In a 1956 lecture titled “The Two Cultures”, C.P. Snow lamented the failure of scientists and those involved with the humanities to understand each other’s world: “Not to have read War and Peace and La Cousine Bette and La Chartreuse de Parme is not to be educated; but so is not to have a glimmer of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.”
If he had had the occasion to a see a film like “The Lanthanide Series” that opens tomorrow at the Anthology Film Archives in New York, he would have not only made an exception for the director Erin Espelie but urged everybody he’d ever met to see the film as an example of how the two cultures could be bridged.
The title of the film derives from the fifteen metallic chemical elements in Mendeleev’s Periodic Table that begin with atomic number 57 and ends with 71. The first in the series is lanthanum, which is Latin for “to lie hidden”. These elements are also known as the rare earths but as Espelie points out, they are not rare at all. They can be found in abundance but the process to extract them from the surrounding soil and non-valuable compounds is complex and expensive.
For the rare earths that come under Espelie’s scrutiny, each of the Latin names becomes a way of meditating on other possible meanings that transcend the laboratory or factory framework. What “lies hidden” is not only an element that can be used in making glass or electron cathodes but the memories of past love affairs or childhood traumas that are evoked through Espelie’s voice-over narration from a variety of sources, including Robert Browning, W.B. Yeats and Virginia Woolf. Throughout the film, we hear musical accompaniment to her meditations both on science and being human (a term more appropriate than “the humanities”) from Jim Morrison, Meredith Monk and John Cage. All of it is completely spell-binding and amounts to a documentary “art film” that pushes the cinematic envelope in a way that I have not seen in years.
Erin Espelie is a filmmaker in residence at the University of Colorado who is also the chief editor at Natural History magazine. As probably the most obvious example of her ability to straddle the two cultures, she has a degree in molecular and cell biology from Cornell University and an MFA in experimental and documentary arts from Duke University.
Throughout the film, there are astonishing examples of her erudition in both disciplines but her ability to synthesize them in a way that leads to a higher understanding. She alludes to Primo Levi, the Jewish chemist who was a prisoner at Auschwitz and who wrote “The Periodic Table”, a collection of 21 tales drawn from his life story, each titled by a different element. In “Cerium”, an element in the Lanthanide Series, he describes how he found some in an Auschwitz laboratory where he was being forced to work. He whittled them down to make lighter-flints that were bartered for food sufficient enough to keep him alive until the allies liberated him in a few days. It is obvious that Primo Levi was another exception to C.P. Snow’s rule and very likely an inspiration for Espelie’s film.
While most of the film is focused on the individual and his or her relationship to the commodities based on rare earth elements ranging from microphones to glass, there is an awareness of their role in a global economy ever-increasingly threatened by war and environmental despoliation. In her review of Europium, she recounts how a truck driver leaving the Mountain Pass Mines in California (the largest producer of the element in the world) pulled up alongside her parked car on the side of the road to see what she was up to—more out of curiosity than anything else. When she told him that the steady procession of enormous trucks away from the mines just like his couldn’t possibly be filled with a relatively scarce output, he was candid enough to admit that they were not loaded with Europium but contaminated radioactive water—the result of an industrial accident of the sort that typifies mining today. Where were the trucks going with the carcinogens? You guessed it. They were being dumped in the Pacific Ocean.
Europium, which is used in cathode ray tubes, is now being mined mostly in China, where lax (or non-existent) environmental regulations have led to ground water contamination that caused a cancer epidemic. It also seems that Afghanistan is a major possible source of this and other rare earth elements. While much of the left harped on the country’s value as a link in Eurasian petroleum pipelines, it is just as likely that the USA was even more interested in the possibilities of extracting elements that are critical in all sorts of high technology from computers to cameras whatever the cost to the Afghan people.
“The Lanthanide Series” is not to be missed.