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date: 28 June 2017

The Climate of Ecocinema

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication. Please check back later for the full article.

Ecocinema involves the human gaze looking at cinema through the lens of the environment, in a manner analogous to the way feminists provided the cinematic lens of gender in the 1970s. However, as with feminism, enormous differences pertain in regard to how the ecocinema lens is mobilized.

In analyzing films from the late 1800s to the early 21st century, ecocinema studies have evolved to include critical lines of inquiry from perspectives of psychology, feminism, socioeconomics, science, and activism. Research frames used in these inquiries include: setting and landscape in films, ecological analyses of mainstream and independent fictional films, posthuman cinematic representations, transnational and regional analyses, and more recently, trauma in speculative dystopian films. Ecocinema critics analyze films from a variety of genres, including Hollywood, independent, transnational, documentary, animated, art cinema, and especially climate fiction (“cli-fi”) films.

Ramachandra Guha’s transnational typology of environmental ideologies provides one useful starting place for our mapping of different perspectives in ecocinema. Guha distinguishes utopian wilderness environmentalism, pervasive in the United States, from the agrarian focus typical in India. Meanwhile, most developed nations utilize scientific industrial methods to exploit the environment. Oftentimes, these latter approaches are grounded in growth economies and are thus in conflict with the unrealistic ideals of so-called primitive environmentalism. Primitive environmentalism (PE) involves returning to simple, sustainable life-styles, within or living close to the natural world, without damaging it. PE is beloved by many but with the consensus that it is idealistic to consider going back to this way of life. A film like Avatar addresses the complexity of diverse constructions of nature by providing examples of utopian wilderness ideology that compete with and are opposed to the destructive scientific industrialism that disregards and dominates nature without compunction. Other films, such as Anne-Marie Sweeney’s Amazon Sisters (1992), Gayatri Roshan and Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee’s Elemental (2012), Sean Penn’s Into the Wild (2007), or Werner Herzog’s Grisly Man (2005), act as simultaneous celebrations and critiques of wilderness ideologies, and they deal with gender and racial identities, and thus are a central focus.

Although films from all genres have historically engaged the environment in a myriad of ways, such as Birt Acres’ Rough Sea at Dover (1895), the Lumière brothers’ Oil Wells of Baku (1896), Edwin Porter’s Sorting Refuse at Incinerating Plant, New York City (1903), and the British South Africa Company’s Rhodesia To-Day (1912), the genre that most often engages with the contemporary politics of climate change is the documentary. Documentaries, such as Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006), Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Ice (2012), Cosima Dannoritzer’s E-Waste Tragedy (2014), Michael Madsen’s Into Eternity (2010), Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes (2006), Avi Lewis’ This Changes Everything (2015), and many others, critique human damage to the planet and thus prompt viewers as ethical witnesses. Such works hope to influence the outcome of our shared anthropocentric future.

Throughout, our discussion will function on two distinct levels. On the macro-level, we look at how films represent climate dilemmas facing humans as a species. As background to mapping our texts, we rely on evolving science discourses as evidence for global warming, but with the understanding that this evidence relies itself on modeling. On the micro-level, we explore how gender, race, and class enter into the cultural work film fantasies perform. Though our main concern with this cultural work analyzes how climate change unequally impacts gender, race, and class, these inequalities also reveal the politics of climate change evident in cinematic treatments of the issue. Our treatment of ecocinema includes important new approaches coming from cognitive and affect studies, which will be discussed in relation to prior psychoanalytic tools, such as trauma, being introduced into ecocinema.