Bringing the Heat
Al Gore makes amends for 2000 by reminding the world that the clock is ticking on climate change—and he's a big 'Simpsons' fan. What's not to like? Richard von Busack interviews the ex Veep and filmmaker Davis Guggenheim about 'An Inconvenient Truth.'
An Inconvenient Truth is the summer's only indispensable movie, deserving the poring over that The Da Vinci Code got. It's a concert film of a lecture by former Vice President Al Gore on the subject of the fate of the human race.
Aiming for simplicity and entertainment, Gore aligns an array of facts that will be very hard to refute. He focuses on nonpartisan ways to avoid the unthinkable: the melting of the ice caps, the flooding of the coasts, the spread of tropical diseases, the famines that we will have difficulty imagining, let alone enumerating.
The surprise is that it's an entertaining show. It's witty. It's playful. Gore is a huge fan of Mark Twain, taking a Twain quote as an epigraph: "What gets us into trouble is not what we don't know. It's what we know for sure that just ain't so."
David Remnick's new collection, Reporting, includes a profile of Gore titled "The Wilderness Campaign"—making a play on words about the collective name of a series of Civil War battles, as well as on the familiar expression that a voted-out politician is "in the wilderness."
Remnick writes that when interviewing someone at a certain level of fame, it's tricky: subjects have "reputations to protect, public and private agendas to consider ... the hope, as well as the vanity, is that eventually even public figures will let down their guard, they will be themselves, they will cross the line. Generally speaking, they do what they can to make sure that does not happen."
Actually, Remnick elicited a top-drawer interview from Gore, revealing a man looser and more amusing in private than he was in public. Gore may not have been as telegenic as his opponent; without undue Bush bashing, it can be said that this nation has learned the limitation of telegenicity the hard way.
Today, Gore is a vastly different man than the strained, hesitant political candidate he once was. Perhaps it has occurred to him that the bulliest pulpit these days is a movie screen. If Gore is in the wilderness, it is in an Airstream trailer with all the hookups, a satellite dish and a smoldering a barbecue.
At our interview, he is smooth, he is affluent, he looks 10 years younger than he did in 2000; he is dressed smartly in black clothes and sitting at a desk in a high level in a nice hotel in San Francisco, with a twilight view of Twin Peaks behind him, with half a bottle of Heineken at his right hand. On his left side is Davis Guggenheim, who directed An Inconvenient Truth. Guggenheim is a documentary filmmaker who made The First Year, must-see viewing for those considering a teaching career.
METRO: Do you really believe we have only 10 years to avert disastrous global warming?
GORE: I do, I really do. Over the last 30 years, during the time I've tried to tell this story, there have been times when people said we only had 10 years, 15 years. I never had repeated that or paid much attention to that. Just in the last six months, some of the leading scientists in the world—who actually do know what they're talking about—have begun to say, we have less than 10 years in which to make a big start on dramatic changes, or we'll cross a point of no return.
I do believe that. I respect these scientists; I've worked with them for decades. Now, I'm optimistic, because I believe that, in less time than that [10 years], we will make a big start.
METRO: Is there any such thing as a controversy over global warming any more?
GORE: The debate's over. There are five points in the consensus. No. 1: global warming is real. No. 2: we human beings are mainly responsible. No. 3: consequences are very bad, and we're headed toward catastrophe. No. 4: we need to fix it quickly. And No. 5: it's not too late.
Those five points now support a global consensus. Exxon-Mobil doesn't agree with that, but they think the Earth is flat. On those five points the debate is really over. Now the debate is: what's the most effective way to solve it? how quickly can we solve it?
METRO: Is it true that you were on your way to New Orleans to film this movie when Katrina struck?
GORE: It was supposed to be a keynote speech to a conference of the 50 state insurance commissioners, and Davis was going to film it. It was on the subject of global warming's effects on hurricanes. I was supposed to speak Aug. 29 in New Orleans. Several days before, the whole thing was cancelled. And they didn't reschedule it, because by then many of the commissioners were then wrestling with how they were going to cope with all the claims from Katrina. Ironic.
METRO: In An Inconvenient Truth, you comment that you've seen evidence of climactic change at your family farm. Could you expand on that?
GORE: The spring is earlier, the fall is later, and the winter is warmer. We have some evergreens that are now vulnerable to pine beetles that weren't vulnerable in the past. The colder winters used to kill the insects. The blooming season for flowering plants has moved up considerably. You're seeing mosquitoes to higher altitudes.
METRO: One story that seems a little underreported here in the coasts are the terrible prairie fires ravaging Oklahoma and Texas.
GORE: There's been an increase in the number of major wildfires, in North America, South America, Asia, Europe and Australia. Warming dries out the soil, dries out the vegetation and increases the amount of lightning—which is not as well known—since heat puts more energy in the system. Thus the number of wildfires has expanded dramatically.
METRO: How has your presentation of your "traveling global-warming show" changed over the years?
GORE: Did you see the scene in the movie where Davis put me in the hydraulic lift? I used to do that by drawing a line in the air with my hand, and I would go all the way across to stage left. I'd have an aide suddenly appear with a step ladder. One time, one of the four legs of the ladder got half way off the stage, and the ladder, plus me, went galumphing off the stage. I was unhurt—physically anyway—and leaped up and said to the audience, "You'll never forget this presentation, ladies and gentlemen!" Every once in a while, I'll run into somebody that was in that audience.
After several years of that kind of presentation, I started using slides. I think the first time I had the slide show was in 1989 or 1990. It was a three carousel slide show, with a fader, but it didn't travel well. A lot of places didn't have three slide projectors.
After I left the White House, I transferred the show into a computer-graphics version. The Silicon Valley is where I began to improve it and make it a more effective version. It started to connect with people a lot better, and I began to give the lecture a lot more frequently. Then I gave the show in LA and Davis was in one of the audiences. So were a couple of other folks that later were important to the movie. They came out and talked to me afterward, and tried to persuade me to make it into a film. I was not convinced at first, and then they set up a meeting in San Francisco.
GUGGENHEIM: We had to pitch him.
METRO: Was the success of the political documentaries part of the decision to make your lecture into a film?
GORE: I had seen Fahrenheit 9/11. But I think this film might well have arisen without it.
GUGGENHEIM: We and the producers had seen Al's slide show, and we were so profoundly moved and shaken by it. We thought that as filmmakers, we could use our skills to give everyone the experience we had. In the perfect situation, Al could give the lecture to everyone. Making the film could help that happen.
METRO: To make the lecture more 3D, did you watch performance artists, like Laurie Anderson?
GUGGENHEIM: I did.
GORE: Did you really? What does she do?
DAVIS: She's a multimedia artist, who performs with an electric violin. I also watched Jonathan Demme's film Swimming to Cambodia with Spaulding Gray.
METRO: What was your favorite performance on the road?
GORE: I would say the single most gratifying slide show I ever gave was one last July on Center Hill Lake in the middle of Tennessee. My family and I have often taken a vacation there by renting a houseboat and going out on the lake. And over the last 30 years we've collected a loud group of rowdy friends, centered around the water skiing culture. That crosses many political lines. There actually are a few Democrats in the group.
One Saturday night, our houseboat was parked in a cove, and about a dozen boats of friends tied up their boats nearby. Many Pabst Blue Ribbons later, at midnight, someone asked about global warming. I pulled out my Apple 17-inch laptop and gave the entire one-hour and 20-minute slideshow on the deck of the houseboat to a 100 men and women ... who included people from backgrounds [groping for the right word] you would not normally find around here [gesturing behind him to the San Francisco skyline]. At the end of the slide show, the response was so gratifying. It's hard to describe, but you know, damn.
Another slide show I gave was to the Grover Norquist, the right-wing lobbyist and grassroots leaders, and that was also gratifying.
METRO: Speaking of the people around here ... I live in Richmond, home of the Chevron refinery. The other day I was on San Pablo Avenue on my bicycle behind a Humvee, which was plastered with religious stickers. The vanity license plate had "Faith" on it, creatively misspelled with a lot of extra A's. And without actually talking to the driver, as I probably should have done, I could extrapolate that there are some people who don't worry about global warming on the grounds that we're in the End Times anyway. What would you say to them?
GORE: First of all, the person driving that vehicle could have been in a recovery group, the double A's ...
GUGGENHEIM: We can only hope.
GORE: The believers in the so-called Rapture are actually following a well-known heresy that is foreign to Christian theology. There are people who believe in the Rapture who are otherwise nice people, and I don't want to condemn all of them. But there are people who believe that the End Times are coming any day now, and as an end result that we don't have to worry about God's creation. They are the moral equivalent of suicide bombers. We have to take action now, to protect the integrity of God's creation. In my religious upbringing, I was taught that we human beings are not privileged to know the mind of God, and that if we believe we have a special pipeline to God's inner thoughts, we're being arrogant, and we're fooling ourselves.
METRO: You were in office during the advent of the SUV, and the creation of oversized vans and Humvees. What were your feelings when you saw that automotive trend begin?
GORE: Dismay. I actually worked very hard to achieve an agreement between the government and Ford, GM and Chrysler on a partnership for a new generation of vehicles to achieve a three time increase in mileage and a dramatic reduction in global-warming pollution. They took the money and made some progress, but when Bush and Cheney came in they immediately got to cancel any obligation to follow through on their part. Tragically, now GM and Ford are in economic trouble. It illustrates the well-known saying—maybe it's Mark Twain—"Be careful of what you lobby for."
METRO: Davis, since you're involved in Deadwood, is Al Swearengen based on any particular politician in your experience.
GORE: (roaring) Good question! Excellent question. It's a great show.
GUGGENHEIM: You should ask David Milch who created that show. I was a director and producer on that show. He's reminded me of someone, Swearengen...
GORE: Tom DeLay?
GUGGENHEIM: Swearengen doesn't go far enough.
GORE: Swearengen is too humane.
METRO: Where did you acquire the Futurama excerpt for An Inconvenient Truth?
GUGGENHEIM: That was in Al's slide show.
GORE: My second-oldest daughter, Kristin, worked for Matt Groening for three years. She had heard me talking about global warming all her life, and she introduced that script element and was part of the small creative team that actually did that sequence. And because she was hired by Matt Groening, I got to know him. Then I was invited to do a cameo appearance as a disembodied head on the show. I made a couple of appearances.
I was walking down Townsend Street (in San Francisco), and some business associates and I were on our way to the Paragon restaurant. Coming toward us are some men and women in their late 20s ... making the transition, I'm thinking, from punk rockers to responsible business persons. One of them recognizes me and shouts "I have ridden the mighty Moon Worm!" My colleagues are saying, "Whaaaa?"
METRO: Are you a Simpsons fan, too, then?
GORE: Absolutely. A wonderful show.
METRO: Now that you're on the film festival circuit, is there anything you can recommend?
GUGGENHEIM: Al's a big movie buff. He uses terms like mise en scene.
GORE: Tipper and I give out an award every year at the Nashville Film Festival, and this year it was the film Desire, about four young women who were sophomores in high school, from the little neighborhood in New Orleans where the Desire Street streetcar gets its name.
GUGGENHEIM: I loved seeing Little Miss Sunshine at Sundance. ... I saw that it was No. 4 on the Newsweek Top 10 recommendations for the summer; Mission: Impossible III was in the No. 10 spot. I called up J.J. Abrams and said, "Maybe after the public sees Little Miss Sunshine they'll have time to see your movie."
METRO: How do you handicap the upcoming election?
GORE: It's likely to be a Democratic wave. I don't know if it'll be big enough to change control of the Congress, because the threshold for change is now artificially and absurdly high, reflecting redistricting and the incumbent advantages. I don't really follow it closely enough to have an accurate prediction. I'm a recovering politician, on Step 9." [From the Alcoholics Anonymous 12 Steps: "Made direct amends to such people where ever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others."]
METRO: After watching the last five years of political life, have you ever dwelt on Henry Clay's most famous quote, "I'd rather be right than president"?
GORE: (Mock sobs) Not until just now! I wasn't aware that was a binary choice. Clearly a "yes." Even if recent—there's no position comparable to the president's position, for the potential to bring about change. However, I faced a decision after the Supreme Court's decision as to what I was going to do with my life. I thought for a while I might run again, but I have found during the intervening years that there are other ways to serve, and I enjoy them.
I jokingly describe myself as a recovering politician, but it's not really a joke. I am really enjoying my business here in San Francisco, Current TV, and a second business I've started in London, Generation Investment Management. Plus I devote an enormous amount of time going around the world delivering this slide show.
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