It was as if the boy had already divined what his senses and intellect had not encompassed yet: that doomed wilderness whose edges were being constantly and punily gnawed at by men with plows and axes who feared it because it was wilderness, men myriad and nameless even to one another in the land where the old bear had earned a name, and through which ran not even a mortal beast but an anachronism indomitable and invincible out of an old dead time, a phantom, epitome and apotheosis of the old wild life which the little puny humans swarmed and hacked at in a fury of abhorrence and fear like pygmies about the ankles of a drowsing elephant.
William Faulkner, from paragraph three of The Bear
Knowledge of sensible realities thus comes to life inside the tissue of experience. It is made; and made by relations that unroll themselves in time.
William James, Essays in Radical Empiricism
This essay is a revised, updated version of “Toward an Eco-Cinema,” originally published in ISLE, 11.2 (Summer 2004).
The traditional filmstrip embodies the struggle between permanence and transience in complex ways. We can hold the filmstrip up to the light and see the image captured there, but we know that whatever light is allowing us to perceive the series of fixed images along the celluloid strip is causing them to fade ever so slightly, and further, that the formal presentation of the imagery inscribed on emulsion-based cinema accelerates its inevitable destruction: the strong light and the friction embodied in the mechanism of the projector does damage to the print every time it is shown. In the best of circumstances, the damage is minor, even invisible; nevertheless, it is occurring. The original negative of a film can, of course, serve as a protected matrix, but like any other material object, is itself susceptible to the ravages of time. Further, though few of those who appreciate celluloid cinema are conscious of it, the filmstrip, at least on one level, encapsulates the way in which modern life and the natural world are imbricated: the light-sensitive silver salts that create a visible image when exposed to light are suspended in a thin layer of gelatin, one of the chief ingredients of which is collagen. Collagen is produced by boiling the bones and tissues of animals. Celluloid, the base on which the emulsion is layered, is made from cellulose. That is, the “life” we see moving on the screen is a kind of re-animation of plant and animal life within the mechanical/chemical apparatus of traditional cinema.
The arrival of high-quality digital imaging and projection has given new life to many films originally recorded on celluloid, but it has also hastened the demise of the older medium. While much of industrially produced popular cinema has made the transition to digital, many remarkable independent films, especially those shot in 16 mm and meant to be seen as 16 mm films, seem unlikely to be carried across this transition because of the costs of good transfers. Further, the emergence of digital imaging has tended to destroy the infrastructure that makes 16 mm presentation possible. While some educational institutions—colleges and universities, museums—still have the capacity to show 16 mm film, this form of exhibition is increasingly precarious, and many significant films can no longer be widely shown. It is also true that the very precariousness of celluloid cinema has attracted a younger generation committed to both the older way of making cinematic art and to the traditional look of emulsion-based cinematography. For some young filmmakers and aficionados of celluloid cinema, the continual transformations of digital hardware and software make digital image-making at least as unstable as what it is replacing.
All this is, of course, only one instance of a much larger reality: the explosion of population across the globe. The Earth now sustains billions of inhabitants, all of whom have physical needs and material desires. The result is that those dimensions of the Earth that encapsulate something like continuity—particular landscapes, specific biota—are increasingly circumscribed and infiltrated. This pattern causes the natural world in all its myriad variety to seem increasingly poignant, and the growing international commitment to preserve some vestiges of particularly distinctive and/or undeveloped landscapes and biota—most obviously in the increasingly ubiquitous systems of national parks—implicitly reveals just how quickly such places are slipping away from us. We can be grateful for the considerable efforts that have allowed us to hold on to what continue to seem remarkable, comparatively natural environments, even as we recognize that these environments are as much works of environmental art as they are vestiges of original nature, and further, that our enjoyment of these environments inevitably contributes to their destruction, or at least to their transformation.
Recent decades have seen the development of a tradition of filmmaking that uses technology to provide cinematic experiences of being immersed within the natural world. While even the most interesting of these emulsion-based films and digital videos are prey to the material limitations I've described, the experiences they provide transcend these limitations at least for the durations of these particular works and, like other forms of cinema, in memory. That the motion pictures in this tradition have not attracted large audiences is to be expected, given the distractions of contemporary life. Nevertheless, visual artists working both in 16 mm celluloid filmmaking and in digital video have been providing visual/auditory training in appreciating the experience of an immersion within natural processes. If we cannot halt the ongoing transformation of the natural environment (or of particular modes of cinema and cinema spectatorship), these moving-image artists seem to say, we can certainly use cinema to honor those dimensions of what is disappearing that we would preserve if we could, and we can hope that by valuing and conserving what seems on the verge of utter demise we can hold onto some vestiges of it, and the continuities it represents, longer than may currently seem possible.
After all, given the embrace of popular cinema, and only popular cinema, by most modern movie-goers and television watchers, the very existence of such films and videos as Andrej Zdravič's Riverglass: A River Ballet in Four Seasons (1997), Peter Hutton's Study of a River (1996) and Time and Tide (2000), James Benning's Deseret (1995), Sogobi (2001), and 13 Lakes (2004), J. P. Sniadecki's Songhua (2007), and Sharon Lockhart's Double Tide (2010) is something of a miracle. I see these, and other related works, as instances of an “ecocinema,” primarily because each 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 an ongoing commitment to the natural environment. These films and videos are the inverse of the fundamentally hysterical approach of commercial media, and advertising in particular, where consumption of the maximum number of images per minute models unbridled consumption of products and the unrestrained industrial exploitation of the environment within which these products are produced and consumed. As I see it, the fundamental job of an ecocinema is not to produce pro-environmental narratives shot in a conventional Hollywood manner (that is, in a manner that implicitly promotes consumption) or even in a conventional documentary manner (although, of course, documentaries can alert us to environmental issues). The job of an ecocinema is to provide new kinds of film experience that demonstrate an alternative to conventional media-spectatorship and help to nurture a more environmentally progressive mindset.
Andrej Zdravič's Riverglass: A River Ballet in Four Seasons
For some years it has been a cliché in film studies that beautiful imagery is an easy way out for a filmmaker: anyone can aim a camera at something beautiful and expose a shot. One can only wonder why, if beauty is so easy, there's not more of it. Perhaps the real objection has always had more to do with audiences than with filmmakers: presenting beautiful imagery to audiences may have seemed too non-confrontational. For filmmakers interested in using cinema to do political work, beautiful films—especially in the more traditional, conventional senses of “beauty” —may seem to create complacency in audiences and to reconfirm conventional assumptions. Obviously, conventionally beautiful imagery can be used, not only to confirm the status quo but to promote activities that do long-term damage to places that many of us recognize as worth preserving because of their beauty. We see this all the time in television advertising—indeed, it often seems to be one of the central strategies of Madison Avenue. But beautiful imagery of beautiful places can also be a confrontation of convention, and particularly of the media status quo: it can model fundamental changes in perception not only in terms of what we see in movie theaters, on television, or online, but in how we function in the “real world.” And it can do so without announcing any polemical goal.
A noteworthy instance is a video by the Slovenian Andrej Zdravič: Riverglass: A River Ballet in Four Seasons. Finished in 1997, Riverglass was begun ten years earlier, when Zdravič had the idea “to make a film with the camera submerged in the magic clarity of the river SoËa.” The original concept evolved—after a period of experimenting with underwater shooting, first in film and subsequently in Hi-8 video (PAL)—into an installation, Skrivnosh SoËa (“Secrets of SoËa” ), and subsequently, into a 41-minute video. Riverglass takes viewers into the waters of the upper SoËa, which flows from the Julian Alps in Slovenia to the Gulf of Venice in the Adriatic Sea, revealing just enough of the surrounding mountainous terrain to make clear that the film begins in winter and moves through the four seasons back to winter—a fitting temporal structure, of course, since snowmelt determines the water-level of the river. The visuals are edited so as to confirm the river's flow, and are accompanied by a soundtrack recorded underwater in the SoËa.
What allows the consistently gorgeous imagery of Riverglass to do more than confirm the status quo—what gives all the films discussed in this essay their edge—is extended duration. In conventional, commercial film and television, whatever beautiful imagery we do see is onscreen briefly, and as background to the “more important” melodramatic activities in the foreground. Viewers are implicitly trained to see the beauties of landscape and place as ephemeral and comparatively insignificant, not something deserving of sustained attention or commitment. In Riverglass, Zdravič quickly makes it evident that his video is going nowhere except into and along the river, and his ability to continue to provide engaging dimensions of image and sound, and to maintain not only the flow of the river but the viewer's attention to it, models the attitude that this place is worthy of our sustained attention.
The title of Riverglass suggests a self-reflexivity that has a subtle polemical edge. Of course, the waters of the SoËa are as clear as glass, but the “glass” in Zdravič's title also refers to the process of his filming. During those moments when the camera surfaces to reveal both the river and the landscape along the river, the glass barrier between the water and the video camera becomes momentarily visible: water flows off those portions of glass above the surface of the river. This has the effect of resolving the mystery of how Zdravič made the video—a mystery most viewers will be intrigued by: clearly the camera is inside some sort of glass box. That is, like Larry Gottheim's classic Fog Line (1971), one of the originators of this kind of ecocinema, Riverglass is not simply an unalloyed depiction of a natural phenomenon, but represents a (literal) collision of natural process and industrial technology. This collision, however, suggests an unusually healthy relationship between technological development and the natural world. This technological intervention into a pristine natural environment echoes the distinctive aspect of the SoËa itself: its clarity. And the finished video confirms this echo, both because Zdravič's editing confirms the river's movement from one space to another, and because the video, like the river, is unalloyed: it is as simple and direct in its intention as is the SoËa in its journey out of the mountains—clear as glass.
Peter Hutton's Study of a River and Time and Tide
Within the last decade a number of major television advertising campaigns—for four-wheel-drive vehicles, for pick-up trucks, for beer—have worked at subverting the respect a good many Americans still have for those vestiges of relatively untrammeled nature that remain within the grid of high-tech systems that span the continent and the globe. In these ads there is an emphasis on the outdoors, on being outdoors, but the relative scale of the natural and the technological in these ads (many of which focus on landscapes of the American West) is precisely the opposite of what we see in the Hudson River paintings of Thomas Cole and the grand Western landscape paintings of Thomas Moran. There humans are dwarfed by the sublime expanses and architectures of the landscapes they inhabit. In the ads, giant four-wheelers dominate mountainous terrain. In these ads the important thing is the human presence in, and technological utilization of, the landscape—in whatever high-tech form this takes. Any sense of respect for the landscape itself is overwhelmed by the guiltless high spirits of the beer drinkers and their four-wheelers—” high spirits” that are also encoded within the formal dexterity of the ads, particularly their seamless uniting of two different scales of visual representation. Increasing technological control of the natural world itself, and of representations of it, is presented as the wave of the future.
Of course, these ads provoke a contemporary version of what has been an essential American debate for two centuries. It's the question posed by the question-mark-shaped Connecticut River in Thomas Cole's The Oxbow (1838): How much of the wilderness on the left should be developed into the Connecticut River Valley farmland we see on the right—is original nature or domesticated land closer to the divine? Cole's positioning himself in the lower foreground of the painting on the wilderness side makes clear where Cole stands as a painter, but hi...