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Hulu’s “Castle Rock” Is, for Better and Worse, an All-You-Can-Eat Stephen King Buffet

In its first ten minutes, Hulu’s horror-drama Castle Rock establishes itself as something of a Stephen King buffet, a comfort-food miniseries providing familiar, undistinguished fare that’s lightly spiced with proper nouns you might recall from earlier, better meals. Here’s Castle Rock, the small town haunted by the memory of horrors everyone politely agrees not to mention out loud, a miserable burg where the only jobs are at the local prison, Shawshank. (That name is lingered over in the pilot, a revelation.) Here’s the usual missing kid, searched for by the whole town, though this time — a twist! — he’s found safe and sound, before the prologue ends. Then cut to years later, witness a mordant suicide more Edward Gorey than gory, and find the brand-new warden of ol’ Shawshank on her first day posing this immortal query to her idiot subordinates: “You’re telling me that my predecessor left an entire wing of this prison unoccupied for thirty years?”

Two minutes after that, of course, a pair of those subordinates are searching through the aquamarine gloom of abandoned Cell Block F with flashlights set not for “illumination” but for “atmosphere.” I won’t spoil the precise nature of the inciting incident they discover there, but rest assured it sets off two standard King plots. First, just like the writer-protagonists of It and Salem’s Lot, that onetime missing kid must come back to town as a grown-up (now embodied, lucky dude, by André Holland) to face at last the evil that lurks in the backstory. Second: There’s something about light and dark, good and evil, “the devil himself” doing whatever it is the devil gets up to in unincorporated Maine townships.

So, yes, Castle Rock is more a King-flavored time killer (why, yes, the town does boast a psychic, played by the excellent Melanie Lynskey) than some grand statement of Kinglyness. It’s a thing to watch rather than something you can’t miss. The series subject is the slow revelation of precisely what kind of wickedness its protagonists are dealing with (and, in previous generations, have dealt with). Perhaps out of some concern that their story is both routine and somewhat flimsy, the creators (led by Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason, who wrote the series, and executive producer J.J. Abrams) make a sort of game out of shared-universe referentiality. They tease viewers with mention of the corpse found in Stand by Me (or King’s story The Body) or by giving a passing character the last name of Torrance, just like in The Shining and Doctor Sleep. Rooting through Castle Rock for these truffles might divert the hardcore King faithful, but I found them scattershot and meaningless in a way common to Abrams projects, which often at their start survey full fields of seeds that never sprout into anything.

Based on the first four episodes, Castle Rock’s world is more like Trivial Pursuit: Stephen King Edition than a Yoknapatawpha County or even a continuation of King’s all-my-fictions-are-one epic The Dark Tower. Knowing that the sheriff character played by Scott Glenn appears in King’s books Needful Things and The Dark Half doesn’t reveal the cop’s depths so much as suggest that this is how Maine sheriffs work in King stories.

But here’s credit where it’s due: You can tune that stuff out, and the presentation is often outstanding. Here, the creators apply the production values and cinematic storytelling of so-called prestige TV to pulp fare that is almost aggressively inconsequential. The cast is strong, though the actors don’t always get strong scenes; when they do, though, a couple of times per episode, Castle Rock clicks. Suddenly, you have to watch rather than fold your laundry. The best moments, as in King’s novels, tend to be those in which the uncanny infects the everyday. Lynskey’s character, a real estate agent who has seized on a doomed plan to revitalize Castle Rock, is sensitive to what’s happening in the minds around her, especially that of Holland’s character, Henry. His thoughts take over her brain like a migraine. She lurches amusingly from chipper booster of the failing downtown to a swearing, sneering woman who hides behind sunglasses — while live on the air at a local midday TV show.

The more traditional horror sequences are hit or miss. Until the climax of the fourth episode, a bravura bit of town-changing terror unfolding across a bank of security monitors, Castle Rock mostly keeps its scenes of overt suspense in dreams and flashbacks. The dreams, which mostly afflict Lynskey’s Molly, are cheap cheese, an excuse to offer up some jolts and clues in a narrative that is, in the first episodes, primarily about the people of today circling around whatever went down in the Castle Rock past. You can fold your clothes right through them. Much of the series comes down to scenes of men digging up dogs or dogs digging up men, and then veteran actors — Sissy Spacek — talking around what it all means.

Will it all mean something? I dunno. Castle Rock lacks the pop urgency of the previous Abrams-King TV project 11.22.63, a series about now crashing into then rather than the other way around. But if it’s your taste in comfort food, you probably won’t regret watching it.

Castle Rock premieres on Hulu on July 25.

 

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Almost Human: A Body-Snatching Hybrid You’ve Seen Before

“Based on true events” or not, Almost Human is a lame hybrid of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. One scare tactic in particular is stolen outright from Abel Ferrara’s underrated 1993 version of Snatchers: the earth-shaking, high-pitched screams that signify an oncoming attack.

One spooky Maine night in October 1987, Mark Fisher (Josh Ethier) went out into his backyard to investigate these screams, as well as the blue swirling lights accompanying them. He disappeared, and two years later, Mark’s buddy Seth (Graham Skipper), a witness to this incident, has premonitions that Mark will return.

Once he does, “almost human” is a vast understatement when describing Mark’s current form. (The cause of his metamorphosis is only glimpsed via grainy black-and-white flashbacks.) Already a burly lumberjack of a man, Mark is now a frosty-eyed, blood-craving zombie, just as handy with the penetrating probe that protrudes from his mouth — it looks like a tied-up bundle of red pantyhose — as he is with an axe or chainsaw.

He’s trying to turn his victims into a race of superior killers, and it isn’t long before his ex-girlfriend Jen (Vanessa Leigh), who assumed him dead, is locked in her cellar with his assortment of pod-hatching freaks.

With acting this wooden even among those not playing zombies, though one at least attempts a rural Maine accent, the suspense lies less in who will die than in how grisly the means.

There’s one disgustingly inventive moment: a mouth-to-uterus rape-impregnation attempt via the zombie tongue apparatus. And the ending is impressively bleak. But beyond that, it’s hard to see why IFC Films would attach themselves to this ho-hum scarefest.

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The Monsanto Menace

When you’re good at something, you want to leverage that. Monsanto’s specialty is killing stuff.

In the early years, the St. Louis biotech giant helped pioneer such leading chemicals as DDT, PCBs, and Agent Orange. Unfortunately, these breakthroughs had a tendency to kill stuff. And the torrent of lawsuits that comes from random killing put a crimp on long-term profitability.

So Monsanto hatched a less lethal, more lucrative plan. The company would attempt to take control of the world’s food supply.

It began in the mid-’90s, when Monsanto developed genetically modified (GM) crops such as soybeans, alfalfa, sugar beets, and wheat. These Franken-crops were immune to its leading weed killer, Roundup. That meant that farmers no longer had to till the land to kill weeds, as they’d done for hundreds of years. They could simply blast their entire fields with chemicals, leaving GM crops the only thing standing. Problem solved.

The so-called no-till revolution promised greater yields, better profits for the family farm, and a heightened ability to feed a growing world. But there was one small problem: Agriculture had placed a belligerent strongman in charge of the buffet line.

Monsanto knew that it needed more than genetically modified crops to squeeze out competitors, so it also began buying the biggest seed businesses, spending $12 billion by the time its splurge concluded. The company was cornering agriculture by buying up the best shelf space and distribution channels. All its boasting about global benevolence began to look much more like a naked power grab.

Seed prices soared. Between 1995 and 2011, the cost of soybeans increased 325 percent. The price of corn rose 259 percent. And the cost of genetically modified cotton jumped a stunning 516 percent.

Instead of feeding the world, Monsanto simply drove prices through the roof, taking the biggest share for itself. A study by Charles Benbrook, a research professor at Washington State University, found that rapidly increasing seed and pesticide costs were tamping farmers’ incomes.

To further corner the field, Monsanto offered steep discounts to independent dealers willing to restrict themselves to mostly selling Monsanto products. And the arrangements brought severe punishment if independents ever sold out to a rival.

Intel had run a similar campaign within the tech industry, only to be drilled by the European Union with a record $1.45 billion fine for anti-competitive practices. Yet U.S. regulators showed little concern for Monsanto’s expanding power.

“They’re a pesticide company that’s bought up seed firms,” says Bill Freese, a scientist at the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit public-interest and environmental-advocacy group. “Business-wise, it’s a beautiful, really smart strategy. It’s just awful for agriculture and the environment.”

Today, Monsanto seeds cover 40 percent of America’s crop acres—and 27 percent worldwide.

“If you put control over plant and genetic resources into the hands of the private sector . . . and anybody thinks that plant breeding is still going to be used to solve society’s real problems and to advance food security, I have a bridge to sell them,” says Benbrook.


Seeds of Destruction

It didn’t used to be like this. At one time, seed companies were just large-scale farmers who grew various strains for next year’s crop. Most of the innovative hybrids and cross-breeding was done the old-fashioned way, at public universities, and the results were shared publicly.

“It was done in a completely open-sourced way,” says Benbrook. “Scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture exchanged all sorts of seeds with other scientists and researchers all over the world. This free trade and exchange of plant genetic resources was the foundation of progress in plant breeding. And in less than a decade, it was over.”

The first crack appeared in 1970, when Congress empowered the USDA to grant exclusive marketing rights to novel strains, with two exceptions: Farmers could replant the seeds if they chose, and patented varieties had to be provided to researchers.

But that wasn’t enough. Corporations wanted more control, and they got it with a dramatic, landmark Supreme Court decision in 1980, which allowed the patenting of living organisms. The decision was intended to increase research and innovation. But it had the opposite effect, encouraging market concentration.

Monsanto would soon go on its buying spree, gobbling up every rival seed company in sight. It patented the best seeds for genetic engineering, leaving only the inferior for sale as conventional, non-GM brands. (Monsanto declined an interview request for this story.)

Biotech giants Syngenta and DuPont both sued, accusing Monsanto of monopolistic practices and a “scorched-earth campaign” in its seed-company contracts. But instead of bringing reform, the companies reached settlements that granted them licenses to use, sell, and cross-develop Monsanto products. (Some DuPont suits drag on.)

It wasn’t until 2009 that the Justice Department, working in concert with several state attorneys general, began investigating Monsanto for antitrust violations. But three years later, the feds quietly dropped the case. (They also ignored interview requests for this story.)

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“I’m told by some of those working on all of this that they had a group of states that were seriously interested,” says Peter Carstensen, a professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School. “They had actually found private law firms that would represent the states on fairly low fees—basically quasi-contingency—and then nobody would drop a dime. Some of the staff in the antitrust division wanted to do something, but top management—you say the word ‘patent,’ and they panic.”


Set the Lawyers to Stun

Historically, farmers have been able to save money on seeds by using those produced by last year’s crops for the coming year’s planting. But such cost-saving methods are largely a thing of the past. Monsanto’s thick contracts dropped like shackles on the kitchen tables of every farmer who used the company’s seed, allowing Monsanto access to farmers’ records and fields and prohibiting them from replanting leftover seed, essentially forcing farmers to buy new seed every year—or face up to $3 million in damages.

Armed with lawyers and private investigators, the company has embarked on a campaign of spying and intimidation to stop any farmer from replanting seeds.

Farmers call them the “seed police,” using words such as “gestapo” and “mafia” to describe the company’s tactics. Monsanto’s agents fan out into small towns, where they secretly videotape and photograph farmers, store owners, and co-ops; infiltrate community meetings; and gather information from informants. Some Monsanto agents pretend to be surveyors; others confront farmers on their land and try to pressure them into signing papers that give Monsanto access to their private records.

Leading the charge, says Carstensen, is the private police force that once terrorized union organizers from another generation. “You know who does their policing?” he chuckles ruefully. “The Pinkertons. These are the strikebreakers, the railroad goons. It’s déjà vu all over again.”

In one case, Monsanto accused Indiana farmer David Runyon of illegally using its soybean seeds. Runyon claims the company threatened to sue for patent infringement, despite documentation proving that he’d bought non-patented seed from local universities for years. Monsanto’s lawyer claimed the company had an agreement with the Indiana Department of Agriculture to search his land.

One problem: Indiana didn’t have a Department of Agriculture at the time.

But most cases never go to trial. In 2006, the Center for Food Safety estimated that Monsanto had pressured as many as 4,500 farmers into paying settlements worth as much as $160 million.

Yet Monsanto wanted even more leverage. So it naturally turned to Congress.

Earlier this year, a little-noticed provision was slipped into a budget resolution. The anonymous measure, pushed by Missouri Republican Senator Roy Blunt, granted the company an unheard-of get-out-of-jail-free card widely known as the Monsanto Protection Act.

Despite indications that GM foods could have adverse health effects, the feds have never bothered to extensively study them. Instead, they’ve basically taken Monsanto’s word that all is kosher. So organic farmers and their allies sued the company in 2009, claiming that Monsanto’s GM sugar beets had not been studied enough. A year later, a judge agreed, ordering all recently planted GM sugar-beet crops destroyed until their environmental impact was studied.

The Monsanto Protection Act was designed to end such rulings. It essentially bars judges from intervening during lawsuits—a notion that would seem highly unconstitutional.

Not that Congress noticed. Monsanto has spent more than $10 million on campaign contributions in the past decade—and another $70 million on lobbying since 1998. The money speaks so loudly that Congress has become tone-deaf.

In fact, the U.S. government has become Monsanto’s de facto lobbyist in countries distrustful of GM safety. Two years ago, WikiLeaks released diplomatic cables showing how the feds had lobbied foreign governments to weaken laws and encourage the planting of genetically modified crops in third-world countries.

The leaks also showed State Department diplomats asking for money to fly in corporate flacks to lean on government officials. Even Mr. Environment, former vice president Al Gore, was key in getting France to briefly approve Monsanto’s GM corn.

These days, the company has infiltrated the highest levels of government. It has ties to the Supreme Court (former Monsanto lawyer Clarence Thomas), with former and current employees in high-level posts at the USDA and the FDA.

But the real coup came when President Obama appointed former Monsanto vice president Michael Taylor as the FDA’s new deputy commissioner for foods. It was akin to making George Zimmerman the czar of gun safety.


Trust Us. Why Would We Lie?

At the same time that Monsanto was cornering the food supply, its principal products—GM crops—were receiving less scrutiny than an NSA contractor.

Monsanto understood early on that the best way to stave off bad publicity was to limit research. Prior to a recently negotiated agreement with major universities, the company had severely restricted access to its seeds. Filmmaker Bertram Verhaag’s 2010 award-winning documentary, Scientists Under Attack: Genetic Engineering in the Magnetic Field of Money, noted that nearly 95 percent of genetic-engineering research is paid for and controlled by corporations like Monsanto.

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Meanwhile, former employees embedded in government make sure the feds never get too nosy.

Michael Taylor has turned that into an art form. He’s gone back and forth from government to Monsanto enough times that it’s no longer just a revolving door; it’s a Batpole. During an early ’90s stint with the FDA, he helped usher bovine growth hormone milk into the food supply and authored the decision that kept the government out of Monsanto’s GM crop business.

Known as “substantial equivalence,” it declared that genetically modified products are essentially the same as their non-GM counterparts—and therefore require no additional labeling or testing for food safety or toxicity. Never mind that no accepted science backed his theory.

“It’s simply a political calculation invented by Michael Taylor and Monsanto and adopted by U.S. federal policy-makers to resist labeling,” says Jim Gerritsen, a farmer in Maine. “You have this collusion between corporations and the government, and the essence is that the people’s interest isn’t being served.”

The FDA is a prime example. It approves GM crops by doing no testing of its own; it simply takes Monsanto’s word for their safety. Monsanto spokesman Phil Angell says the company agrees that it should have nothing to do with verifying safety: “Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible,” he told the New York Times. “Assuring its safety is the FDA’s job.”

So if neither Monsanto nor the government is doing it, who is?

The answer: no one.


We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now

So far, it appears that the GM revolution has done little more than raise the cost of food.

A 2009 study by Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, looked at four Monsanto seeds and found only minimal increases in yield. Since GM crops cost more to produce, their economic benefit seemed questionable at best.

“It pales in comparison to other conventional approaches,” says Gurian-Sherman. “It’s a lot more expensive, and it comes with a lot of baggage . . . like pesticide use, monopoly issues, and control of the seed supply.”

Use of those pesticides has soared as weeds and insects become increasingly resistant to them. Since GM crops were introduced in 1996, pesticide usage has increased by 404 million pounds. Last year, Syngenta, one of the world’s largest pesticide makers, reported that sales of its major corn-soil insecticide more than doubled in 2012, a response to increased resistance to Monsanto’s pesticides.

Part of the blame belongs to a monoculture that developed around farming. Farmers know it’s better to rotate crops and pesticides and leave fields fallow for a season. But when corn prices are high, who wants to grow a less profitable crop? The result has been soil degradation, more static yields, and an epidemic of weed and insect resistance.

Weeds and insects are fighting back with their own law: that of natural selection. Last year, 49 percent of surveyed farmers reported Roundup-resistant weeds on their farms, up from 34 percent the year before. The problem costs farmers more than $1 billion annually.

Pests like Roundup-resistant pigweed can grow as thick as your arm and more than six feet high, requiring removal by hand. Many farmers simply abandon weed-choked fields.

In order to kill the pests, chemical giants like Monsanto and Dow are developing crops capable of withstanding even harsher pesticides, resulting in an endless cycle of greater pesticide use at commensurate financial and environmental cost.

Nature, as it’s proved so often before, will not be easily vanquished.

“We are not making our agriculture more resistant to environmental stress, not lowering the amount of pesticides, and not creating a sustainable agricultural system that works,” says Mary-Howells Martens, an organic grain farmer in New York. “There are so many things that are short-term, quick-buck kind of things, without any kind of eye to if this is going to be a good deal long-term.”


Next Stop: The World!

The biggest problem for Monsanto’s global growth: It doesn’t have the same juice with foreign governments as it does with ours. That’s why it relies on the State Department to work as its taxpayer-funded lobbyist abroad.

Yet this has become increasingly difficult. Other nations aren’t as willing to play corporate water boy as our government is. The countries that need GM seeds often can’t afford them (or don’t trust Monsanto). And the nations that can afford them (other than us) don’t really want them (or don’t trust Monsanto).

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Ask Mike Mack, CEO of the Swiss biotech giant Syngenta. The Swiss, he argues, are more interested in environmental safety and food quality than in saving a few pennies at the grocery store.

“Switzerland’s greatest natural resource is that it is a beautiful country that brings in a lot of tourism,” he says. “If the Swiss could lower their consumption spending by 1 percent by applying high-productivity farming, they probably would not do it if it requires changing their approach to how they think about food. Countries like Switzerland are a good example where such things as GM food would be very difficult and perhaps commercially inadvisable.”

Maybe Europe has simply been around the block enough to know better than to entrust its health to a bottom-line mentality. Although the European Union imports 30 million tons of GM crops annually for livestock feed, it’s approved only two GM crops for human consumption.

In April, biotech companies took another hit when the European Union banned neonicotinoids—aka “neo-nics”—one of the most powerful and popular insecticides in the world. It’s a derivative of nicotine that’s poisonous to plants and insects. German giant Bayer CropScience and Syngenta both make neo-nics, which are used to coat seeds, protecting crops in their early growth stages. In America, 90 percent of the corn crop comes with the coating.

The problem is that plants sweat these chemicals out in the morning dew, where they’re inadvertently picked up by bees.

Last year, Christian Krupke, a professor of entomology at Purdue University, did one of the first studies linking neo-nics to the collapse of bee colonies, which threatens the entire food system. One-quarter of the human diet is pollinated by bees.

These mysterious collapses—in which bees simply fly off and die—have been reported as far back as 1918. Yet over the past seven years, mortality rates have tripled. Some U.S. regions are witnessing the death of more than half their populations.

“We’re looking at bee kills, persistently during corn-planting time,” Krupke explains. “So what was killing these bees at corn-planting?”

While he’s still not sure how much responsibility the chemicals bear, his study indicates a link to Monsanto’s GM corn, which has been widely treated with neo-nics since 2005.

But while other countries run from the problem, the U.S. government is content to let its citizens serve as guinea pigs.


What’s Mine Is Yours

The same worries apply to contamination from GM crops. Ask Frank Morton, who grows organic sugar-beet seeds in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and is among the few non-GM holdouts.

This became abundantly clear in 2010, when a federal judge demanded that all U.S. farmers stop planting GM sugar beets. Farmers were surprised to find that there was very little non-GM sugar-beet seed to be had. Since the GM variety was introduced in 2005, Monsanto had driven just about everyone out of the market.

Morton’s farm is just two miles from a GM sugar-beet farm. Unfortunately, beet pollen can travel as much as five miles, cross-pollinating other farmers’ fields and, in the case of an organic farmer, threatening his ability to sell his crop as organic and GM-free. The contamination can arrive in the most benign ways.

Morton recalls how a landscaper bought potting soil from a nearby GM beet farm, then sold it to homeowners throughout the area. A scientist from Oregon State University discovered the error. Morton claims the landscaper was forced to retrieve the soil—lest nearby farms become contaminated—paying his customers $100 each to not say anything.

It’s especially galling because GM crops have perverted longstanding property law. Organic farmers, for example, are responsible for protecting their farms from contamination, since courts have consistently refused to hold GM growers liable.

Kansas farmer Bryce Stephens had to stop growing organic corn and soybeans for fear of contamination; he has 30-foot buffer crops to protect his organic wheat. (Wheat pollen doesn’t travel far.)

“Monsanto and the biotechs need to respect traditional property rights and need to keep their pollution on their side of the fence,” says Maine farmer Jim Gerritsen. “If it was anything but agriculture, nobody would question it. If I decided to spray my house purple and I sprayed on a day that was windy, and my purple paint drifted onto your house and contaminated your siding and shingles, there isn’t a court in the nation that wouldn’t in two minutes find me guilty of irresponsibly damaging your property. But when it comes to agriculture, all of a sudden the tables are turned.”

Contamination isn’t just about boutique organic brands, either. It maims U.S. exports, too.

Take Bayer, which grew unapproved, experimental GM rice at test plots around Louisiana State University for just one year. Within five years, these plots had contaminated 30 percent of U.S. rice acreage. No one’s certain how it happened, but Bayer’s rice was found as far away as Central America and Africa.

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Within days of the announcement, rice futures lost $150 million in value, while U.S. rice exports dropped by 20 percent during the next year. (Bayer ended up paying $750 million in damages.)

Last month brought another hit. A Monsanto test of GM wheat mysteriously contaminated an Oregon farm eight years after the test was shut down. Japan and South Korea immediately halted imports of U.S. soft white wheat—a particularly harsh pill for the Japanese, who have used our white wheat in nearly all their cakes and confectionery since the 1960s.

Monsanto’s response? It’s blaming the whole mess on eco-terrorism.


Just Label It

Given the company’s history, is it any wonder that developing countries like Ecuador, Peru, and Haiti have shied away from GM crops? Haiti felt strong enough that in the wake of its 2010 earthquake, it turned down Monsanto’s offer of seeds, even with assurances that the seed wasn’t GM.

Brazil is poised to become the world’s largest soybean exporter on the strength of Monsanto seed. Still, the country’s farmers aren’t big fans of the company. Thousands are suing Monsanto for more than $600 million after the company continued to charge them royalties two years after the expiration of its patent.

Trust, unfortunately, has never been Monsanto’s strong suit. It’s become one of the main motives behind the push for GM labeling.

“If they’re going to allow the American people to be lab rats in an experiment, could they at least know where it is so they can decide whether they want to participate or not?” asks Lance Harvell, a Republican state representative from Maine. “If the FDA isn’t going to do their job, it’s time we stepped in.”

Last month, Harvell’s GM-labeling law overwhelmingly passed the Maine House (141-4) and Senate (35-0) and awaits the governor’s signature. That makes Maine the second state (nine days after Connecticut) to pass a GM-labeling law.

The Right to Know movement has picked up steam since chemical companies defeated California’s labeling initiative, thanks to a $46 million publicity campaign full of deceptive statements. A recent ABC News poll found that 93 percent of Americans surveyed support GM labeling.

When Vermont raised the issue a year ago, a Monsanto official indicated that the company might sue. But the states are smart. The new laws in both Maine and Connecticut won’t take effect until other states pass similar legislation, so they can share defense costs.

What’s interesting is that Harvell, by his own admission, is a very conservative Republican. Yet on this issue, left and right have the same quest for greater caution.

“God gave the seed to the earth and the fruit to the trees,” Harvell says. “Notice it didn’t say he granted Monsanto a patent. The human body has developed with its seeds. You’re making a major leap into Pandora’s box—a quantum leap that maybe the human body isn’t ready to make yet.”

As more information comes out, it’s increasingly clear that GM seed isn’t the home run it’s portrayed to be. It encourages greater pesticide use, which has a negative impact on the environment and our bodies. And whether or not GM food is safe to eat, it poses a real threat to biodiversity through monopolization of the seed industry and the kind of farming monoculture that inspires.

Meanwhile, a study by the University of Canterbury in England found that non-GM crops in America and Europe are increasing their yields faster than GM crops.

“All this talk about feeding the world, it’s really PR,” explains Wenonah Hauter, author of Foodopoly and executive director of Food & Water Watch. “The hope is to get into these new markets, force farmers to pay for seed, then start changing the food and eating habits of the developing world.”

Since farming is such a timeworn tradition, there’s a tendency to take it for granted, and that worries a lot of people. But as much as he hates GM, Bryce Stephens is sanguine.

“I’ve seen changes since I was little to where it is now,” the Kansas farmer says. “I don’t think it will last. This land and these people here have gone through cycles of boom and bust. We’re just in another cycle, and it will be something different.”

Providing we don’t break it irreparably first.

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Question One

In both California’s Proposition 8 and Maine’s Question 1, no meant yes and yes meant no: Voting “Yes” meant you were against gay marriage, and “No” meant you supported it. This cognitive dissonance permeates Joe Fox and James Nubile’s documentary Question One, which looks at the marriage battle waged by Maine voters. (Spoiler: On November 3, 2009, Question 1 passed, keeping gay marriage illegal.) The intent of the “No on 1” team is straightforward: Please let us love who we love without being legally marginalized, ‘kay? It’s over on the “Yes on 1” team (run by the out-of-state PR firm that backed Proposition 8) that the cognitive dissonance really kicks in. They bend over backward to insist that they’re not homophobic—they just believe their God wants marriage to be hetero, that homosexuality is a choice, gays shouldn’t be allowed to “redefine marriage” and/or “destroy straight marriage” to support that choice, and, hey, gays can get married all they want . . . so long as it’s to the opposite sex. Curiously, the most sympathetic figure in Question One might be the co-chairman of the “Yes on 1” campaign. He knows he’s on the wrong side of history and is miserable about being ordered by his diocese to fight this horrible fight, but he lacks the courage to say no to them. Some closets are ideological. Sherilyn Connelly

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Michele Bachmann’s Bright Idea

Not long ago, Dan Perkins was in his New Haven home when his wife told him that she’d broken a lightbulb. She’d been cleaning in the attic bedroom of their seven-year-old son when she knocked over a lamp. The bulb, one of those twisty compact fluorescents, shattered onto the carpet next to their son’s bed.

Perkins, who draws the political comic This Modern World under the name Tom Tomorrow, was vaguely aware that a broken compact fluorescent bulb might be more problematic than a broken conventional incandescent.

“I knew that they had some mercury in them,” Perkins says. “That had been kind of a propaganda point for the right wing in the debate over bulb efficiency, so that was on my radar.”

To learn what kind of risk the broken bulb posed and what he ought to do about it, Perkins turned to Google, which sent him to a fact sheet put out by the Connecticut Department of Public Health entitled “Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs: What to Do If a Bulb Breaks.”

“Stay calm,” the fact sheet instructed. But the four-page document that followed read more like reactor-core meltdown protocols than simple reassurance. It cautioned that small children, pregnant women, and pets should be sequestered from the breakage site and called for an immediate shutdown of any ventilation systems.

“Before you go back to the area, gather the following supplies,” it instructed. “Disposable gloves, flashlight, duct tape or other sticky tape, two index cards or stiff pieces of paper, zip-lock bags, damp paper towels or rags, portable window fan.”

The bulb had broken on a carpet near Perkins’s son’s bed, and the fact sheet had a recommendation for that as well: “The small amount of mercury inside of a CFL can penetrate carpet and continue to be emitted at very low levels for a long time,” it read. “This may continue even after the initial clean-up. If a CFL breaks on carpeting, consider removing the section of carpet where the breakage occurred, especially if young children or pregnant women frequently use this room.”

The rug was due for replacement anyway, so Perkins decided to take a utility knife to it and cut out the portion where the bulb had broken.

“We’re not alarmist, overprotective people,” he says, “but having just spilled one of the most hazardous substances known to mankind right next to our child’s bed and then reading this thing, we defaulted to the safest approach.”

Perkins had his son sleep in the living room that night while the bedroom aired out, and although he still uses compact fluorescent bulbs in some fixtures in his house, he no longer uses them in his son’s room or in lamps that might be knocked over.

“We felt like we had stumbled into a Kafka story over a broken lightbulb.”

Beginning in January, a new set of federal efficiency standards will go into effect, slowly phasing out most of the traditional incandescent bulbs Americans have grown used to over the last century and a half.

The law doesn’t ban the sale of conventional incandescent bulbs outright, but it imposes new efficiency standards that the old technology can’t meet.

Environmentalists and energy-independence activists pressed for the regulation, winning its inclusion in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. In 2012, the law will kick into effect across the country, starting by regulating 100-watt bulbs. The following year, it will expand to cover 75-watt bulbs, and in 2014, 60- and 40-watt bulbs.

Almost everyone agrees that the new efficiency standards are a good idea overall. The classic incandescent bulb is notoriously wasteful, releasing about 90 percent of the energy it uses as heat rather than light. An average household can save more than $500 a year by replacing all its incandescents with CFLs. The energy saved over the lifetime of those bulbs will reduce carbon dioxide emissions more than if the household stopped driving a car for a whole year.

Not everyone’s convinced, though. Conservatives, led by self-appointed “Tea Party Receptacle” and gonzo political candidate Michele Bachmann, see creeping tyranny in the federal regulation of lightbulbs. Bachmann has tried to kill the legislation, repeatedly sponsoring a bill she calls the Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act.

“I think Thomas Edison did a pretty patriotic thing for this country by inventing the lightbulb,” she told an audience this year. “If you want to buy Thomas Edison’s wonderful invention, you should be able to!”

It isn’t just Bachmann who thinks the issue has political legs. Texas congressman Joe Barton has also sponsored a bill to save Americans from the fate of having to buy CFLs, which he sneeringly referred to as “the little, squiggly, pig-tailed ones.”

And in what read to many as a grand gesture of know-nothing cussedness, the Republican majority made a public point of removing all the compact fluorescent lights from the House cafeteria earlier this year, replacing them with inefficient incandescents.

[

Bachmann, who is loudly anti-abortion, has unironically adopted pro-choice vocabulary in her lightbulb crusade. But her argument isn’t just about personal freedom from the dictates of big government. She has also raised doubts about whether the more efficient compact fluorescent bulbs are even that safe and environmentally friendly.

“The mercury in one bulb, for example, is enough to contaminate up to 6,000 gallons of water beyond safe drinking levels,” she wrote in one press release.

After we learned about Dan Perkins’s experience when just one bulb shattered in his home, we couldn’t help being hit with a stunning thought. . . .

Could Michele Bachmann be right?

Experts dismiss Bachmann’s more florid predictions of the ecological doom threatened by twisty lightbulbs. But she isn’t wrong that the disposal of CFLs poses a real problem.

If you throw away a compact fluorescent bulb, the mercury inside inevitably ends up in a landfill or an incinerator, polluting the environment. The bulbs can be recycled and safely disposed of, but with just four months until the first wave of efficiency standards is set to go into effect, there still isn’t much in the way of infrastructure and education to make sure that happens.

A few large retailers, including Home Depot and Ikea, have instituted their own recycling programs, and some states, such as Maine, are pioneering recycling and customer-education programs. But in much of the country, there’s no systematic plan for disposing of the increasing number of compact fluorescents in circulation. Here in New York, there are no special plans to manage the safe disposal of CFLs.

“Residents are not required by law to do anything special with these bulbs,” says Matthew Lipani, a spokesman for the New York City Department of Sanitation.

In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that just 2 percent of compact fluorescents are currently recycled.

Energy-efficiency activists say the net environmental impact of the bulbs is still positive. Just looking at the mercury emissions, even if every CFL wound up broken in a landfill, by replacing traditional incandescents with CFLs, we still come out ahead.

“You can look at the toxicology globally or locally,” says Russ Leslie, associate director of the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “Globally, because of the avoided power generation, which puts mercury into the atmosphere, you’re better off even if the mercury in the bulbs is not disposed of properly. Nonetheless, locally, if it’s in your house, that understandably bothers some people.”

Persuading nervous home owners of the importance of the global over the local isn’t always easy.

“It can be a hard argument to explain to people, because they’re just looking at the mercury in their home,” says Laura Haight, a senior environmental associate at New York Public Interest Research Group.

“You don’t want to downplay the risks, but it’s a matter of triage when you’re working in the environmental movement—you have to work your way down the list of hazards.”

Everyone from the lightbulb-manufacturing industry to the Environmental Protection Agency is working to reassure everyone that a broken CFL is hardly a major toxic event.

“The amount of mercury in a CFL is like the very tip of a ballpoint pen—far less than what you find in other household items like batteries, thermometers, and thermostats,” says Joseph Higbee, a spokesman for the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, a trade group that represents lightbulb manufacturers. “It may be that the presence of mercury in CFLs will matter to some consumers, but there’s a wide range of choices out there. It used to be that lightbulbs were more or less the same; they were just a commodity. With the new technologies, consumers need to educate themselves.”

Still, consumers trying to educate themselves about the risks of CFLs can be forgiven if they feel that they’re getting mixed messages. Even as manufacturers and the federal government urge everyone not to freak out over broken CFLs, many of the safety guidelines available online—like the Connecticut site Perkins found—do little to calm nervous parents.

CFLs have been on the market in one form or another for decades, but concern about the toxic implications of broken bulbs for home owners didn’t really ratchet up until 2007, after an incident in Prospect, Maine.

A woman there was cleaning a compact fluorescent bulb in her child’s bedroom when she dropped it, shattering it over a carpet and a metal vent connecting the second and third floor. She swept up the shards of the bulb but was still worried about the mercury that might have been released, so she called the state department of environmental protection.

The Maine DEP didn’t really know what to tell her: There wasn’t much science on what happens when a CFL breaks. So, two days later, the department sent an employee to her house to measure the remaining mercury vapor.

[

The readings were mostly reassuring. Although there were still elevated mercury readings around where the bulb broke, it was all well below the 300-nanograms-per-cubic-meter threshold considered safe.

The carpet was a different story: In the area immediately above where the bulb broke, the instrument measured 1,939 nanograms per cubic meter. The woman called a private cleanup specialist, who told her it would cost $2,000 to remove the remaining mercury.

The story made national headlines and prompted Maine to institute a mandatory CFL recycling program. Further studies suggested that although much of the mercury in a CFL adheres to the broken glass and can be swept away, as much as 40 percent of it escapes as vapor into the air or soaks into fabrics and permeable surfaces, seeping back out into the air slowly over time.

Compact fluorescents already make up about a quarter of new bulb sales and are likely to pick up an even bigger share of the residential-lighting market after the law takes effect. But they’re hardly the only alternative lighting technology on the market, and experts expect that in the long run, other lighting technologies will take more of a leading role.

“The CFL is a fairly mature technology by now,” says Leslie. “The price isn’t going to drop much more for them.”

Not so for other up-and-coming technologies poised to take over big chunks of the lighting market as soon as they become more affordable. Chief among these are lights that use light-emitting diodes, or LEDs.

With extremely long lives, high efficiency, programmability, and an ever more diverse range of lighting tones available, LED lights might well be the future of residential lighting. But with prices still at $30 to $40 per bulb, they’re not flying off the shelves quite yet.

Leslie expects that will change quickly.

“For a long time, compact fluorescents were pinned in the $12 to $15 range, and they didn’t make much penetration,” Leslie says. “It was only when they began to drop down to around the $8 range that people began to take notice. Now you can get them for $2. I expect LED lights will go through the same progression, and we should see the price drop significantly in the next year.”

Even with LED lighting coming of age, compact fluorescents, complete with their one to 30 milligrams each of mercury, will continue to be a big part of residential lighting.

“We’re seeing a rapid increase in the use of CFLs now,” Leslie says. “LEDs will increase, too, and eat into that, but we’re going to see a substantial number of CFLs for many years to come.”

Michele Bachmann’s efforts to stop the lightbulb regulations have failed twice, and with less than four months to go, it seems certain the new standards will go into effect, starting in January.

But though the shrill lightbulb libertarianism of Bachmann and her fellows might ignore the overall environmental benefits of efficient lighting, the complicated protocols and alarming mixed messages contained in much of the available safety literature leave home owners like Dan Perkins ambivalent about the role of CFLs in their homes.

“We still use CFLs in some parts of our house but not in lamps that can get knocked over and certainly not in our son’s room,” Perkins says. “That was just such a crazy situation. It isn’t happening again.”

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ART STARS

If all those emphatically coiffed politicians are so worried about our nation’s children, they need simply to look to Deerhoof, the finest role models experimental post-rock has to offer. The San Francisco quartet’s 2004 album Milk Man, a delightfully dense concept album based on artist Ken Kagami’s banana-impaled cartoon character, earned raves for its chilly, Byzantine structures and enthralling, shuffling pulses . . . and, more astoundingly, it inspired a troupe of elementary school kids in North Haven, Maine, to stage an honest-to-God interpretive ballet of flailing limbs, white costumes, and flying orbs. Adorable and avant-garde! How will these kids not turn out all right? With Father Murphy.

Wed., Oct. 13, 9 p.m., 2010

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Ray Lamontagne

LaMontagne’s Gossip in the Grain, from last year, found the bearded Maine-based folkie working with lusher, more expansive arrangements than he’d previously utilized; “You Are the Best Thing,” the album’s horn-enriched single, sounded like it might’ve come from an early effort by Blood, Sweat & Tears. On his fall tour, LaMontagne’s stripping things down to his guy-with-a-guitar roots; sweat and tears, at least, are probably still safe to expect. With Dave Gutter.

Thu., Nov. 5, 8 p.m.; Mon., Nov. 9, 8 p.m.; Tue., Nov. 10, 8 p.m., 2009

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THE SLUDGE REPORT

An excellent night of left-field underground metal (curated by Pitchfork contributor and sometimes Voice scribe Brandon Stosuy), where Maine’s critically acclaimed, molasses-slow Ocean is just the agonizing tip of a glacially paced iceberg. Their second album, Pantheon of the Lesser, is pure stomach-rumbling misery, each cymbal crash seeming eternally distant from the other, the quartet slowly building monoliths of black-hued squall. Salome (featuring the new screecher for Agoraphobic Nosebleed) are the rare sludge band with no bass player, simply reveling in pure guitar tones and punishing pounding. With the Sabbathy stoner slime of Boston’s Riff Cannon and local low-end theorists Batillus.

Sun., Feb. 15, 8 p.m., 2009

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Outlaw, Outsider

Billy Price is a 15-year-old boy living in rural Maine. He’s also THAT KID you went to high school with— you know, the one who sports a rattail, the one who “freaks out” in class, the one who sits in the corner of the lunchroom and snarfs chips with his mouth open. He’s the one who ventures beyond the conventional borders of dorkiness into the lonely desert of hopeless weirdness. Jennifer Venditti follows him there.

Her documentary, Billy the Kid, starts with a shot of Billy cracking up as he shows the camera his uvula: “It’s that dangly thing at the back of the mouth,” he says helpfully. Billy then goes on to provide a succinct, hilarious, and utterly unself-conscious narrative of his life and times. He loves Kiss and karate and has “a big interest in girls,” but he tries not to be “a jerk about it.” When his cat died, he was “at war with myself . . . fighting my emotions.” Slowly, darker revelations emerge. His stepfather is chronically absent from both the film and Billy’s life. His biological father smoked crack and abused his mother (a gentle and weary woman who clarifies some of Billy’s wilder assertions). When her son was a toddler, doctors told her that he was so profoundly retarded he would have to be institutionalized.

That turned out not to be true, but still, nobody knows quite what Billy “is.” He’s relegated to “special” classes, but he also has a GRE-worthy vocabulary, an encyclopedic knowledge of certain topics (glam-rock bands and serial killers, to name two), and a mournfully wise outlook on life. Like an adolescent Don Quixote, he rides (his bike) through town, looking for bullies to beat up and exposing a chivalrous streak a mile wide. He refuses to shoot the female adversaries who appear in his favorite video game, and he rues the fact that “unfortunately, I’ve never been the savior of a damsel.” When he finally does encounter a damsel—a young waitress named Heather, who might be the only person in town more awkward than Billy—he discovers that she may not want saving quite as much as he wants to save her. Given the intensity of Billy’s emotions—he falls fast and hard for Heather—the condensed affair fits snugly into the film’s natural story arc, and is more romantic and comedic than even the slickest romantic comedy.

This is Vendetti’s first film, after a decade as a casting director. Perhaps this explains her remarkable ability to distill a character in one well-placed shot, a quality that more than makes up for her slightly amateurish camera skills. I have seen more than 25 documentaries this year, and after a while they all start to run together, both structurally and thematically.
Billy the Kid is utterly original in both respects. As for Billy, the kid? It doesn’t take a prophet to see trouble in his future. But we’re also left with no doubt that someday he will save someone for real.

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Where’s the Party?

Anybody in the scene knows that inserting new additions into the lesbian dating pool is like throwing raw meat to hungry lions. “The Chart,” anyone? Seriously though, during Pride, fresh eye candy is reason enough to call in sick for the, um, week. That said, dancing up on said newcomers (hell, and regulars, your long-time girlfriend, or your “pal” for that matter) is even better. It’s a party y’all and all the dykes and transgendered are invited.

Why not begin the weekend on Thursday? (You’re taking off work anyway.) Revving things up is the underground house, Afrobeat, and soul bash Ubiquita [Sutra, 16 First Avenue, 212-677-9477, $5 to $10]. Full disclosure: I’m performing, but I swear on my best pasties, I hold no bias! The theatrically fabulous Maine joins me in go-go erotica, while Reborn, Selly, Monica, and special guests Rehka (of Basement Banghra) and Sharee (of Starlight, Bar d’O, and Wonderbar) get on the ones and twos. Catch stacked (as in kabam!) chicas as they pass around sushi, chocolate-covered strawberries, and shots during the earlier hours.

On Friday, the Brooklynites will be sporting their funkiest duds to Cirrah [Cattyshack, 249 Fourth Avenue, 718-230-5740, noon, $5 to $15]. Regal hostess Aja leads the way on two floors, while go-go mavens work up a sweat to DJ Beyonda and Daryl Raymond’s hip-hop and house downstairs. Upstairs you’ll hear music by artists like Joan Jett (a onetime visitor), Hall and Oates, and the Cure via DJ Fucci. On the other side of the water, Lovergirl NYC and Exclusive Entertainment are throwing their third annual GlamNYC Pride kickoff [Roxy, 515 West 18th Street, 212-947-3978, 9:30 p.m., $25 to $30]. Entertaining 1,000 sparsely dressed women (to rub up on!), dance music diva Ultra Naté sings hits like the gay fave “Free,” while Roc-A-Fella’s R&B princess Teairra Mari also does her thing. Plus, there’s a gymnastic erotic showcase by the DC Badd Girls and Lady.
DJs China and Mary Mac blend it all together.

Speaking of athletic feats, Saturday is practically a party marathon. If you plan on leaving the Dyke March [starting at Bryant Park, 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue, 5 p.m., free] early, the drinking can begin at Heritage of Pride’s Rapture (Pier 54, 13th Street and the Hudson River, 212-206-7579, 5 to 10:30 p.m., $24 to $25). Thousands (yes, plural) of diverse lady lovers sway on the pier to house anthems and more by DJs Brenda Black and Twisted Dee. To top it off, all proceeds go to New York City Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Pride Week events and community organizations—no guilty pleasures here! After dusk, go club-hopping, starting with the indoor-outdoor waterfront after-party for Rapture, Pier Pressure (Chelsea Brewing Company, Pier 59, West Side Highway and 18th Street, henriettahudson.com, 9 p.m., free with Rapture stub, $15 to $25 without). Kristy Kay (of “I Touch Myself” notoriety) and KTU’s Judy Torres give 2,000 revelers a show, while a gaggle of go-gos get down to house, hip-hop, and more by DJs Chip Chop and Henrietta’s Kim Dazy and Stacy.

From there (if you ever make it out), stumble on over to Shescape’s White Party [Pressure, 110 University Place, 9 p.m., $15 to $20; see shescape.com for their Friday and Sunday events]. They’ve got this nifty idea for singles: Upon entry, you get a number and stag bracelet to wear. Potential interests drop a message and your number with staff, who post your digits on a big screen for all to see. You retrieve the note, read it, hook up, or wait for more to flow in. This is better than speed dating! On the West Side, DJs Trini, Missy B, Tease, and Mary Mac spin everything from classic house to R&B at Lovergirl NYC [Speed, 20 West 39th Street, $20 to $25, lovergirlnyc.com]. America’s Next Top Model winner Eva will be joining the sapphically inclined for all-night photo ops. Talk about eye candy!

Providing that you’re still moving (come on, troupers, it’s nothing a Bloody Mary couldn’t fix!), Sunday is the final stretch. Post–Pride Parade, Desilicious [Pepper, 95 Leonard Street, 212-713-5111, sholayevents.com, 10 p.m., $20] brings the girls and boys together—we do love each other after all—by celebrating Bollywood-style with hip-shaking house, bhangra, and more compliments of DJs Ashu Rai and Bobby. Nearer to the procession and beginning right as the parade ends, Snapshot [Bar 13, 13th Street and University Place, 6 p.m., $7, snapshotnyc.com] is having its second annual roof deck shindig, including a DJ on each floor (Dario Speedwagon, Ingie Pop, Noa D., and Daryl Raymond)—taking turns spinning ’80s, reggaetón, and more until the wee hours.

And now it’s time to say goodnight, the bars and clubs have gone dark, the plastic whistles and rainbow beads returned to their dusty homes, and the dancing shoes tossed off. All that’s left in the itinerary is to snuggle up next to a new (or steady!) lover, nurse on Emergen-C, and sleep until noon. Now that’s living!