Friday, 26 May 2017

Cinema and the environment

Made right after the end of the second world war, My Darling Clementine (John Ford 1946) is, among other things, about building a community and look fresh towards the future after a necessary exorcism of demons, internal as well as external. Part of that optimistic, forward-looking process is the building of a new church in Tombstone, and how the inauguration of that church, not even half-finished yet, is linked with the emotional development of Wyatt Earp, dancing with his lady fair, as the old-timer says. I have always been struck by how that scene corresponds to a scene in a film made 26 years later: Deliverance (John Boorman 1972). The scene is towards the end of that film where a graveyard is being evacuated because the whole area is being flooded after the building of a dam. These two films, put together, captures, by a huge ellipsis, the optimism and idealism of an early outpost, bringing civilisation to the wilderness (regardless of how loaded terms civilisation and wilderness are) and the appalling side effects of that optimism and idealism, leading to ecological destruction and desecration. The myth of the frontier comes to an end, and the American dream drowns in its own success.

Putting those two films together might not seem to be obvious but there are so many different ways in which to look at film, or study film history, and one such way is from an ecological, or environmental, perspective. My recent post about Wild River (Elia Kazan 1960) did not dwell that much about those aspects of it, but they are a central part of the film and it could easily have been discussed entirely from such an ecological angle. More films than one might think are actually in one way or another about ecological themes, explicitly or implicitly, and across genres. A science fiction film like Them! (Gordon Douglas 1954), one of those 1950s films that are routinely claimed to be about the fear of Communism, is actually about self-inflicted environmental disaster, a harbinger of things to come. Legal dramas such as A Civil Action (Steven Zaillian 1998) and Erin Brockovich (Steven Soderbergh 2000) are about that. Antonioni's Red Desert (1964) too. One central theme in Pale Rider (Clint Eastwood 1985) is how large-scale mining destroys the environment and the livelihood of ordinary people. Still Life (Jia Zhangke 2006) is about the devastating consequences of the building of the Three Gorges Dam.

Films on these topics became more common in the late 1960s, in line with the growth of modern day environmental concerns and organisations. (I say modern movements because environmental concerns are much older, and became widespread at least in the late 19th century, which is also when the first modern environmental laws were enacted.) Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring came out in 1962 and was a key development in the current movement, and it also brought new awareness to earlier books on the subject such as Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, published in 1949. WWF was started, in Switzerland, in 1961, Greenpeace in 1971, in Canada. In the US Richard Nixon created EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, in 1970. (The very same organisation the Trump administration, such as it is, wants to close down or at least de-fund.) In the early 1970s there were a series of science fiction films with an environmental horror story as their basis, like Silent Running (Douglas Trumbull 1972) and Soylent Green (Richard Fleischer 1973). The latter is interesting because it is an early example of a film that deals with the consequences of climate change and the greenhouse effect.

It is easy to get the feeling that climate change awareness is relatively new, for some beginning with the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim 2006). But that awareness, while not necessarily public knowledge, was established much earlier than that. Consider for example the report that climate scientists gave to president Lyndon Johnson in 1965, called "Restoring the Quality of our Environment," which Johnson made public due to the gravity of its content and conclusions, which are not that different from what the consensus is among climate scientists today. (Read the part about global warming here.) In the late 1990 scientists also presented the United Nations with a report, which later led to none other than Shell Oil to make a documentary, Climate of Concern (1991), to warn about climate change. It was never released because the conclusions of it were obviously not in alignment with Shell's business interests. (Watch it here.)

But fiction films about climate change are considerably rarer than films about environmental issues in general, and they are inevitably science fiction films. Waterworld (Kevin Reynolds 1995) A.I. (Steven Spielberg 2001), Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho 2013), Interstellar (Christopher Nolan 2014) and at least three by Roland Emmerich, the doomsday auteur. But there is no need for a film about climate change to be set in the future. Climate change is happening now, and it is happening faster and faster.

There is now a growing interest in academia about films and the environment, especially in relation to climate change. The other week I listened to a talk about that, focused on mountains, called "Filming the mountain: the moving image and deep time in the Anthropocene" by Anna Sofia Rossholm from Linneaeus University. She discussed various ways of looking at mountains, both now and in the past, but also about different contemporary approaches to theorising about film and climate change, and how films can capture climate change and also how the act of making films also contributes to climate change. (Although you can offset it by for example going carbon neutral.) Within film studies and other disciplines there is a field called ecocinema (and variations thereof), which focuses on these topics. Some issues that are discussed are: how does films and filmmakers address climate change; how might films depict our effect on and relationship with our environment; which ways are the most effective to influence people and increase awareness. Alas, for many it seems to be just another excuse to regurgitate the usual suspects such as Heidegger, Foucault and Deleuze.

As a film historian I am not particularly knowledgeable about current green cinema, especially not when it comes to documentaries, but I imagine fiction mostly focus on how it affects us humans while documentaries also look at how it affects nature and the earth itself. But an eco-perspective is interesting when looking at film history too, as one important way among many others of looking at films from the recent and distant past.

At her talk, Rossholm mentioned the annoying habit of academics of constantly inventing new terms and then arguing about them rather than the actual reality of films (or the environment in this case). I am personally also not really on board with the term Anthropocene, as I feel it is too soon to baptise our present era. That should be for future scientists. But it is still better than other, more ideologically tendentious terms.

Here is a link to a recent article by Rossholm related to her talk (in Swedish only). Two edited collections on the subject: Ecocinema - Theory and Practice, edited by Stephen Rust, Salma Monani and Sean Cubitt (2012) and Framing the World: Explorations in Ecocriticism and Film, edited by Paula Willoquet-Maricondi (2010).

It is not just at universities that film and the environment are highlighted of course, there are many film festivals around the world with such a focus. Some are linked through the Green Film Network.


  1. You might be right in that movies about climate change are quite rare. Movies about how humans effect nature with radiation or toxins seems much more common. Maybe because I first came into contact with Them! through courses in environmental history, I have never thought about it as a movie about the fear of communism but the fear of radiation. Isn't radiation fear almost a sub genre in itself?

  2. Sounds like an interesting course. I think you could say that there is a recurring theme, in a variety of genres, of the fear of radiation.