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Earthkeeping, Episode Six: “Help Yourself”

The final episode of Earthkeeping delves into behavioral concepts such as nature vs. nurture, and investigates the ways in which the environment shapes personal behavior. Several psychological questions are raised, such as the degree to which an individual may act independently of his/her environment.

The work of Dr. Roger Park, who spent 25+ years living in and studying a small Kansas town, is used as a case study for understanding how social etiquette is informed by different environments. This relationship is introduced as the “behavior setting”, and described as the “intersection of two environments: the physical and the social”. The “environment” in Oskaloosa is depicted as continuously in flux; it is constantly evolving depending on the actions of Oskaloosa’s citizens.

Once again, the members of Second City provide interludes to the program by staging a parody game show. On “This Was Your Life”, the host (Jim Fisher) runs through some of the important chapters of Jesus Rodriguez’ (John Belushi) life. These events include the destruction of Jesus’ childhood home due to urban renewal developments and making various acquaintances with characters like Harry the Junkie (Harold Ramis). The selected events of Jesus’ life are presented as a snowball effect, leading Jesus to life on the streets with a $90/day dope habit, and eventually doing multiple stints in prison (convicted by “an all-white jury and an all-white judge”).

Thanks for watching and reading, and please check out the other DeWitt Beall works we have streaming here! Additionally, stay tuned for more information regarding the “Lord Thing” restoration premiere at the Siskel Film Center this fall.

Earthkeeping, Episode Five: “Sodbusters”

The historical approach taken in “Sodbusters” differentiates the episode from the others in Earthkeeping – the narrative draws a comparison between the pioneer mindset of westward expansion/Manifest Destiny and the sense of entitlement possessed by corporate developers in the twentieth century. How much have modern practices of resource exploitation changed since the days of John Jacob Astor and the American Fur Company?

On The Yesterday Show, Robert Trashman (John Belushi) stands up for the environment, squaring off against cowboy star Jack Crabbe (Joe Flaherty) and industrialist C. Steel Mills (Harold Ramis).

Second City’s “Yesterday Show” sketch (l-r: Joe Flaherty, John Belushi, Harold Ramis)

Also in the episode, David Rasche recites a stanza from Walt Whitman’s poem, “Pioneers! O Pioneers!”:

We primeval forests felling,
We the rivers stemming, vexing we and piercing deep the mines within,
We the surface broad surveying, we the virgin soil upheaving,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Earthkeeping, Episode Four: “Megapolis”

Architect Harry Weese describes the structural design of Park Forest South, IL (today known as University Park)

Over the next six weeks, CFA will present newly digtized episodes of Earthkeeping – a series produced in the early 1970s for WTTW that explores environmental, ecological and sociological issues. In presenting this series, we hope to reintroduce DeWitt Beall, a Chicago-based filmmaker primarily active in the 1960s and 70s. Now to episode four, “Megapolis” (pardon the color fade):

[*Stream the episode here, on the CFA website]

“Megapolis” contains insightful interviews with Lewis Mumford, who was a prominent early figure in urban planning and the history of cities. Mumford predicted the expansion of cities into megalopolises in the 1930s in his book, The Culture of Cities, and in this episode reflects on how cities will continue to evolve. The episode also looks at Illinois-specific neighborhood development through an interview with architect Harry Weese. At that time, Weese was working on the design of Park Forest South, IL (today known as University Park). As Weese predicted for the community in 1972, “Park Forest South is not going to be an instant Paris, or anything of its kind, but it will be a community big enough to encompass many activities, including employment, education… it also provides for varying lifestyles and income groups.” (Any Park Forest South/University Park residents out there care to comment on this prediction?) Weese and the narrator put emphasis on the neighborhood’s innovative walkway system, which allows for pedestrians and bicyclists to travel without intersecting with major roads.

Much of the content in “Megapolis” is common knowledge today (cars are bad for the environment, etc.), but it is necessary to consider the episode in context, looking at how it relates to the history of environmental activism. The Earthkeeping series was produced only three years after the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, and as the other episodes of the series attest, during a period of rapid urban growth and industrialization. The episodes of Earthkeeping are by no means objective; the series is less documentary and more a call to action. The content of Earthkeeping greatly reflects the personal ideology of the filmmaker. In an email correspondence, Elina Katsioula-Beall (DeWitt’s second wife) pointed out how important the issues of the series were to DeWitt’s personal life: “It is certainly safe to say that DeWitt was very interested in all sociological and ecological issues. He had a respect for earth and for all life, long before this was fashionable.”

Just as the “City Life” episode concludes with a plea for community participation, so does “Megapolis” implore viewers to take action. Architect Richard Saul Wurman (who later co-founded the TED conference) expresses his disdain for public inaction: “Apathy has destroyed the city more than wanton destruction. I mean, there has to be a change of attitude to save the city.” Ultimately, it is up to the citizens of the city to control the growth of our man-made environments.

Earthkeeping, Episode Three: “Little Big Land”

Over the next six weeks, CFA will present newly digtized episodes of Earthkeeping - a series produced in the early 1970s for WTTW that explores environmental, ecological and sociological issues. In presenting this series, we hope to reintroduce DeWitt Beall, a Chicago-based filmmaker primarily active in the 1960s and 70s. Now to episode three, “Little Big Land”:

Last week’s episode, “Greenbacks,” introduced the “external costs” tied into urban expansion, looking at how the real costs of development exceed the explicit dollar value.  “Little Big Land” further explores this by visiting the rapidly disappearing farmlands and diminishing areas of nature.  The growth of cities like Chicago and the expansion of the highway, while beneficial to a growing urban population, have also come at the cost of the landscape. The episode looks critically at land privatization, and warns that “if present trends continue, the urban blanket will be drawn indiscriminately across the landscape – house by house, shopping center by shopping center.”  Some potential prevention strategies are introduced, including the idea of instituting a green belt.

The challenges of balancing urban expansion and environmental preservation are further complicated by the increasing birth rate in the United States.  The episode features a brief interview with Dennis Meadows, who had just recently published his co-authored study, The Limits to Growth.  The study utilizes computer models and programming, plugging in a number of variables to examine the rate at which population will exceed production. Although the results found in The Limits of Growth have been somewhat polarizing, it is still interesting to see the ways in which computers were used for environmental predictions and calculations some forty years ago.

Second City’s David Rasche has a solution to the increasing demand for new urban developments: Grand Canyon Estates, which has transformed “a useless hole in the ground into the most unique community you’ll ever be fortunate enough to invest in.”  The new development will feature the world’s deepest artificial lake, as well as the “largest collection of plastic vegetation ever assembled in one place.”  It’s an exciting investment opportunity too good to pass up.

Early in the episode, the narrator predicts that in the future, “Chicago will grow outward, as will Indianapolis, Gary, Milwaukee, forming one giant megapolitan region around Lake Michigan.”  This introduction to the megalopolis serves as a nice segue into next week’s episode.


We’ll be taking a quick break next week, but stay tuned Monday (March 31st) for our next episode, “Megapolis” …

Earthkeeping, Episode Two: “Greenbacks”

Second City’s “Pass the Buck” sketch (from l-r: Eugenie Ross-Leming, Jim Fisher, Ann Ryerson, Harold Ramis)

Over the next six weeks, CFA will present newly digtized episodes of Earthkeeping- a series produced in the early 1970s for WTTW that explores environmental, ecological and sociological issues. In presenting this series, we hope to reintroduce DeWitt Beall, a Chicago-based filmmaker primarily active in the 1960s and 70s. Now to episode two, “Greenbacks”:

Aside from the explicit financial cost, what is the true price of industrial production? Further, how are these costs transferred to the public?

Greenbacks” takes us to two sites to explore these various hidden (or “external”) costs. The first stop is America’s “carpet capital,” Dalton, GA.  On the one hand, the influx of new industry that moved into Dalton after the Second World War can be seen as an economic boon. However, while the new factories provided many jobs for Dalton residents, the resulting air and water pollution created long-term environmental detriments – the Conasauga River and nearby Drowning Bear Creek have become so polluted that nothing can live in their waters.  Although a secondary water treatment facility was constructed in Dalton as a response, the water cannot be truly pollution-free without a more expensive method of tertiary (advanced) water treatment.  The price of tertiary treatment is only more expensive in the short term – without it, Dalton’s water supply remains polluted and the treatment facility is only a token to assuage local fears of water pollution.

The St. Louis district of Soulard, surrounded by a Monsanto plant and the Anheuser-Busch brewery, is used as another example of these hidden costs.  As the episode’s narrator explains, “… a one percent increase in sulfur trioxide was matched with a similar decrease in property values, so the pollution was paid for – not by the sources that produced it, but by the homeowner whose home was worth less.”  Economist Robert Heilbroner illustrates how these types of hidden costs, which also include increasing health problems for local residents, are not reflected in the cost of products. Therefore, the companies can get away with charging less than what the product really costs (Heilbroner refers to the Consolidated Edison energy company in his example.)

Finding a culprit for these environmental concerns often entails much finger-pointing and blame-shifting, a process satirized in the Second City game show sketch, Pass the Buck: the regular panelists are representatives from Government (Joe Flaherty), Management (Harold Ramis), and Labor (David Rasche).  These three contestants face off against one another, as well as a representative of the public (Ann Ryerson), in trying to quickly create a scapegoat for hypothetical environmental problems.

Stay tuned next Monday (March 17th) for our next episode, “Little Big Land” …

Online Launch of DeWitt Beall’s Earthkeeping series

Opening title card of Earthkeeping

Over the next six weeks, CFA will be presenting episodes of Earthkeeping, a series produced in the early 1970s for WTTW that explores environmental, ecological and sociological issues. In presenting this series, we hope to reintroduce DeWitt Beall, a Chicago-based filmmaker primarily active in the 1960s and 70s.

Earthkeeping was written, directed and produced by DeWitt, who himself professed a personal interest in the same topics examined in the series. Originally born in Sherman Oaks, CA, DeWitt moved to Chicago after graduating from Dartmouth College in 1962. His filmography illustrates a balance between ‘filmmaker-for-hire’ works (commercial work for Sears, educational films for the National Safety Council and the National Dairy Council) and the projects closer related to his interests.  These more personal projects include a documentary about the formation of the Conservative Vice Lords (“Lord Thing”, a film that provided the Vice Lords with a platform to tell their own story), and a sponsored film about the challenges black Americans face in entering the workforce (“Making It”).  Further evincing his commitment to social change, DeWitt was a co-founder of a scholarship program called Foundation Years.  This program provided disadvantaged black Chicagoans the opportunity to attend his alma mater with a chance to matriculate (two of the interviewees in “Making It” were participants in this program). [1]

Although the footage in Earthkeeping is largely rooted in Chicago, the series also travels to other Midwest locations (and even makes a quick jaunt down to Dalton, GA in the “Greenbacks” episode).  The series features interviews with prominent scholars from different fields, including economist Robert Heilbroner, ecologist Barry Commoner, and sociologist/urbanist Lewis Mumford.  Additionally, the series utilizes topical interludes written and performed by members of the Second City, including the recently departed Harold Ramis and pre-SNL John Belushi.  This gives us an opportunity to glimpse performances from these comedians that would go otherwise unseen.  Just like network programming, we will upload and stream one episode of Earthkeeping per week for the next six weeks.  Please feel free to share your thoughts and comments on the series below.

[1] The Foundation Years program was, regrettably, short-lived.  In 2011, Chicago Magazine did an in-depth piece on the program, which can be read here.

This week’s episode: City Life

“City Life” focuses on the sociological consequences inherent in the rapid growth of urban landscapes.  The episode first orients the viewer by explaining how city growth has transformed the concept of ‘community’: the transition from village life to city life has necessitated the development of neighborhoods, which are established in order to retain the same sense of community once found in the village.  Without these new forms of community, the narrator asserts, the city would be nothing more than “…a collection of strangers; an anonymous and faceless place,” despite its size and population.

Additionally, the narrator makes the claim that our cities “have been built for profit, not people,” and the episode employs two architectural examples to evidence this.  The first is the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, MO, a thirty-six building development which is equated to a “prison for the poor.”  The design of Pruitt-Igoe favored minimizing expenditure over benefiting its citizens – for example, designing the development without a single playground, despite the projected high number of children that would be living there.  This idea of housing projects as a ‘prison’ is reinforced through interviews with urbanist Lewis Mumford and economist Robert Heilbroner.  Both interviewees elaborate on the effect of large-scale migration from rural to urban environments:  whereas the first generation to move to the city had family in the country to fall back on should things not work out financially, that is no longer the case for most impoverished city dwellers.

On the other side of the socioeconomic scale is the architectural example of waterfront properties developed along Chicago’s Lake Michigan waterfront.  “City Life” documents the efforts of the Chicago’s Citizens’ Action Program (CAP) as they seek to prevent further impediment on the city’s waterfront.  Lewis Mumford, among other interviewees, encourages citizens to engage in their local politics, as doing so is the only way that positive changes may be affected within a city.  In a fiery hearing, CAP representative Paul Booth testifies that the construction of new waterfront high-rises would benefit only a small minority at the cost of destroying the lake’s beauty for the rest of the city. The hearing eventually devolves into a screaming match between CAP members and Illinois State Senator Hon. John L. Knuppel.  However, the episode concludes with an empowering message, returning to the idea of the ‘village’ and the duty of the citizen to politicize and participate in city affairs:

“At the heart of a healthy city is the village, the small community, the neighborhood.  At the heart of the neighborhood is the individual who feels that if something is wrong, he can do something to change it.  A healthy city is one in which the people, all the people, have a stake in the functioning order; something to lose if that order breaks down; a sense that it is responsive to their needs.”

Stay tuned next Monday (March 10th) for our next episode, “Greenbacks”….

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