Ecology and Home in Environmental History and Film
Ecology, literally, “the study of homes,” connects explicitly with our notions of shelter as a constructed space where humans live either with or without nature. This distinction between what is completely controlled, artificial, and “dead” and what is natural and alive springs from Empirical philosophy of the Eighteenth Century’s “Great Awakening,” a view that, according to Gary Lease, “led inevitably to an opposition between reason and nature, a position which Kant in his idealism effectively exploited” (8). In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this struggle between a culture controlled by “reason,” and a nature seen as “irrational” became further complicated by a focus on scientific pursuit that seemed to eliminate Spinoza’s identification of nature with God. But, as Lease suggests, “After wrestling with the notion of nature for well over two thousand years, Western tradition had come up dry: neither an identification of the human species with nature nor a strict dichotomy between the two proved ultimately successful” (8, 9).
These dichotomies, or their deconstruction, are reflected in a variety of American fictional films. Numerous films glamorize urban life and the culture it represents. Musicals such as Anchors Aweigh (1945), Easter Parade (1948), and On the Town (1949), and comedies including Sex in the City 1 and 2 (2008, 2010), Friends with Benefits (2011) and the remake of Arthur (2011) celebrate life in the city with little or no reference to the natural world. Numerous crime films and film noir titles reinforce the dark and corrupt underbelly of urban life, as well. Other films emphasize the need to connect further with the natural world, even bringing nature indoors as in Housekeeping (1987). On the other hand, Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), a Depression era melodrama, explores the predicament of an elderly couple facing home foreclosure after the husband loses his job and is no longer able to pay the mortgage. They must live separately with family members, who mistreat them and misunderstand them. Unwilling to compromise, their children go back on their word and separate them permanently, forcing their mother to live in a nursing home and their father to live without her in California, on the opposite coast.
Many other American films reinforce the need to connect with the natural world, casting off the stifling emptiness of the city (or at least a tiny apartment with little closet space) for the life of the country. In Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House (1948), for example, led by successful advertising executive and patriarch, Jim Blandings (Cary Grant), the Blandings leave their urban New York City apartment to refurbish a ramshackle house in the country, hoping for an ideal pastoral life but finding an expensive challenge. The film’s comedy facilitates a narrative that supports the ideals of the American dream without discounting the struggles required to achieve it. Money Pit (1986) centers on this theme in a 1980s context with Tom Hanks and Shelley Long in the leads.
A Home of Our Own (1993) also replays the American dream, this time from the perspective of a single mother and her children in the 1960s. With the help of kindly neighbors and her hardworking kids, Frances Lacey (Kathy Bates) escapes the urban blight of Los Angeles and successfully provides a country home for her family, all built from scraps and dreams. These films demonstrate the power of shelter and place, highlighting a need to construct a home, either with or without nature.