Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Vanishing American (1925) and The Miracle Rider (1935): Pre-World War II Narratives of Environmental Adaptation

Unlike Western literature, Western films tend to focus on Plains Indian tribes, the nomadic tribes in the plains settlers crossed to reach the West, with little distinction between tribes. 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 Scott Simmon, American Indians were at the center of many early silent westerns, from The Red Girl (1908) to Hiawatha (1913). 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. Although racially flawed, The Vanishing American (1925) and The Miracle Rider (1935) serve as two western films prior to World War II, which draw on this more sympathetic perspective.

The Vanishing American traces a history of domination of American Indians by pioneering intruders, including that of Booker (Noah Beery) a white Indian agent overseeing a Navajo reservation where he mistreats the Navajo and steals their horses. Nophaie (Richard Dix), an educated Navajo who fought in World War I, is torn between his people and his white teacher, Marion Warner (Lois Wilson), when he returns from the war, and ultimately is sacrificed as he fights against Booker to regain his people’s dignity. Miscegenation is avoided because of Nophaie’s death, but the film’s prologue, especially, foregrounds a history of conquest, one that is lamented even if painted as inevitable in the film.

The Miracle Rider, a Tom Mix serial, opens with a chapter that is also dedicated to the “Vanishing Indian.” The episode provides historical background that bifurcates American Indians willing to adapt to their environment from their white opponents, demonstrating how a tragic evolutionary narrative destroys both American Indians and their hunting grounds. They both valorize a comic evolutionary narrative, one from a silent big budget western perspective, the other from a small budget western serial point of view, but they both also demonstrate the futility of such a valorization.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Dances With Wolves and the Evolutionary Narrative

Hailed as groundbreaking because of its sympathetic portrayal of American Indians, Dances with Wolves (1991) follows a pattern similar to that found in Jeremiah Johnson (1972), where a white American goes native, embracing and in the process co-opting American Indian culture and attitudes toward environmental adaptation. Sherman Alexie calls this “cultural appropriation” a threat to American Indian sovereignty. In the context of Dances with Wolves, such cultural appropriation serves as a threat to the Sioux Indians’ very survival. John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) penetrates the Siouxs’ homes, families, and culture as a brother, but he represents the military that will soon force the tribe’s banishment to the West. Before the film’s end, however, the narrative of environmental adaptation follows an evolutionary pattern: rebellion against and rejection of U.S. culture and movement west, discovering American Indians on the plains, gaining sympathy for Sioux culture and internalizing their ideology, and clashing with the dominant culture they left behind.

For us, the narrative in Dances with Wolves harkens back to Run of the Arrow (1957) in which Pvt. O’Meara (Rod Steiger) leaves the defeated Confederacy, joins the Sioux as an ex-soldier and takes an American Indian wife. Both films reverse the narrative of environmental adaptation by inserting a sympathetic white soldier as protagonist. In both movies, however, this evolutionary narrative fails because white intruders either banish or exterminate the Sioux. In spite of the two soldiers’ initial sympathy for the American Indians that adopt them, intruding pioneers dominate the narrative. As Meeker argues: “No human has ever known what it means to live in a climax ecosystem [in which human and nonhuman nature thrive], at least not since the emergence of consciousness which has made us human. We have generally acted the role of the pioneer species, dedicating ourselves to survival through the destruction of all our competitors and to achieving effective dominance over other forms of life” (162). In Run of the Arrow and Dances with Wolves, on the other hand, the Sioux and the white men they adopt are constructed as thriving members of a climax ecosystem that dissolves only when the pioneers, the cavalry, intervene.

In Run of the Arrow, O’Meara refuses to return home after the Civil War and pledge his allegiance to the Union with whom he had been fighting as a Southerner. He rejects the Union and flees to the West, meeting a tribe of Sioux who adopt him. He marries Yellow Moccasin (Sara Montiel) and lives peacefully with the Sioux until the cavalry begins building a fort on their land. This invasion into the Sioux paradise disturbs the evolutionary narrative O’Meara had been following. In the end, the cavalry defeat the Sioux in battle. O’Meara rejoins the white military and helps defeat his adopted “family.”

John Dunbar of Dances with Wolves rejects the civilization of the eastern United States when he asks to be reassigned to a western fort. His major (Maury Chaykin) asks him, “You wish to see the frontier?” And Dunbar answers, “Yes, sir, before it’s gone,” a subtle critique of the destruction in the West and of its resources by white settlers. He then encounters Sioux near his abandoned fort and records his observations in a journal, all reported in his voiceover narration. With each meeting, Dunbar gains more sympathy for the tribe. In one early entry, Dunbar notes, “Nothing I have been told about these people is correct. They are not thieves or beggars. They are not the bogeyman they are made out to be. On the contrary, they are polite guests and I enjoy their humor.”

Before the end of Dunbar’s evolutionary narrative, he has adopted an American Indian worldview. As Kicking Bird (Graham Greene) asserts of Dunbar’s transformation, “I was just thinking of all the trails in this life, there are some that matter most. It is the trail of a true human being. I think you are on this trail, and it is a good one.” Ten Bears (Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman) even tells Dunbar, when Dunbar expresses concern about the cavalry’s hunt for him, “The white man the soldiers are looking for no longer exists. Now there is only a Sioux named Dances with Wolves.”
Ultimately, however, the narrative breaks down because whites, like intruding pioneers, threaten to wipe out the Sioux and their land. The cavalry does find Dunbar and arrest him for desertion, but he escapes and, like the Sioux, vanishes into the wilderness, taking Stands With a Fist (Mary McDonnell) with him. Unlike the Sioux, however, Dunbar and Stands With a Fist are white and can integrate easily into white culture. The Sioux, however, must contend with white men whose numbers are, as Dunbar explains, “like the stars.”

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Greatest Game Ever Played (2005) and the Aesthetics of Grass

The Greatest Game Ever Played (2005) reflects the precise attention to detail expected from Disney. With intricate care, the film recreates a turn-of-the twentieth century context, bringing to life a Massachusetts working class world that features Francis Ouimet’s unlikely 1913 win at the U.S. Open. The film foregrounds Shia LaBeouf as Francis Ouimet first as a boy living across from a golf course in Brookline, Massachusetts where he works as a caddy, and then as a young man working in a retail shop in 1913 but eventually choosing to play for a spot in the U.S. Open. Like earlier golf films, The Legend of Bagger Vance (2005) and Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius (2004) The Greatest Game Ever Played (2005) precisely reconstructs almost every aspect of the period in which the film is set. The Greatest Game Ever Played (2005) shows us the costumes, cars, houses, and even golf clubs of the period from the 1890s to 1913, but it fails to maintain historical accuracy on two counts: lawns and golf course greens. The Greatest Game Ever Played maintains historical accuracy except when it comes to the grass aesthetic. Such a view of grass is so deeply engrained that we now consider a perfect lawn and golf green natural. 

Director Bill Paxton sees The Greatest Game Ever Played (2005) as a film unlike other golf films, especially The Legend of Bagger Vance and Bobby Jones, Stroke of Genius. Shia LaBeouf, the film’s star (who played Francis Ouimet) claims Paxton told him to “Go watch The Legend of Bagger Vance because that’s exactly what we’re not going to make” (quoted in Murray). According to LaBeouf, “That’s slow and drawn out. That’s somebody filming golf. It’s not somebody in the mind of a golfer filming that” (quoted in Murray). Paxton argues that he was “not doing [our movie] that way. We’re not shooting this as a golf movie. It’s a cowboy [movie], a shootout. It’s not a ball; it’s your life. That’s not a club; it’s your weapon” (quoted in Murray). 

The Greatest Game Ever Played (2005) seeks to set itself apart from earlier films by replicating golfing sequences through hard work and training. Unlike the earlier films in which stars Matt Damon and Jim Caviezel trained only for two or three weeks, Shia LaBeouf (with Paxton’s inspiration) wanted to “really golf,” so he trained for six months, working with the UCLA golf team and golfing with avid golfers of various ages. In The Greatest Game Ever Played, historical accuracy includes the game itself—all except the lawns and golf greens throughout the film. In fact, Roger Ebert even admits, “I have no idea if the movie is based, stroke for stroke, on the actual competition at the 1913 U.S. Open. I guess I could find out, but I don’t want to know. I like it that way.”   

Bill Paxton and Mark Frost worked together on the sets of The Greatest Game Ever Played so that it “didn’t have that nostalgic, sepia-toned glow of so many period movies—the kind that make it look as though the film was shot through a jar of honey. We wanted to take a different, grittier approach, they explain. To get this effect, they drew from a “book of old depression-era WPA photographs called Bound for Glory” that Bill Paxton perused. According to Paxton, “the photos were taken on early color Kodachrome film and they had a very stark, very realistic, feel to them. And this was the same look we decided we wanted for the film.”

Paxton applied this strategy to the golfing scenes, as well, setting the film apart from other golf movies. He not only ensured that the golfers in the film could play the game, but that the camera angles highlighted their competition rather than getting “caught up” in what Paxton calls “the pastoral nature of the sport.” In the production notes, Paxton describes in detail how he and the director of cinematography, Shane Hurlbut attempted “to capture the same kind of high-contrast resolution they’d admired in the [kodachrome] photographs” and how they used the camera work to recreate the various golfer’s differing psychological game. The goal for scenes on the golf course was to translate a Western-style gunfight into a golf shootout. According to Paxton, “the timing and the sense of framing really echo that style. And then we go in with a tight Sergio Leone-type close-up to enhance the feeling.” 

What they don’t do, however, is attempt to provide an historically accurate view of the course grasses.  Before World War II, turf technology could not provide the grasses on display in The Greatest Game Ever Played. Tom Fazio provides an overview of golf course design history in his Golf Course Designs that makes it clear that golf course architects have “learned to make experience, education, and technology work for us in ways [Alister] Mackenzie [golf architect from the 1920s and1930s] and his generation could scarcely have imagined” (64). During this classic period, Fazio asserts that “nature made [classic architects’] decision for them” (77). For example, during this period “storm drainage was not a part of course design. Everything surface drained. Floods came and were tolerated. People waited for the water to run off” (Fazio 77). The rain sequence in The Greatest Game Ever Played (2004), on the other hand, suggests that play can continue no matter how wet the courses become.

Not only does the film fail to recreate the grasses available before 1946 (and the technology for maintaining it). It also fails to accurately depict courses of the period, a period in which nature was emphasized above artificial surfaces that aided play. Settings for The Greatest Game Ever Played can serve as an effective example of how what was depicted in the film fails to line up with what golf courses of the period looked like. Although the film is shot in Quebec, Canada (primarily to save money), it recreates the streets of Brookline, Massachusetts and passes off golf courses in the Montreal area as The Country Club at Brookline. The golf course at Brookline hosted Francis Ouimet’s U.S. Open win in 1913, but its architectural history looks like a hodge podge rather than a plan. According to Thomas MacWood, the course evolved over a period from 1893, when the first six holes were laid out, until 1913, when Francis Ouimet won the U.S. Open. 

Both technology and aesthetics, then, contributed to golf course appearance before World War II, an appearance historical golf films such as The Greatest Game Ever Played fail to replicate, all because grass lawns and golf courses have become so naturalized that they are seen as an essential given rather than a literal and social construction.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Hellstrom Chronicle: Turning Insects into Monsters

The Hellstrom Chronicle: Turning Insects into Monsters

            With the 1971 Academy Award for Best Documentary, The Hellstrom Chronicle connects amazing micro-documentary footage with a cautionary voiceover from Dr. Hellstrom. The film’s faux documentary stance, however, is complicated by its confusing rhetorical message that warns of mass elimination due to destructive environmentally disastrous practices performed by insects at the micro-level, without threatening their own survival. Although The Hellstrom Chronicle begins by contrasting the human world with that of insects and approaches its subject for varied purposes, it ultimately contends through its narrative and visual rhetoric, "Is it possible that these creatures are us?” 

Perhaps in an attempt to warn humanity about the negative consequences of their own exploitation of the natural world, the film constructs insects as monsters first by highlighting characteristics that Stephen R. Kellert suggests promote fear in humans, but those traits may also draw on the qualities shared by the most horrific versions of ourselves. By emphasizing these fear-inducing characteristics, the film seems not only to warn humanity about insects seeming invulnerability, but also to attribute their possible dominance in the world to humanity’s own mistreatment of the natural world. If we continue to destroy our environment, the film suggests, our species will be usurped by the insect world. Despite the film’s attempts to separate humans and insects, however, its narrative and film footage suggest insects will inherit the earth not because they are superior to humans but because they are just like us. Drawing on all levels of anthropomorphism proposed by Persson, Laaksolahti, and Lonnquist, the film constructs insects as monsters by highlighting their primitive psychological qualities, their connection to human folk-psychology, their traits and “dispositions,” the social roles they play, and the emotions they both display and produce.

The film first applies the primitive psychology level of anthropomorphism, highlighting insects’ drive to fulfill their basic needs aligns with that of humans. Hellstrom claims, “In fighting the insect we have killed ourselves, polluted our water, poisoned our wildlife, permeated our own flesh with deadly toxins. The insect becomes immune, and we are poisoned. In fighting with superior intellect, we have outsmarted ourselves.” Yet that so-called immunity is based on one element humans and insects share: “only humans and insects as species are on the increase.” Man radically changes the earth, and insects adapt to any changes man can make, Hellstrom declares, yet his attempts to separate humans from the insect world fall flat because he bases his arguments that insects will inherit the earth on their similarity to humans.

Even when making claims about differences between these two worlds, Hellstrom grounds his arguments in demonstrations of their similarities. For example, Hellstrom discusses insect traits in relation to those of humans, maintaining that the society of bees is perfect because it is based on cooperation rather than competition and “individual need,” so that “in [this] cooperative society, the fate of each is the destiny of all.”  Since both individuality and cooperation are human traits and dispositions, connecting them to insects anthropomorphizes them on the level of traits, a higher level than that of primitive psychology.

Hellstrom also draws on the folk-psychology level of anthropomorphism when describing cooperative behavior of insects. At the same time Hellstrom separates bees from humans because of their perfect cooperative culture, he connects the cooperative harvest ants to human farmers when he suggests they are “the first to take steps toward agriculture,” a parallel that aligns with folk-psychology. Hellstrom draws on both traits and folk-psychology anthropomorphism when he maintains that these insects’ “instinct to harvest is an instinct of greed,” just as in the human world. He makes similar comparisons with a termite mound society, “one of the first experiments in social order” that he visually compares to a computer at the California Institute of Technology.

Near the end of the film, however, footage and voiceover commentary contradict this claim, implementing images and commentary that illustrate folk-psychology and traits levels of anthropomorphism. While showing images of insect violence, including those from the Naked Jungle (1954) of ants with the “need to kill and plunder” using their bodies as bridges, building trenches to prepare for war, and acting as sentries and guards to launch attacks and bring back their kill, Hellstrom proclaims that these driver ants are a “mindless unstoppable killing machine, dedicated to the destruction of everything that stands in its way. Each of them is completely blind, driven forward through the darkness by a single demanding need within – the need to kill and plunder.”  Through pillaging their young are fed, Hellstrom tells us, and an ant-covered lizard is shown being dragged back into their fortress as an illustration. Other animals and insects are brought back to share with the rest of the colony: a snake, a caterpillar, a scorpion, and a butterfly.

Hellstrom ends the film with the diatribe, “The true winner is the last to finish the race,” but his narrative and film footage suggest insects will inherit the earth not because they are superior to humans but because they are us. By integrating multiple levels of anthropomorphism, The Hellstrom Chronicle turns insects into monsters possessing the worst human traits and exploiting them for the most destructive reasons. What is missing from The Hellstrom Chronicle is at least a partial nod towards the interdependence and biotic community of organismic approaches to ecology. As Canby suggest, “Anyone who as ever lived more than a week in a New York apartment already knows, for example, that an entente with insects must be reached if the world is to survive.”  By constructing insects as monsters, the film connects them to the human world without inducing the sympathy that might save both.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Give me shelter: the ecology of the home in Blue Vinyl and Libby, Montana

Although many documentaries explore the devastating sense of loss residents feel when their homes are lost or destroyed by everyday eco-disasters, few examine the environmental consequences of the building materials used to construct the home. Blue Vinyl (2002) and Libby, Montana (2004) move beyond lamenting eco-driven loss of the home place found in environmental documentaries from mountaintop removal films such as B. J. Gudmundsson’s Rise Up! West Virginia (2007) and Mountain Mourning(2008)[1] [open endnotes in new window] to Josh Fox’s anti-fracking expose, Gasland (2010), and unmask some of the environmental hazards of the home itself. Although their documentary approaches differ, both Blue Vinyl and Libby, Montana reveal the toxic environmental hazards faced by workers constructing housing materials and the homeowners themselves, with Blue Vinyl focusing on the dangers of Polyvinyl Chloride, and Libby, Montana highlighting asbestos and its mineral source, vermiculite.

In the personal narrative-driven Blue Vinyl: The World’s First Toxic Comedy (2002), co-director and writer Judith Helfand and co-director/cinematographer Daniel B. Gold become comic detectives in their attempt to find a viable solution to Helfand’s parents’ home repair dilemma:  Is it possible to replace rotting wood siding with “products that never hurt anyone at any point in their life cycle” but still provide the economy, endurance, and good looks of cheap but toxic blue vinyl? After attempting to convince her parents to forego their new vinyl siding choice for a more environmentally friendly alternative (as long as it’s cheap and looks good), Helfand and Gold embark on an investigative journey that reveals both the dangers underpinning vinyl use and the challenge to find a viable, affordable, and environmentally friendly alternative.

In Libby, Montana, directors Drury Gunn Carr and Doug Hawes-Davis take a more traditional documentary approach to expose the health hazards asbestos has caused in Libby’s mines and factories from 1919 until their closure in 1990. Also structured like a mystery, this social documentary combines talking head and direct cinema approaches to illuminate the biggest case of community-wide exposure to a toxic substance in U.S. history, resulting at last count in an estimated 1,500 cases of lung abnormalities. The film carefully documents the history of a town that moved from logging to mining vermiculite. Ninety-two percent of  people who worked for the mine more than twenty years died from lung disease. Most condemning is evidence that W. R. Grace & Company knew the danger of asbestos and did nothing. According to the film, despite overwhelming health problems and clear signs of criminal negligence, the EPA’s arrival in 1999 leads only to more wrangling, this time over whether or not Libby should be labeled a Superfund site.

Blue Vinyl provides a narrative of discovery in which Helfand and Gold reveal what the dangers PVC mean for not only her parents and other suburbanites keen on siding their homes with vinyl, but also for PVC chemical plant workers and home dwellers nearby.  Libby, Montana documents a mystery now solved but unresolved due to bureaucratic battles by EPA officials and corporate leaders over designating the town a Superfund site. In these eco-documentaries, multiple issues of home and homelessness are explored, revealing a plethora of environmental problems that, according to Blue Vinyl and Libby, Montana,  especially, should be addressed no matter how difficult the task. The repercussions of doing nothing are too toxic for both human and nonhuman nature. Overlooking these eco-disasters may turn the everyday into catastrophe, these films assert, reinforcing the power of an environmental justice movement grounded in an equitable and humane vision of home.

Although the documentary strategies applied in Blue Vinyl are more compelling than those in Libby, Montana these films both effectively illustrate the complexity of environmental justice issues. Environmental injustice, lack of human rights, and, to a certain extent, environmental racism intersect in the literal study of homes in Blue Vinyland Libby, Montana. For these films’ directors, it’s not just how you live and how you build your home, it’s where you live and what’s around you that contribute to the everyday eco-disasters associated with constructing and sustaining shelter.