Landscape Homicide

The Killers

British Petroleum is not immune to the influence of art. It created a modernist revision of the Raft of the Medusa when the rig Deepwater Horizon caught fire in 2010 and made the coast of Louisiana resemble the work of Anselm Kiefer. It lodged winged creatures in a pitch-black background like Grünewald his Christ, and it expropriated the wrist-slitting haze of Mark Rothko in a vast series depicting a state sinking slowly into spoiled water. Appearance aside, the works of BP are most comparable to those of IG Farben and its executives possess the same divine protection and the same knack for quiet reappearance. Do not doubt they have the same certainty of how clean are their hands.

After the Spill, the second part of an ongoing film analysis of Louisiana and Poseidon, directed by John Bowermaster, also tells a murder story. Art and murder are common elements in pulp novels; water transforms all stories and documents into pulp, all traces of a crime to corrupt mud. According to an old myth Louisiana still uses French law, and under the Napoleonic Code it is possible to be acquitted for a crime passionnel. Not applicable here, your honor: Just money, the second oldest motive.

The first hints of the killing to come appeared in May of 2010, when BP instituted a number of far-reaching cuts. Expenditures on ‘excessive cautiousness’ were targeted in order to bring the cost base down to ‘new market conditions’. This gibberish meant that BP was able to save some $250-300 million by amputating health and safety practices and slashing its staff (BP constantly harps on about how many new jobs it has created, most of them from the disaster caused in part by these initial layoffs). Months after austerity-obsessed CEO Tony Hayward instituted these measures, the Horizon exploded and loosed some 200 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico. Much of it headed inland to Louisiana.

Lawyer Keith Jones says that ‘the risk to workers was ignored’ but he is wrong: it was clearly deemed irrelevant. We then cut to Anthony Bryan ‘Tony’ Hayward being grilled in court, watery-eyed blank downward stare, revenant of a near-smirk. Hayward is seen later in the film making the absurd argument that the severe health injuries contracted by BP’s disaster recovery crews should be blamed instead on bad diet and not on the flood of toxins his company carelessly poured into water and bodies. All Anglo Saxon swagger, he fondly quotes Napoleon’s adage that an army fights on its stomach. Behind him, the cancerous cells in his clean-up worker’s guts march from relentless division to metastasis. He should have been taken off and shot.

Alas, he was not. Hayward went on to Citibank and then to head several health, safety and environment committees around the private sector (remember here that irony is never funny). This well-known Kissinger of the Sea rarely makes public appearances these days, due to the public.

The Chalk Outlines of Birds

Aside from the murders of the workmen on the Horizon, there are also the slow-death rites of Louisiana’s working class, the slaying of the birds and animals, and the carnage of the land to be reckoned. P J Hahn’s camera moves underwater through mists of brightly-colored petroleum, very pretty for those who admire fatal pastel clouds and colors out of space, then drags us up back to the diminishing wetlands.

The wetlands of Louisiana are a stopping-point for many of the beautiful migratory birds Cabeza de Vaca marveled over in his 1542 Relación, the American Odyssey/Inferno: Ibex, heron, loon, shorebird and waterfowl.  This habitat is fast disappearing, despite its ghostly apparition at the beginning of BP’s pedantic PR commercials, along with the fish and those who live by fishing. Predictably, the poor black communities were particularly hard-hit and the film is especially strong on Pointe á la Hache. The resin from the spill has a habit of ruining eyes and making blind fishermen an inane parable of the swamp. If oil and winds are colorblind, the powerful have eyes to see.

BP was ordered to pay $13 billion, which must have been about an hour’s gross for the bastards. Unsurprisingly, very little of this has materialized. Compensation checks were sent out with STOP PAYMENT stamped on the bottom. Desperate people were offered the princely sum of between 5-20 K if they agreed not to sue or file claims. The toxic dispersant used to move the spilled oil – also an instrument in Exxon Valdez atrocity – sank into chest and bone. 40,000 people signed a class action lawsuit. Since 2010, BP has reported a further 10,000 ‘accidents’ of varying degree and has admitted to being the cause of 70% of Louisiana’s total land loss.

Like Afghanistan, Louisiana is so rich it starves. It is on the great mouth by which US oil flows in from the Gulf to Sister BP and then to the Republic. In 2005, its dark lover Katrina lured water and then soldiers, screaming winds of some 140 MPH over 400 miles and breaching the levees in her wake. A month later, she sent her sister Rita to drown the penniless Lower Ninth Ward a second time. General Russell Honoré, born and raised in the state, now heads the Green Army which attempts to hold BP and other parasites responsible (he is seen first in a clip shouting at his men to lower their weapons during the infamous post-hurricane military occupation). The difference between today’s oil czars – BP, Chevron, Koch – and the old plantation owners is that the plantation owners actually lived on their land, as the General says.

The dark generosity of the sea creates a new isthmus on formerly firm land, new islands form in tarry clots, the shoreline recedes as drills run deeper, and the occasional fourable floor bursts into flame. All this giving and bleeding on the part of the Gulf. All these disasters paid for by the taxpayer, thanks to the scrofulous Bobby Jindal, who nationalized BP’s debts and clean-up costs while privatizing BP’s profits as the supermajor ate the very land beneath his governor seat. Louisiana, like California, dies of water and power.

To End God’s Judgment

Capital makes the case for capital punishment with respect to both the witnesses and the scene of the crime. BP’s waste land offers jobs for the terminally unemployed until the waters take back this, until here lie the beasts too late in the wrong rain. But there is no poem in the end, just the poverty of the peoples, their lawmakers, and the distant investors who collect rents from afar. Each lacuna in the documents of the crime – a name, a sum, a human shape or locale, an animal form – has a corresponding suckhole or blackened clump of reeds in the new Louisiana map. Facts in the case take on the character of the Zaum poems of the Russian Futurist school which used ‘nonsense’ language and neologism to communicate the essential sound and idea behind an exhausted dictionary of capitalized production:

I ya pazslablenny                                                    (and I relaxed

Neftetochivy                                            petrolstopped

nefte….                                                 petrol…

efte!                                                trol!

Rchiv.                                            brop)

Alexei Kruchonykh, 1919

You couldn’t say that this informative and very disturbing film ends when it finishes, only that the images have stopped. You may also wish that tragedy, seal of chance and the bait of all gamblers, might recall that the land grew up hard. Ruthless men with a portfolio to defend should fear it, especially when it appears to conspire with them. All curses and revolt upon them, by other judgments.

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Martin Billheimer lives in Chicago.

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