This book can reasonably be described as marking the arrival of eco film criticism into mainstream film studies discourse. Over the past ten to fifteen years, the volume of books and articles concerned with film and the nonhuman world has grown considerably, but Ecocinema Theory and Practice is the first collection which tries to represent its true breadth. For those of us who regard ecocriticism as something of an untapped resource for film studies, this book’s presence in the AFI’s series of ‘Film Readers’ is welcome. However, the role of ambassador is not always a liberating one, and this collection, despite many highlights, unfortunately seems at times to be rather shackled – and even confused – by its status. Ecocinema will no doubt prove to be a valuable introduction to this subject for many readers, not least because of the generous pointers to other relevant literature which recur throughout. But by ‘covering the bases’ (topics range from avant-garde cinema and wildlife documentary to film festivals, ideology and film technology), Ecocinema is just as likely to leave readers unsure about the distinctiveness of an ecocritical approach to cinema.
A case in point here is Carter Soles’s chapter, “Sympathy for the Devil: The Cannibalistic Hillbilly in 1970s Rural Slasher Films”. Soles provides a broadly convincing analysis of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) and The Hills Have Eyes (Wes Craven, 1977), charting how each film uses figures of the disaffected rural poor to reflect “cultural anxieties about our own rape of the natural world”. (1) He historicizes the films with an interesting emphasis on President Nixon’s environmental policies, and it is refreshing to read a response to American horror cinema which does not assume the necessity of adopting a feminist and/or psychoanalytic approach. But is a shift in emphasis really enough? Soles’s conception of these films – expressions of subtle ideological resistance, in which point of view constructions play a key role – ultimately reverts to a tried-and-tested model of interpretive analysis. The basic argument is sound, but the ‘way in’ to the films does feel like a particularly fresh one. Similar criticisms could be made of Claire Molloy’s chapter on commercial wildlife films (which makes the somewhat underwhelming claim that Disney’s filmmaking and public-relations strategies are driven by profit) and Stephen Rust’s contribution, “Hollywood and Climate Change”. All three essays are thoughtful and reasonable responses to their chosen topics, but seem some way from constituting a new voice in cinema scholarship.
Any edited collection faces the challenge of balancing coherence and variety, but the issue is especially vexed in Ecocinema, caught as it is between proposing new and challenging conceptions of the medium, and judging the environmentalist value of films which broach ecological issues. Can the two happily – or productively – co-exist in the same volume? It is a problem reflected in the ambiguity of the book’s title: is “ecocinema” a category of films, or an approach to film study? The opening paragraphs of the introduction suggest the latter; they describe film as a medium which is inherently ecological, and one which deserves to be studied accordingly. But a number of chapters (including Scott Macdonald’s on American avant-garde film and Andrew Hageman’s on ecocinema and ideology) instead seem to characterize ecocinema as an accolade to be awarded to only those films which are progressive from an environmentalist perspective. In one of the book’s most conceptually rich chapters, David Ingram draws our attention to a separate (but related) contradiction at play. He diagnoses a kind of schizophrenia at work in eco film criticism, whereby scholars are caught between the aesthetic richness of (for example) a James Benning film and the potential reach of (for example) The Day After Tomorrow (Roland Emmerich, 2004): “What are the implications for the activist ambitions and aesthetic tastes of eco-film criticism if ‘bad’ art inspires people just as much as, if not more than, the ‘good’?” (p. 53). It is to be expected, indeed welcomed, that the “activist ambitions” throughout Ecocinema are inconsistent and varied. But because the editors are rather coy when it comes to orienting the book in this regard (the introduction refers to “certain misgivings over cinema’s ecological footprint” (p. 11)), there is a lingering doubt about the definition of ecocinema as a term, and thus the project as a whole.
The standout chapters are those which go beyond thematic interpretations. Pat Brereton’s essay on Into the Wild (Sean Penn, 2007), Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005) and Into the West (Mike Newell, 1992) at first glance seems to take three rather predictable case studies and contrast their nature narratives. However, as in his Hollywood Utopia (2), Brereton is quietly bold in his approach, placing a remarkable degree of faith in cinema’s capacity for wonder and hope (of the kind we might associate with Andre Bazin or Stanley Cavell), and Hollywood’s “somewhat tentative move towards a more provocative evocation of nonhuman agency” (p. 221). Adrian Ivakhiv’s chapter, “An Ecophilosophy of the Moving Image,” is perhaps the most ambitious in the book, and the one most firmly rooted in the belief that cinema has certain inherent, ontological qualities with regards to ecology and ecocriticsm. Ivakhiv recognizes the importance of attending to the film world and the film-earth relationship simultaneously. The model he develops to serve this purpose (three sets of triadic relationships, springing from Guattari’s “three ecologies”) is perhaps a little too neat, but the discussion is conceptually rich, and refreshingly clear in its tone. The only real regret here is the absence of application; Ivakhiv’s essay appeared in a longer form in Film Philosophy, a version in which a close analysis of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) plays a key role. Presumably there was not sufficient space here for the entire piece, which is a shame, but by no means a fundamental problem.
The structure of Ecocinema at times seems to suggest a kind of rough history of ecocritical film studies. It begins with chapter from two pioneering writers in the field (Scott MacDonald and David Ingram) and ends with two distinctly contemporary studies: Salma Monani’s survey of environmental film festivals and Sean Cubitt’s essay on data visualization. This last piece exhibits the best of Ecocinema; more than any other chapter, it navigates between the politics of environmentalism, film criticism and film theory in such a way as to generate genuinely original insights. Cubitt’s strength and originality as a thinker (ecocritically and otherwise) tends to be his theoretically imaginative take on technological phenomena, and this can sometimes make for a challenging reading experience. Here, however, his analysis of three Roland Emmerich films is remarkably lucid, especially considering the complexity of the ideas at hand. Cubitt makes a convincing case for how, in contemporary western media, data visualization and modelling (vital tools for communicating and comprehending climate change) are beginning to displace the humanist-realism which cinema scholars so regularly take for granted. It is something of a cliché for academics to conclude articles and conference papers with a call for future work along similar lines. In Cubitt’s chapter, and indeed throughout Ecocinema, those calls have a real sense of purpose about them; film studies, and film culture more generally, does need to expand its imagination with regards to the non-human world.
However, the timeliness of Ecocinema brings with it certain problems, namely a strangely incurious approach to cinema stretching back beyond a few decades. Of all the films discussed in any detail in Ecocinema, none were produced before 1970 (although Stephen Rust does provide a brief and imaginative ‘pre-history’ of climate change in cinema, stretching back to 1896!). Likewise, there is very little attention paid to those theorists and critics (such as Siegfried Kracauer and Sergei Eisenstein) who themselves grappled with the relationship between nature and film, but before the onset of mainstream environmentalism, climate change (as a popular concern) and ecocriticism. It is only right that an emerging approach to cinema would challenge and offer alternatives to the canons of film and film theory, but Ecocinema has perhaps overlooked the importance and value of refreshing our understanding of familiar and treasured work.
Likewise, the abundance of celebrated filmmakers to go unmentioned, despite their films’ rich ecocritical potential, certainly suggests a missed opportunity: Murnau, Dovzhenko, Renoir, Hou, Antonioni, Godard, Bergman, Angelopoulos, Jancso, Malick. Writing elsewhere, in an essay reflecting on his experiences teaching ecocriticism and cinema, Adrian Ivakhiv suggests that our interest should be “not only in what films show us, but also in how they show us these things and how this affects our ‘ways of seeing’ ourselves and our relationship to the nonhuman world”. (3) Ecocinema could perhaps do more to remind us that great films have done precisely this since the birth of the medium. And finally, the heavy emphasis on American cinema seems unnecessarily narrow. Some of these imbalances are flagged up in the introduction, but the reason given for focusing on First and Second Cinema – “to more deeply interrogate those ideas which have been central to the field’s development” (p.9) – rings hollow, as if arrived at after the fact. None of these niggles, however, will compromise the success or value of Ecocinema as a first port of call for students new to eco film criticism. And if these readers are left asking questions about the purpose or value or coherence of this approach, perhaps that is not such a bad thing after all.
Ecocinema Theory and Practice, eds. Stephen Rust, Salma Monani and Sean Cubitt (New York: Routledge, 2012).
- Carter Soles, “Sympathy for the Devil: The Cannibalistic Hillbilly in 1970s Rural Slasher Films,” in Ecocinema Theory and Practice, eds. Stephen Rust, Salma Monani and Sean Cubitt (New York: Routledge, 2012), p.248. Subsequent page references from the essays in this collection are included in the main text.
- Pat Brereton, Hollywood Utopia: Ecology in Contemporary American Cinema (Bristol: Intellect, 2004).
- Adrian Ivakhiv, “Teaching Ecocriticism and Cinema,” in Teaching Ecocriticism and Green Cultural Studies, ed. Greg Garrard (Baisingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p.146, emphasis in original.