Richard J. Leskosky: Pesticides play leading role in Insect Fear Film Fest lineup

Richard J. Leskosky: Pesticides play leading role in Insect Fear Film Fest lineup

This year, the 31st annual Insect Fear Film Festival, sponsored by the Entomology Graduate Students Association at the University of Illinois, offers a couple of groundbreaking surprises.

First, it redefines its name somewhat. "Insect fear" over its first three decades has generally referred to entomophobia, the fear people have of insects in real life (and not the ones bigger than Volkswagens). This year, the festival's theme is what all insects should be afraid of: namely, pesticides. But, to be fair, as these films point out, people should be wary of them as well.

The second surprise is a new (to the festival) genre that most contemporary viewers will probably not be familiar with. Previous festivals have occasionally offered films with at least some elements of the Western in them ("The Black Scorpion" spends its first half on a ranch in Mexico, for instance). But "Riders of the Whistling Pines" (1949), starring cowboy legend Gene Autry, is the festival's first "singing cowboy" film.

The Library of Congress, which has been collecting moving pictures since that medium's earliest days, has developed a Moving Image Genre-Form Guide to assist in cataloging all those many tens of thousands of items. That describes the singing cowboy film as a "fictional Western, usually lasting from 60 to 80 minutes, in which the standard formula is carried out in a more lighthearted, sometimes perfunctory way."

The setting is often the present rather than the 19th century; the nonviolent hero dresses more elegantly than the standard cowpoke. Most important, his singing is as important as his gun-slinging, and he gets to demonstrate his vocal skills repeatedly throughout the film. The best-known movie singing cowboys were Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.

Probably most viewers today associate Autry with country music, his classic rendition of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" or his ownership of the Los Angeles Angels baseball team. But from 1934 to '53, he appeared in at least 93 films (including the 1935 serial "The Phantom Empire") and 91 episodes on his own television series.

In "Riders of the Whistling Pines," Gene and his crop-dusting pals come to the rescue when a northwestern forest is threatened by a tussock moth outbreak. A local logging magnate is keen to see the infestation spread because then he will be able to clear-cut all the trees in a large stretch of restricted forest.

Autry's solution is to spray everything with DDT (and sing several songs). The evil logging baron's counter scheme is to spray the local ranchers' lands with chemicals that kill their livestock and then blame Autry's spraying.

Ironically, the bad guys' arguments to the local rangers about the dangers of pesticides turn out to be fairly sound and would find much more acceptance today.

The other unusual aspect of this film, at least in terms of IFFF history, is that you barely get a glimpse of the threatening insects. No swarms, no repeated and/or extended close-ups. They're just out there in the trees munching away, and the humans have more to worry about from each other than from the tree-killing insects. (And, no, they don't make the pines whistle.)

Insects in the second feature, "Locusts: The 8th Plague" (2005), however, do pose a considerable direct threat to humans. These are genetically engineered critters, so robust that they can actually fly right through a human body!

And since they were engineered to withstand manufactured pesticides, spraying them only makes them stronger. Fortunately, there's a heroic cropduster living near the scientific installation where some misguided scientists developed them who uses only organic pesticides.

And the super-locusts (spoiler alert!) can't deal with the natural organic stuff.

This is one of those gonzo sci-fi flicks that originally appeared on the Syfy channel (think "Sharknado"!) and that has, for instance, the military trying to use automatic weapons on a swarm of insects. Its message that insecticides concocted in labs are dangerous to humans while those gleaned from nature are not is naive at best, but at least it makes for some outrageous dialogue and scientific gaffes.

To point those out and explain the actual biology and chemistry involved, Professor May Berenbaum, festival founder and head of the UI Department of Entomology (and, in the interest of full disclosure, my wife), will provide introductions and commentaries on the films.

Other festival favorites will include live and mounted displays of insects, a gallery of artwork by local elementary and high school students, award presentations for best student artwork, insect-themed face-painting for kids, various displays of entomology-related technology (and a "pesticide petting zoo"). This year also features a raffle of artwork by entomology grad students.

In addition to the features, two animated cartoons will be shown, which also feature pesticides: "Mickey's Garden" starring Mickey Mouse and "Pink Pest Control" with the Pink Panther. Even Mickey has problems with insecticides when he accidentally sprays himself and winds up smaller than the bugs attacking his plants!

The 31st annual Insect Fear Film Festival is set for Saturday in Foellinger Auditorium on the UI Quad. Doors open at 6 p.m.; introductory remarks and the cartoons begin at 7. Admission is free.

Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the UI and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at filmcritic@comcast.net.

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