JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

copyright 2013, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 55, fall 2013

Limits and possibilities of ecocinema and ecocinema studies

review by Robin Murray and Joseph Heumann

Rust, Stephen; Monani, Salma; and Cubitt, Sean, Eds. Ecocinema Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Since perhaps as early as the Lumière Brothers’ Oil Wells of Baku (1896), films of various genres and types have addressed environmental issues, sometimes as mere document or plot point, but often as a critique of human exploitation of the natural world. In recent years, such a critique has been as obvious as the condemnation of fracking found in Gasland (2010), Gasland 2 (2013), or even Promised Land (2013) or more subtle as in the action-packed Elysium (2013) or Sharknado (2013). The Academy Award-winning documentary, The Cove (2009) and Oscar-nominated Chasing Ice (2012) demonstrate the positive critical reception for these environmental films. The 2013 anthology Ecocinema Theory and Practice addresses the range of environmental films, or “ecocinema,” from the silent era forward by positing multiple definitions of what counts as ecocinema and offering a variety of theoretical approaches to their analyses. Although the editors suggest that any film could qualify as ecocinema because it is ripe for an ecocritical reading, the anthology suggests something more nuanced. Instead, examples of ecocinema exist across time, genre, and film type, moving beyond environmental documentaries and blatantly ecological features to include what we think of as “ecocinema on the edge,” narrative films organized around a variety of themes but all driven by either intentional or unintentional environmental messages as products of a complex cultural context that includes ecology.

Ecocinema Theory and Practice provides a useful introduction to ecocinema studies that includes a sampling of ecocinema theories and their application to selected documentary and fictional film. The anthology includes an introduction that briefly defines and situates ecocinema studies in relation to detailed summaries of the four sections of the volume:

The editors state that definitions of ecocinema vary but offer their own list of genre characteristics and conclude somewhat equivocally that

all films present productive ecocritical exploration and careful analysis can unearth engaging and intriguing perspectives on cinema’s various relationships with the world around us” (3).

Several articles in the anthology clarify this point. For example, Sean Cubitt’s closing essay, “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere: Data Visualization and Ecocriticism” refines this argument, asserting that Hollywood films as mainstream as Enemy of the State (1998) and Inception (2010) may be open to ecocritical readings. Although limited in its scope, Ecocinema Theory and Practice begins to illustrate this possibility.

The anthology begins with a section highlighting four theoretical perspectives that may align with a broad definition of ecocinema. Two essays in this section most effectively demonstrate the range of possibilities ecocinema definitions and theories can provide—the first essay in this section, Scott MacDonald’s “The Ecocinema Experience” and the third, Andrew Hageman’s “Ecocinema and Ideology: Do Ecocritics Dream of a Clockwork Green?” “The Ecocinema Experience” aptly highlights the work of MacDonald, who coined the term ecocinema in “Toward an Eco-Cinema,” the 2004 article he herein updates. In “The Ecocinema Experience” MacDonald further explores the term, defining selected avant-garde film as ecocinema because it “offers audiences a depiction of the natural world within a cinematic experience that models patience and mindfulness—qualities of consciousness crucial for a deep appreciation of and ongoing commitment to the natural environment” and consequently provide an alternative to commercial cinema and advertising (19), perhaps like literature and painting of the Romantic era. For MacDonald, ecocinema not only serves as a filmic sub-genre of avant-garde cinema but also as purposeful art meant to

“provide new kinds of film experience that demonstrate an alternative to conventional media-spectatorship and help nurture a more environmentally progressive mindset” (20).

To both interrogate “the implications of their more conventional cinematic experiences” (41) and, perhaps, move toward positive environmental change, MacDonald suggests viewers explore avant-garde ecocinema such as River Glass: A River Ballet in Four Seasons (1997) rather than pro-environmental narratives such as Avatar (2009) or documentaries such as An Inconvenient Truth (2006). For MacDonald, challenging public audiences and students by exposing them to avant-garde ecofilms that offer a “contemplative/meditative experience” (41) may help viewers develop the patience he suggests is needed to engage with the natural world. Such an exploration may also limit definitions of ecocinema and possibilities for ecocinematic readings.

Andrew Hageman’s “Ecocinema and Ideology: Do Ecocritics Dream of a Clockwork Green?” stands out in this section, however, as it effectively “demonstrates a dialectical ideological critique method of reading films” while also applying the approach to the ecocinema field and its methods and definitions of ecocinema. Hageman’s reading of eco-documentaries and eco-films of varied genres addressing the battle over privatization of water in Cochamba, Bolivia, admirably illustrates the usefulness of this dialectical ideological critique. For Hageman, the documentary The Corporation (2003), the fictional films Tambien la Lluvia (Even the Rain) (2010) and Quantum of Solace (2008), and the animated short, Abuela Grille (2009) all illustrate the limits of environmental resistance, even when, as in the Cochamba incident, the corporation is at least temporarily defeated because it is

“undermined … by inherent contradictions and by automatic incorporation within the frameworks of the ideology of capital” (82).

Despite this pessimistic view, Hageman’s article provides two useful tools for ecocinema studies. His article demonstrates a dialectical ideological critique approach that may “make [s] clear the shortcomings of the films’ ecological agendas as fully bathed in the ideology they are frequently meant to oppose” (83) and, consequently reveals (perhaps) our own environmental desires. It also may offer a definition of ecocinema that extends beyond the avant-garde to include documentary, animated, and Hollywood cinema.

The two other essays in this section primarily describe their distinctive approaches. David Ingram’s “The Aesthetics and Ethics of Eco-film Criticism” explains cognitivist film theory as a tool to “promote a better and more urgent understanding of environmental issues” by “exploring the aesthetic assumptions that have shaped such criticism” (43). Drawing on audience reception and aesthetic theories, Ingram argues for a pluralistic approach to ecocinema ranging from art films such as sleep furiously (2008) to the Indie John Sayles’ U.S. epic Sunshine State (2002) and the futuristic Hollywood ensemble piece Southland Tales (2006). For Ingram, because this pluralistic eco-aesthetic approach finds cognitive, emotional, and affective value in such a wide range of films, it opens up “critical oppositions such as that between ‘eco-films’ and ‘environmental movies’” (58).  Despite a more categorical approach, like Hageman, Ingram includes films from various genres in his definition of ecocinema.

Also in this section, Adrian Ivakhiv’s “An Ecophilosophy of the Moving Image: Cinema as Anthrobiogeomorphic Machine,” draws on phenomenology to describe three registers (anthropomorphic, geomorphic, and bio or animamorphic) and explain how they map onto three ecologies: the film world, the film experience, and the film-earth relation. Instead of defining ecocinema, Ivakhiv extends Cheryll Glotfelty’s definition of ecocriticism as “the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment” to include film.

Part Two spotlights readings of documentary and wildlife film as ecocinema. The essays in this section apply a variety of approaches as well. The strongest historicize their readings. Luis Vivanco’s “Penguins are Good to Think With…” provides an historical overview of wildlife documentaries with penguins at their center, beginning with newsreels from 1911 compiled into The Great White Silence in 1924 as a full-length silent version, and continuing through the unlikely box office hit March of the Penguins (2005). Although Vivanco fails to address the treatment of penguins in popular fictional films such as Madagascar (2005)or Mr. Popper’s Penguins (2011) (except in a passing nod to the “Happy Feet effect”),

“Penguins…” provides an effective ecocinema reading of selected documentary films that may demonstrate that “what makes penguins useful to think with is the invitation they provide to look more closely at the volatility and variability of the wildlife film genre itself” (123).

Nicole Starosielski’s “Beyond Fluidity…” examines a history of aquatic documentary in relation to racial, cultural, and gendered dynamics. For example, films such as Thirty Leagues Under the Sea (1914) and With Williamson Under the Sea (1932) seem to link the “undersea space as exotic” to “the depiction of exoticism in indigenous islanders” (153). Films from 1945-1954 followed a similar pattern, with filmmakers exploiting “the ocean itself along with the exotic sites of the shore” as in Beneath the 12 Mile Reef (1953). In films from 1960-72, Starosielski sees a shift to a gendered domesticity of the sea in films such as The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964). Her article engages with both documentary and fictional film, television, and animation, suggesting ecocinema definitions are also fluid.

Jennifer Ladino’s article Working with Animals: Regarding Companion Species in Documentary Films, on the other hand, explores the human-animal relationship in documentary films through the lens of anthropomorphism. And Claire Molloy’s “Nature Writes the Screenplays…” highlights a selection of Disney’s wildlife films

“as commodities which are produced, distributed, and repurposed by the diversified global entertainment conglomerate within a capitalist industrial structure” (170).

With reference to Gregg Mitman’s Reel Nature: America’s Romance with Wildlife on Film, Molloy provides an overview of post-WW II True-Life Adventures from Seal Island (1948) to Jungle Cat (1960), demonstrating how the films generally exploited public interest in “wilderness,” with marketing that maximized audiences and profits. Molloy sees the current Disney-nature films as a return to the True-Life Adventures model. The article focuses primarily on economic and cultural contexts of explicitly environmental documentaries.

Part Three examines the Hollywood and fictional film as ecocinema. Stephen Rust’s “Hollywood and Climate Change” provides an overview of cinema exploring the possibility of global environmental change, including Soylent Green (1970), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), and An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and suggests these films demonstrate

“that more and more people are becoming aware of new ways of imagining the relationship between people and the planet are not only possible, but necessary” (205).

Pat Brereton’s “Appreciating the Views: Filming Nature in Into the Wild, Grizzly Man, and Into the West” centers on “return to nature” films, which may both affirm the wilderness and reaffirm notions of the family: Into the Wild (2002), Grizzly Man (2005), and Into the West (1992).

Carter Soles’ “Sympathy for the Devil: The Cannibalistic Hillbilly in 1970s Rural Slasher Films” takes an eco-phobia approach to the 1970s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, arguing

“that the figure of the cannibalistic hillbilly as he appears in low-budget horror films of the 1970s serves as a site whereupon (sub-) urban viewers may project their fears of environmental collapse, dwindling natural resources, and reprisals for their structural mistreatment of the working poor” (235).

The articles in this section attempt to complicate definitions of ecocinema by including mainstream Hollywood films in their readings but, with the exception of Soles’ look at 1970s horror film, primarily focus on explicitly environmental films.

Part Four moves “beyond film” to engage with environmental film festivals and data visualizations as sites that engage audiences and expand definitions of ecocinema to include multiple media. Salma Monani’s “Environmental Film Festivals: Beginning Explorations at the Intersections of Film Festival Studies and Ecocritical Studies” classifies festivals according to their audience and purpose: Trade Show Festivals, Public Sphere Festivals, and Alternative Public Sphere Festivals. Sean Cubitt’s “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere: Data Visualization and Ecocriticism” asserts,

“Ecocriticism must follow the lead of Rosa Parks, and contest the boundaries between (human) subjects and (environmental) objects of rule” (284).

Cubitt first examines Al Gore’s use of time-lapse photographs of retreating glaciers to provide “parallel data-fication of future time” (282) to illustrate how data visualization can serve as a tool to contest these boundaries and then analyzes use of data visualization in three, “somewhat traditionally eco-themed films” directed by Roland Emerich: Godzilla (1998), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), and 2012 (2009). Cubitt’s conclusion takes us back to the book’s premise:

“Eco-film criticism’s over-arching purpose should not be to impose a political program, and still less to propose a more ‘efficient’ communication of scientific truth to a waiting audience, but to help create public spaces for debate and argument over the claims of the environment for a place in political life” (295).  

The essays in this collection begin to reveal the burgeoning field of ecocinema and (to a certain extent) ecomedia studies with, perhaps, some missing pieces. In their introduction, the editors note future directions for ecocinema studies that include attending to Third Cinemas of Africa, Asia and Latin America—for example, Lucrecia Martel’s The Swamp (Argentina 2001) or Souleymane Cissé's Yeelen (Mali 1987)) as well as Fourth Cinema of Indigenous populations (as in Smoke Signals (1998) or Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001)), engaging with gender, race, and cultural politics, exploring reception theory, and further interrogating media’s ecological footprint. These are commendable goals for the field. It might also be useful to connect more directly with the questions Andrew Hageman explores in “Ecocinema and Ideology”:

“What can film, given its ideological constraints and contradictions, do to advance ecological knowledge, attitudes and behavior? Does the work of ecocinema studies consist in producing critical readings and/or artistic precepts? And, to what extent do we desire ‘very special films’ capable of affecting people to the bone so they will subsequently act ecologically?” (65).

Ecocinema studies may begin to answer these questions by expanding definitions of ecocinema to include not all films but “edge films” that engage further with popular First, Second, Third, and Fourth World with less explicit environmental themes.


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