Lost after a day of shopping near east of the San Francisco Bay Area several years ago, I drove within mere feet of one of the Altamont Pass Wind Farm’s totemic mills. Despite allowing me to re-establish some sense of direction, my encounter with the sentinel was curiously disorienting: From the nearby freeway, the apparatus appeared sleek, friendly, and assiduous, but at close range its size and malodorousness evinced a sinister inaccessibility.
This seldom-understood turbine-provoked alienation, a far cry from the cheap, “green” wind mills to which anyone who played Sim City in the early 2000s was exposed, is part of what troubles the people of Meredith, New York in the documentary Windfall. An upstate dairy farm community whose coffers have grown cobwebs during the most recent recession, Meredith and its townspeople, including its municipal leaders, are approached by scores of wind farm industrialists hoping to erect turbines on the acres of unused land in the area. Early in the film, one middle-aged couple allows a test mill to be placed in their backyard, and its presence makes them ineffably nervous. “It wasn’t that the sound was loud,” the wife says, “but that it would be forever.” On the less-than-existential side, the windmills weigh tens of thousands of pounds, create nocuous vibrations in the ground around them, and occasionally plummet to the earth—among other issues. Predictably, and rather swiftly, the county becomes embroiled in a legislative war with pro-turbine residents on one side, most of whom stand to gain a great deal financially from installing the rotary behemoths, and those with grave suspicions on the other.
Director Laura Israel arranges this material with a transparent agenda—namely, to assert that “each wind turbine is an industrial facility,” and that the tax breaks offered to businesses propagating those industrial facilities are spawning a putatively eco-friendly form of carpet bagging. But the transparency feels more urgent than didactic. Most of eco-journalism’s aims in the last two decades have been oriented around apologia for accurate science and the adoption of small but “good start” practices that would at least lessen if not eradicate our carbon footprint. Conservationism is still so personal, and so polemical, that we haven’t quite caught up to how our feelings toward it are being exploited.
Unfortunately, the documentary is arguably just as exploitative, particularly of Meredith’s denizens. Israel’s first act is cheerfully bumpkin-ized; drawly farmers discuss how completing vague “internet research” changed their minds about the cleanliness of wind power while bottleneck guitars mimic barnyard utterances. Meredith’s diversity is more fairly represented in the movie’s thorax, particularly when the town journalists describe how they slyly boned up on environmental opportunism, but we’re invited to watch a town hall debate, where every sweeping generalization naively sounds off, like it’s a scene out of the second season of Newhart. As Israel represents this climactic event arrhythmically with still photographs and tape-recorded testimony, likely because she wasn’t present at the meetings, a distracting distance develops between her and her material. The end result is that, whatever the legitimate arguments Windfall makes against the industry it targets, Meredith’s feuding becomes just as inaccessible as the windmills that incite it.