” logging practices. Hill’s daring and patience, however, are unmistakable, and matched by her documentarian. DV was invented for technically arduous projects like this, but Wolens shot in 16mm, lugging as much as 80 pounds of camera equipment up the tree each day and hanging upside down from branches to get optimum shots. He captures Crayola-vivid images of both the unspoiled forest canopy and denuded expanses of slash-and-burned landscape—a bleak summation, perhaps, of the area’s past and future.
Coproduced by Peter and Bobby Farrelly, Say It Isn’t So keeps up a brief appearance of tackling incest (the brothers’ last frontier, it would seem) before backing off into safer mistaken-identity terrain. Dogcatcher Chris Klein and hairdresser Heather Graham fall in love only to discover—falsely, as the trailer will tell you—that they’re brother and sister; Klein must then hunt down Graham before she marries a millionaire cad. Klein scores a few laughs (delivering a doggie eulogy in stoned Election-voiceover mode), Orlando Jones injects third-act adrenaline as Klein’s legless aide-de-camp, and a malformed Farrelly resemblance is evident: sliced-ear close-ups, creative recycling of pubic hair, a nipple piercing worthy of Ron Athey. But the gags—stuffed with familiar bodily malfunction—are mostly stillborn or, worse, die slow, violent deaths (as when Sally Field, playing Graham’s trashy mom, has to speak or move), while the usual prevalence of disability is more an affected fetish than a matter of fact. The film elicits not the voluptuous discomfort stirred by the boys’ best corporeal shenanigans but creeping embarrassment for everyone on screen.