.Here on Earth: Docs about a killer avalanche and the life of ‘ecopragmatist’ Stewart Brand

You don’t have to be a winter sports enthusiast to be mesmerized by Buried. The documentary, subtitled The 1982 Alpine Meadows Avalanche, shows in frighteningly vivid terms what happened on March 31, 1982, when a 3,200-foot wall of snow thundered down the slopes of Alpine Meadows ski resort in Lake Tahoe, killing seven people and destroying everything in its path.

Co-directors Jared Drake and Steven Siig make effective use of talking-heads accounts by members of the resort’s ski patrol and other surviving Alpine Meadows employees, as well as TV news footage from 1982. The now-senior-citizen ski patrol guys (and one lone female), who generally admit they were more or less ski bums who liked their beer and weed almost as much as horsing around on the mountain, all recall the day somberly—especially Jim Plehn, an avalanche forecaster, who was briefly implicated when Alpine Meadows was sued for negligence in the wake of the disaster. The suit was eventually settled. 

The film suggests that Alpine Meadows has always been hazardous territory. One expert calls the mountain “a wonderful little avalanche machine.” In the days before ubiquitous computer data, staff relied on daily checks, explosive hand charges and even artillery rounds to help clear the “wall-to-wall avalanche paths.” 

But a tremendous blizzard with 120 mph winds had forced Alpine Meadows to close to the public the morning before the disaster. Eyewitnesses recall a curious tinkling sound coming from the slopes moments beforehand, and an impossible-to-ignore feeling of impending doom. It all happened in about five seconds. 

Buried takes on a philosophical note with the recollections of the survivors. It’s a detailed, minute-by-minute account of the vicissitudes of nature and the ultimate bravery of the rescuers.

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You don’t have to be a techno-hippie to be enthralled by We Are as Gods, the kaleidoscopic documentary biography of writer-visionary futurist-cyberculture figurehead Stewart Brand, one-time editor of the massively influential Whole Earth Catalog (aka “the Web on newsprint”).

As described by co-directors David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg, Brand’s energy and scientific curiosity about all forms of life have fizzed around him like phantom electricity ever since he studied biology at Stanford in the 1950s (he’s now an amazingly active 83 years old). 

Brand dropped acid with the Merry Pranksters, became an anti-nuclear activist, started a campaign to convince NASA to release the first photos of Earth from space (“The whole thing was alive, you could see that. It was a hopeful image that blew away the mushroom cloud”), befriended and inspired Steve Jobs and furthered a “de-extinction” project by experimenting with the DNA of wooly mammoths, intent on re-introducing the vanished species in Arctic Russia.

Half the fun of We Are as Gods is looking at the period footage—the Trips Festival with Ken Kesey and the Grateful Dead, proto-hacker Steve Wozniak, et al.—but the better half is imagining the future through Brand’s eyes, if such a thing is actually possible. He has spent his life “straying from the norm” and exhorting his readers to “Stay Hungry” and “Stay Foolish.” 

Brand has his detractors. He’s often at odds with the “official” environmental movement, who criticize him for embracing technology. At an age when some men are devoted to playing golf, he lived in a rehabbed tugboat off Sausalito and, he admits, tended to inhale too much nitrous oxide. However, computer power was a better drug. He championed the creation of a 10,000-year clock, now installed inside a mountain in Texas.

In common with many people, Brand is wary of the future: “Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span.” And yet he rejoices in the revival of the once-extinct American Chestnut tree, grown from a clone. Stewart Brand is a true American original.

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‘Buried’ is at the Roxie in San Francisco. ‘We Are as Gods’ streams on Apple TV.

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