Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Enviro-toons and Environmental History: Crossing Studios, Crossing Approaches to Ecology

Enviro-toons and Environmental History: Crossing Studios, Crossing Approaches to Ecology

The genre of animation (and animated shorts) gains power because it challenges expectations of art, film, and narrative. The best animated films “offer the greatest potential for expressing a variety of divergent points of view, while at the same time accommodating a dominant paradigm of established social meaning” (Wells Animation and America 13). Studios may resist or subvert the aesthetic and ideological orthodoxy associated with Disney, but they challenge aesthetic as well as ideological expectations through their negotiated resolutions between dominant and subversive views of social mores. The following brief analysis discusses representative animated shorts and demonstrates the often subtle but nonetheless powerful ecological messages conveyed within them from this period. Keeping in mind that the historical and cultural contexts in which these cartoons were produced vary, we argue that ultimately, beliefs about technology, consumerism, and the natural are reflected in, and sometimes critiqued by, enviro-toons. 

Of the enviro-toons we viewed, most demonstrate the power of nature over the human world. These more traditional cartoons seem to be a by-product of the ongoing conflict between “the machine and the natural” (Klein 79). Industrialization widened the gap between nature and culture, between humans and the natural world. Nature, then, was seen as either a resource to be exploited or an “enemy” to be controlled.  Some early Felix the Cat cartoons foreground this reemphasized nature/culture binary when they show how stormy weather can spoil a picnic (April Maze (1930). April Maze seems to anticipate New Deal programs that saw nature as a powerful force needing both respect and taming. Tennessee Valley Authority projects, for example, promoted a system of dams to control flooding on big rivers—and to bring electricity to the rural poor. Michael Barrier explains that Otto Messmer, the cartoon’s director, “never let his audience forget that Felix was as artificial as his environment” (Hollywood Cartoons 45), but in April Maze, nature is effectively portrayed as a powerful force that the more human-like Felix cannot conquer. 

Cartoons from the 1940s, too, reflected this conflict between humans and the natural world. Perhaps as a reaction to World War II, however, superheroes like Superman fought natural elements and won. Norman Klein concurs, suggesting that the world war had just as much of an impact on cartoons as did Hollywood movies like film noir and screwball comedies (183). The Superman series from this period seems to reflect this impact most visibly. They also exaggerate the machina versatilis, ”updat[ing] an old theme of theirs, the film screen as machine” (Klein 86). According to Klein, “The entire screen seems to be made of steel, like a machine housed in black, corrugated metal, with gray canyons beneath skyscrapers, and diabolical machines instead of ghouls” (86). In this mechanized context, the cartoons place Superman as superior to elements in the natural world. In the opening to most of the cartoons, Superman masters lightning and other elements like those in April Maze. And in Volcano (1942) Superman stops a volcanic eruption to save Lois Lane and the town below. Superman always comes out victorious, an argument in favor of the Allies’ own victory over the Germans. The war provided the industrial background of a Modernist world in which technologies (and humans) triumph over nature.

Several Walt Disney cartoons from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s highlight this sustained conflict between humans (or anthropomorphized animal figures) and the natural world, unsurprising coming from this more conservative studio. Flowers and Trees (1932) foregrounds idyllic nature’s triumph over an evil anthropomorphized tree stump. As the first color short from Disney, Flowers and Trees won an Academy Award with its Technicolor dancing trees and flowers, romantic tree love story, and jealousy. But the tree stump’s jealous rage is thwarted by birds, which literally put out his fire. The tree stump clearly represents the evil human world, since his tongue is a snake and his goal is to destroy the tree lovers and their forest. In the end, the stump destroys himself and reinforces his non-flora status, since vultures encircle his corpse.

Four Disney cartoons that feature Donald Duck and Chip an’ Dale highlight the power of nature over the human world—or at least the human-like world of Donald Duck, all in relation to the chipmunks saving their nuts: Chip an’ Dale (1947), Out on a Limb (1950), Out of Scale (1951), and Dragon Around (1954). This approach to ecology continues in feature length films from Disney and other studios, from Alice in Wonderland (1951) to The Daydreamer (1966), The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977), The Little Mermaid (1989), and Lilo and Stitch (2002). All of these cartoons emphasize the power of nature over the human (or anthropomorphized animal) world and suggest that economic approaches to ecology blossomed during this pre- and post-World War II industrial era and continued into the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Where Life Begins: Documenting the Arctic as Home

Where Life Begins: Documenting the Arctic as Home

Robin L. Murray and Joseph K. Heumann

Recent Arctic environmental documentaries such as James Balog’s Academy Award nominated Chasing Ice (2012) and geologist Simon Lamb’s Thin Ice  (2013) show audiences the Arctic as a blank space important primarily because its changing ice serves as evidence of climate change. Although these films may provide compelling images, for us, documentaries counteracting this Arctic mythology by highlighting Arctic indigenous cultures provide much more effective assertions against policies that destroy the environment. Being Caribou (2005), Vanishing Point (2012), and The Sacred Place Where Life Begins: Gwich’in Women Speak (2013) argue powerfully and convincingly against environmental exploitation by bringing indigenous viewpoints and voices to the fore.

Directed by and starring two white Canadians, Being Caribou seems to merely frame its arguments against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with indigenous voices. In Being Caribou, Leanne Allison films her and husband Karsten Heuer’s journey behind a herd of 120,000 caribou to and from the Refuge in Alaska. The conclusion of the film, however, inserts the voices and perspectives of the Gwich’in whose lives depend on the caribou. After a disappointing response from Congress when they share the film, Heuer searches for ways to “make the story of these caribou resonate” and concludes “maybe the answer is to work from the bottom up and not just from the top down.” Shots of Gwich’in Indians protesting the Refuge oil drilling illustrate what this change might mean, and their Gwich’in host Randall Tetlichi’s voice ends the film: respect all life, “plant life, animal life,
bird life,” and, most importantly, the caribou.

Narrated by Greenland Polar Eskimo Navarana K'Avigak, Vanishing Point contrasts the worlds of Greenland Arctic indigenous populations from those of her ancestor Shaman’s Canadian Inuits on Baffin Island. In Vanishing Point, the Arctic is alive with both nonhuman and human life, but Navarana’s way of life is threatened by innovations from the “South” and human-caused climate change causing “the world [to] melt under our feet.” In Greenland, “the ice is different from how it used to be,” but the methods of survival exclude gasoline-powered snowmobiles and boats, choosing instead to use sled dogs and kayaks. Canada’s Inuit, on the other hand, eat “Southern” sugar and drive gasoline-powered vehicles. Ultimately, Navarana chooses her Greenlander way, not because “it’s tradition or looks pretty” but because it just makes sense. It conserves the lives they know and love.

The Sacred Place Where Life Begins gives Gwich’in women activists a space in which to condemn oil drilling in the Refuge and advocate for the caribou. As multiple Gwich’in women explain, they have been caribou people for thousands of years, and their lives and culture depend on the caribou. Oil drilling will disturb the caribou life cycle and disrupt their migration. To amplify this point, the film draws on a history of oil spills and species annihilation. All three of these films make powerful arguments for environmental conservation because they give voice to Arctic peoples. The Arctic is not a desolate end of the world but a home.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Greening of The Film Industry and the Independent Environmental Filmmaker

The “greening” of film production distribution and exhibition had been jump-started by the success of digital films and 3D blockbusters such as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II (2011) (1.3 billion in worldwide ticket sales) and Avatar (2009) (2.75 billion in worldwide ticket sales). This success now forces far greater beneficial environmental results throughout the whole process of filmmaking and film viewing. The digital age may reduce the carbon footprint of film companies in major ways that are still being calculated. Although, as Alimurang suggests, the shift to digital will have negative consequences for independent theatres, projectionist jobs, and classic film distribution, it may also help “green” the movie business.

Digital filmmaking also makes it possible to produce low-budget independent films.  The digital cinematography used in the powerful anti-mountaintop removal mining films of B.J. Gudmundsson and the humorous call to address climate change found in Jon Cooksey’s How to Boil a Frog lower their budgets, making them more financially feasible to produce and distribute. Even larger budget documentaries such as The Last Mountain and Blue Vinyl lower production costs using digital filmmaking processes. Technologies such as digital cameras, computer generated editing for both image and sound have made the whole process of filmmaking truly democratic. 

Yet making those films accessible to a wider audience creates other economic and financial problems. New York Times reporter Nancy Ramsey highlights the hidden costs of documentaries in her exploration of Jonathan Caouette’s distribution experience with Tarnation (2003). Although the film cost as little as $218 to make, once the film gained distribution, costs exceeded $500 thousand, with rights to the music included in the film accounting for $230 thousand of the total. The difficulty attaining distribution also limits low-budget documentaries’ accessibility. Peter Judson’s Nobody Wants Your Film (2005) provides a, sometimes, comic perspective on the problems director Alexandre Rockwell and writer Brandon Cole face when attempting to market their film, Thirteen Moons. Nobody Wants Your Film collects and augments footage shot on the set of Thirteen Moons, as well as a series of interviews with cast and crew members and e-mails between Rockwell and possible distributors to provide a semi-fictionalized story of difficulties gaining distribution, illustrating the problem many of the films explored here face when their films are only available through a small distributor’s website.

Of the twelve mountaintop removal mining films we watched, for example, only two gained a wide release: Coal Country, as a regional festival favorite, was broadcast on PBS in the fall of 2009, perhaps because it was directed by Mari-Lynn Evans and Phylis Geller, the filmmakers who brought The Appalachians to PBS in 2005. With Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. at its center, Bill Haney’s The Last Mountain acquired a limited theatrical release after premiering at the Sundance and Seattle Film Festival. Another documentary examining mountaintop removal mining, On Coal River (2010) is becoming a festival favorite like Coal Country and The Last Mountain, but it has chosen a different distribution route: iTunes. The film is available as a DVD for schools, libraries, and universities, but individual films are only available through the iTunes library. Even though only two of these films have found limited distribution success, however, all twelve draw on the experiences of the nearly the same anti-MTR activists, including Maria Gunnoe, Joe Lovett, and especially, (before her death), Julia/Judy Bonds. They also all highlight MTR incidents primarily in and near Boone County, West Virginia, even though other parts of Appalachia are suffer the results of MTR, including Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, and other counties in West Virginia. 

Which brings us back to the original question: Can the film industry and environmental movements mix? With cautious optimism, we can give only a qualified “yes” to the new attempts because of the enormous energy expenditures used to create film and the yet uncalculated waste levels associated with its distribution and exhibition.  Hollywood film studios are making the move to “green,” partially because of economic issues, partly because of California’s environmental laws which regulate greenhouse gas emissions more stringently than the federal government, and partly because Hollywood film stars from George Clooney to Leonardo DiCaprio demand it.  As the Warner Brothers website declares, “It takes creativity to entertain the world while conserving resources on our planet.”

Friday, March 20, 2015

Animal and Insect Body Modification and Film

Although many claim only humans decorate their bodies, the animal kingdom also uses art for seduction or protection. For example, the multiple species of the male bowerbird build bowers consisting “of a thatched twig tunnel forming an avenue” decorated with bones, shells, berries, nuts, and stones the male displays to potential mates. They arrange the objects in regular patterns, creating an illusion that seems to increase their size, according to biologists Laura Kelly and John Endler. The bowers are works of art meant only for seducing female bowerbirds, not for nesting and clearly require objects external to the birds to build them. David Attenborough’s documentary, Bowerbirds: The Art of Seduction (2012) highlights the behaviors of multiple species of bowerbirds and demonstrates how deliberately the birds place their artifacts. In one scene, for example, Attenborough moves objects, and a male bowerbird immediately replaces it.

Other animals decorate their bodies rather than create external bowers. Sandhill Cranes preen their feathers with mud, turning their gray bodies red or brown during spring and summer. The purpose behind the preening may be related to breeding because it ends when the feathers molt in the fall. And the looper caterpillar ornaments its body with plant parts from the flowers on which it is feeding. According to Dr. Miklos Treiber, the loopers change the flower parts when they move to another flower, as well. Here the plant pieces act as camouflage. Dr. Treibe hypothesized that the looper’s ability to change disguises allows it to have a much more varied diet than some other caterpillars because it isn’t restricted to eating only those flowers or plant parts that it resembles in appearance. Multiple videos document the looper’s amazing camouflage.

Bringing to mind the action movie RoboCop (1987) and its 2014 remake, Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium (2013) shows some of the positive outcomes of body modification that line up with those used by the looper caterpillar: self-defense.  Max (Matt Damon) is fused with a robotic exoskeleton to defend himself rather than disguise his body, but the purpose behind his choice are similar. Using one character’s plight in a post-apocalyptic future, the film condemns huge disparities between rich and poor and the environmental and social problems they promote. As in Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009), Earth has become an environmental disaster plagued by overpopulation and the crime and starvation it produces. Only the rich can escape the polluted planet by purchasing access to an orbiting space station with forests, green lawns, golf courses, and oversized homes—shown in glorious CGI. And only a human machine can bridge the gap between rich and poor they enforce.

Despite the film’s failure to address environmental racism and justice issues on Earth, Elysium provides an optimistic view of technology and the cyborg as a solution to at least some of the externalities human overconsumption has created. Although Elysium does not address the environmental degradation on Earth’s surface, we assume the robots that once controlled humans will now clean up their waste. Despite the film’s confusing plotline, it demonstrates how humans (especially men) may benefit from merging with technology. By donning a mechanical exoskeleton, Max saves those he loves, freeing Earth’s poor in the process. Like the looper caterpillar’s added flowers, an external body modification helps Max thwart a despotic government. He may not survive, but his friends will.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Changing Image of American Indians in Film

On July 4, 1898, Quanah Parker asserted, "We fear your success. This was a pretty country you took away from us--but you see how dry it is now. It is only good for red ants, coyotes, and cattlemen." This is the country we see in Western films. Although American Indians and the American landscape were portrayed sympathetically in silent films such as The Red Girl (1908), Hiawatha (1913), The Daughter of Dawn (1920), and The Vanishing American (1925), in most later Westerns these representations primarily turned savage. According to Scott Simmon, they devolve along two paths, "one about war, the other about love--neither leading anywhere except Indian death" (4, 80, 81). Films highlighting Quanah Parker such as Comanche (dir. Carl Krueger, 1956) and The Searchers (dir. John Ford, 1956) illustrate this change. It is only when they are constructed by American Indian filmmakers such as Chris Eyre and Sherman Alexie that representations of American Indians regain authenticity and serve as more powerful critiques of environmental degradation.

Westerns as a genre tend to focus on Plains Indian tribes, the nomadic tribes in the plains settlers crossed to reach the West, with little distinction between tribes. But the films also respond to film history, a history that coincides with political and cultural history of both Hollywood and the United States as a whole. According to Simmon, “Indians may well have entered American film for the reason they came into the European tradition as a whole: Searching for stories to set in the landscape, pioneer filmmakers stumbled upon ‘Indians,’ the presumed men of nature” (4). Set in Eastern lush forests instead of desert plains, the narratives of these early silent westerns “are set entirely within tribal communities or feature a ‘noble redskin’ as guide or savior to the white hero” (4).

By 1914, however, Simmon asserts, American Indian actors and sympathetic narratives were no longer prominent in westerns at least partly because the “U. S. Army began planning, with some innocence, for America’s entry into World War I by requisitioning horses” (80). According to Simmon, “The subsequent history of Indian images in silent-era Hollywood becomes a story with two paths—one about war, the other about love—neither leading anywhere except Indian death” (81).  In spite of Simmon’s contention, at least a few westerns highlighting American Indian characters and narratives present a more sympathetic view of a possible comic evolutionary narrative, a narrative of environmental adaptation that reveals the ineffectiveness of a tragic evolutionary path and the intruder pioneers who seek destruction rather than adaptation. 

The Daughter of Dawn, for example, romanticized Native American culture and lifestyle, as did In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914), Hiawatha (1913), shot by F.E. Moore's production company, The Vanishing Race, a 1917 film made by the Edison Studios, and Before the White Man Came (1920) which employed Crow Indians and Cheyenne Indians as actors. The film cast is entirely Native American, with over 300 people from the Comanche and Kiowa tribes in the film including White Parker, as lead actor, and Wanada Parker. They were the children of Quannah Parker. The cast wore their own clothing and brought their own personal items to the film, including tepees. No matter how noble a savage the American Indians might be, however, they cannot assimilate into western culture and must be removed to reservations or destroyed. American Indians, like other human and nonhuman nature, must be exploited for gain or, if they limit the construction of civilization, annihilated. These films reinforce the destiny of forced environmental change and eradicate the possibility of an alternative, a narrative of environmental adaptation.