Ecocinema: Notes on Chapter 1

This week I asked you to read Ecocinema Theory and Practice, Chapter 1, “The ecocinema experience,” by Scott MacDonald. As usual I am responding to sections that most students were interested in or wanted explained, am working through the chapter chronologically, and putting names of students next to sections they asked about.

I ought to have said this sooner, but please have a copy of the text open as you read this page, so that you can see the context of the particular quotes. I also want people to keep in mind that these critical readings represent ways of thinking and philosophies rather than a set of truths – in Haraway’s words these are ideas to think with.

… 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.” p 19 Spencer

  • This is part of a longer thought which starts with MacDonald talking about the loss of natural landscapes, the way they are preserved in park systems so that people can enjoy them, and the extent to which this consumption of beauty may in itself contribute to its destruction.
  • Here he moves to consider the question of preserving landscapes by filming them in a particular slow and immersive style.
  • The “we” referred to are the film-makers who embrace this style. MacDonald is speaking for them, this is not necessarily what he thinks but what the work of these “… moving-image artists seems to say...” p 19.

“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”. p20 Lingjia, Madison, Ethan, Zachary, Nazifa

  • MacDonald is defining the job of ecocinema by saying first what it isn’t then what it is.
  • He says conventional Hollywood type films cannot do the job. An example from this course would be Mad Max:Fury Road Indeed several of you suggested that many people would not see the environmental message for the action-packed car chase.
  • He says a conventional documentary cannot do the job. Examples from this course would be Chasing Coral and Beautiful Minds: James Lovelock. Several of you pointed out problems and contradictions with these films.
  • The films, he thinks can do the job offer an alternative to media-spectatorship – i.e. to the way we watch films. They change the way we act.
  • This transformation in the way we relate to film might put us into a different mind-frame that is more environmentally conscious and activist.

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.” p 20 Alex

  • The crucial words here are “film studies” – in the context of recent academic discussion of film, and of art in general, complex concepts are usually valued over the merely beautiful.
  • MacDonald is going to make a defense of beauty (see below) – he starts this way because he is not writing in a vacuum, he is setting his argument in the context of existing thought.
  • He continues by criticizing the way beauty is used in advertising to promote consumption and conventional thinking, but then says …

… 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.” p 20. Roman

  • He wants to say that, beauty filmed in the slow and meditative way he is promoting rather than in the fast-paced consumption model of most media, can change our perceptual habits.
  • These changes in the way we perceive and therefore act may take place both in media and the real world.
  • Because all this is going on at the level of affect, beneath the level of conscious thought, it does not reveal a polemical goal i.e. an obvious political or environmental message.

..color brings additional laboratory difficulties— but, on at least one level, the choice of color is paradoxical and quite relevant for this discussion. In the popular mind color imagery is seen as, almost by definition, more beautiful than black-and-white imagery” p 24, Liam W.

  • Hutton, the film-maker talked about here, is known for his black and white work, and the paradox is that in this film he chose to use color.
  • Hutton would be well-aware of the discussions and valuation of “beauty” and because he was part of the avant-garde would not want to reach for an easy beauty fix.

It is its unusually serene pace that allows for a reading of Time and Tide that one can call environmentalist. Hutton’s gaze is not relentlessly polemical, except in its duration (and in the solemnity, or at least seriousness, conferred upon the imagery by Hutton’s use of a tripod and his refusal of camera movement other than that provided by the barges, tugs, and tankers he films from).” p 26 Anthony C

  • Time and Tide might not appear to be about environmentalism except that it uses the film style of slow takes to immerse the viewer in the landscape.
  • The content of the film is not obviously polemical, political or environmental. It is only the form that carries this message.
  • Hutton’s work exemplifies the kind of film-making that insists each frame is worth looking at for a long time, rather than offering fleeting shots that move restlessly from thing to thing.

I believe that Benning means to model the idea that there are times when we must rearrange our lives in order to deal with a pressing issue.” p 34 Genevieve

  • Just before this quote, MacDonald says that Benning prefers to show the trilogy of films (El Valley Centro, Los, Sogobi) together.
  • MacDonald suggests that this is to make the audience commit more time to the films than we usually allot to movie-going.
  • The idea modeled is that we should rearrange our lives to accommodate the importance of environmental issues, rather than expecting the environment to accommodate us.