Nature, Artifice, Infrastructure

Curator's Note

When we talk about the environment in film, we need not focus solely on films about environmental disaster. Rather, the Anthropocene framework opens up every film to ecological analysis. This poses a problem because the framework is too big and too general, but it also poses an opportunity because we can then reconsider all of film history from an ecological perspective. As we awaken to new forms of ecological thinking, it is time for a new understanding of cinema’s contributions to the troubled idea we still clumsily call "nature.” Bruno Latour has suggested that the concept Anthropocene should replace the term modernity. The urgency of present conditions demands this reframing, and much more.

Cinema is a machine with many devices for either foregrounding or camouflaging itself as human intervention. If highly artificial “outdoor” set design is an obvious component of film’s tendency to theatricalize nature (as in Vincente Minnelli’s 1954 Brigadoon), highly realistic renderings of nature shot on location are no less anthropogenic. While styles of cinematic realism change over time, a 1924 film called Yosemite Valley, made by the Ford Motor Company, makes for a good case study. Lee Grieveson has argued that the Ford Motor Company’s films worked in the service of capitalist hegemony, “a testament to the translation of surplus value into rhetoric. [1] Just as global capitalism has brought about environmental devastation, films such as this which seem to show only pretty pictures of nature reveal meanings very different from their images on screen.

This film follows generic conventions in showing vacationers in famous wilderness landscapes such as Bridalveil Falls and Overhanging Rock. But by foregrounding scenery, the film masks the roads, transportation, and technology that enables this comfortable recreation experience. The only thing betraying the film’s actual purpose – to promote the Ford Motor Company – is the logo that appears on each intertitle. Before this film could be made, a complex and violently imposed infrastructure had to be put in place, including the removal of indigenous Ahwahneechee people from their land, the federal designation of this land as a national park, and the landscape alterations required to build the park’s roads, trails, and campgrounds. By disavowing the imperialism, economic forces, and technologies underpinning the national parks, Yosemite Valley captures “nature” in the full flower of its contradiction.


[1] Lee Grieveson, “The Work of Film in the Age of Fordist Mechanization,” Cinema Journal 51:3 (Spring 2012), p. 28


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