What I think we learned

Below I have summarized my thoughts on our three-hour session at ASLE.  I hope that those of you who read it will recognize it for what it is, a summary and a first draft of what I think we learned and not a statement set in stone. I welcome comments and thoughts: agreements, disagreements, additions, and subtractions.   What the emerging field of ecocinema studies encompasses is still being negotiated, and if this area hopes to remain vibrant, I hope these negotiations will continue even as the field matures.


Tuesday’s seminar was a productive and valuable three hours, where we first hashed out what we wanted to get out of our seminar.  Given the themes emerging from papers, not surprisingly, the group honed in on five central topics/questions:

  • The “what is” question could not be avoided.
  • There were also concerns for methodological clarification: how does one examine cinema ecocritically?
  • Since many had examined documentaries, there were questions of genre
  • Affect, effect, and emotion loomed large
  • Ecopedagogy was also of interest

While these topics did not emerge in the order provided above, thanks to Elizabeth’s suggestions this order seemed a pertinent way to progress.  As expected though, we didn’t quite make our way through all the topics, spending most of our time on points 1, 2, and 4.

In discussing “what is ecocinema,” we found ourselves distinguishing the object of study (ecocinema) from the process of study (ecocinema studies), even as the question of what types of films qualify as ecocinema emerged. Paula’s concept of ecocinema to represent what is being studied seemed to hold, though with less overt characteristics than can be read in the introduction of Framing the World.  Thus, participants seemed to concur that ecocinema is a classification for films that lend themselves to generating ecological awareness.* Though, this ecological awareness does not have to be explicit or intentional. Thus, a film like John Sayles’ Honeydripper, which is not overtly focused on ecological themes can still be classified as ecocinema because of its implicit ecological awareness, whose presence can be unearthed through close critical reading.  In contrast, participants were less excited about classifying a film like The Fast and the Furious or The Office as ecocinema, because though one is able to read or interpret such films ecocritically, these films lend themselves to readings that tend to uncover the absence of explicit or implicit ecological consciousness. [*Also a definition expressed by Sheldon Lu in Chinese Ecocinema.)

In making this distinction between “ecocinema” and “other films” (this latter is Susan’s term, and I use it because I haven’t come up with anything else though am somewhat uncomfortable with “othering”) most of us wished to exercise caution, as we admitted that how one reads or interprets a film can shift its ecocinema potentials.  For example, some participants (e.g. Barbara) argued for ecocinematic potential in what Paula classifies as “environmental films” or films whose commercial imperatives do little to actually challenge the systems that frame ecological degradation.  Most agreed that the distinction between ecocinema and environmental films begins to blur when one considers films such as Erin Brockovich or Avatar that both are explicitly “ecocinema” in that they “strive to play an active role in fostering environmental awareness” (Willoquet, 10) and “environmental” because of their blockbuster imperatives.

While ecocinema emerged as a flexible, expansive category that lends itself to ecological awareness (encompassing overtly and non-so-overtly eco-conscious films), ecocinema studies emerged as the process of critical analysis interested not only in ecocinema but in all films, even those that appear “other.” (E.g., a film like Fast and Furious.)

In discussing this process of critical analysis, Nicole brought up an excellent point: should we use the term “ecocinema studies” as it is obvious critics are interested in all types of films, even as we seem to be limiting our definition of ecocinema to those that are more easily read as presenting (versus absenting) an ecological consciousness? Thus, we considered terms such as eco-cinecriticism (Ivakhiv’s phrase) though the group seemed to favor cine-ecocriticism as it seemed to parallel the phrase literary ecocriticism.  Though I’ve argued in a footnote to my ISLE essay on Honeydripper (18.1, 2011) for cine-ecocriticiticsm, here I confess that I’m not tied as yet to any one term.  I like the simplicity of mouthing “ecocinema studies” though can see why “cine-ecocriticism” or “eco-cinecriticism” might be the phrase of choice. As in the case of ecocriticism itself, I’m sure we’ll find a variety of descriptors (including terms such as “green film criticism,” “eco-film criticism” etc.)=

Ultimately, what seemed most valuable from this discussion was:

1)      The clarification of the category of ecocinema as films that through obvious or buried themes presence ecological consciousness versus absenting or masking such consciousness.

2)      The need to recognize the flexibility of what films can be included in this categorization as both (a) our understanding of what constitutes ecological consciousness can evolve (as it did from discourses of wilderness to more enmeshed human/more-than-human relationships) and (b) our readings of a single film can evolve to include new and surprising ways of understanding a film’s ecocinematic potentials.**

3)      Ecocinema studies does not limit what types of films it studies. Its purview is expansive and diverse.

[**In considering this point, I personally come back to the Andrew Hageman and my chapter in Hollywood’s Exploited, 2010), which Andrew concludes with these words:

“In focusing on the incompleteness of films’ messages about the world we inhabit, we can begin to work through any desires for the production of the perfect eco-film that will finally get the ecological vision and accompanying prescriptive remedy exactly right. Instead, we can approach all films for their pedagogical capacity to help us limn the frontiers of our own ability to think and imagine our relationships with the complex ecological structures of the world of which we and our films are part” (216).]

In recognizing ecocinema studies’ wide interest, we also discussed its openness to methodology.  Just as literary ecocritics approach written texts through various angles such as postcolonial studies, just sustainability, or animal studies, and just as film critics approach cinematic texts through lens such as aesthetics, feminism, or apparatus theory, ecocinema studies welcomes different methodological approaches. What does seem to mark ecocinema studies most distinctly though is its interest in recognizing the film text as firmly embedded in material contexts.  Here the participants re-emphasized the need to confront networks of materiality as first recognized in Cubitt’s EcoMedia and further endorsed in Ivakhiv’s triad of social, perpetual and material as outlined in his “Green Film Criticism.”  In effect, we all seemed to agree that an ecocritical reading had to account for a text’s presence in a material world which affects it and is affected by it.

This discussion headed us towards the topic of affect, effect, and why as ecocritics we seem so concerned about affective outcomes potentially generating effective ecological consciousness.  Time unfortunately cut short our discussions in this realm as we still wanted some time to tackle participant papers. The session ended with a brief overview of individuals sharing their paper topics, and also with enough energy to keep the discussion open.  I, for one, am keen to hear the outcomes of Alexa Von Weik’s workshop on Affect upcoming in Munich this July.  Sean Cubitt, Steve Rust and my co-edited Ecocinema Reader is also in the works. The papers the participants presented are rich with potential and push the field’s potentials in new and exciting directions.

I’ve had a chance to read all your papers and am greatly anticipating our workshop this coming Tuesday.  In the meantime, I thought I would just very briefly outline some of the common themes I see emerging in these papers, which might give us thought on where to focus our attentions, or how to include some topics that are not explicitly outlined in our suggested overview but nonetheless seem to be capturing the interests of many of us.

The outline below might also give participants a sense of how others (not in their groups) might be engaging similar thematic interests.

Here’s what I see:

  • Interest in how one should/should not define ecocinema (e.g., in Barbara’s exploration of the value of environmental films; Erika’s positioning of Herzog’s films as “ecstatic truth,” John’s exploration of postcolonial films with no explicit ecocentric themes, Nicole’s discussion of the ironic mode and her study of Idiocracy.)
  • The particularly important role of affect in ecocinema: to be “moved” to act must one be “moved”? (Yalan, Alexa, and Nicole were all grouped together because their titles explicitly suggest affect.  In addition, Erika’s exploration of Herzog draws from Deleuze’s work on affect, Heidi’s discussion of Adam Smith’s sympathy also engages affect, as does Barbara’s discussion of melodrama.)
  • Documentaries and realism (Alexa suggests that non-fictional films might have an affective edge because of their realism, as does Yalan in her exploration of The Cove, Paula explores documentaries of sustainability as exemplar ecocinema, and Elizabeth’s focus on experiential education raises interesting questions about the role of non-fictional/fictional representations in general.)
  • The global-local nexus: how can cinema bring “other” localities into our conscience (Heidi and Susan’s papers directly reference Heise’s work on eco-cosmopolitanism, but also others who discuss cinema in the international sphere–Yalan’s analysis of The Cove, John’s attention to Darwin’s Nightmare and The Harder they Come.)
  • Ecocinema and environmental activism (this seems implicit in almost all the essays, but stands out in those on affect, as well as Brian’s fascinating discussion of greenwashing in corporate propaganda on the Marcellus Shale.)

I am sure I haven’t covered all the themes, nor have I done justice in drawing on your papers as examples for these emerging themes, however, along with our workshop overview, perhaps this can be a starting point to help direct our conversations.

I welcome other thematic insights as we make our way to Tuesday.


narrative structure

i have been questioning narrative structure as a whole recently; my work in landscape architecture and ecology-inspired processes cannot support a linear narrative structure.

There is something that holds stronger for me when films let there be gaps, fragmentation, and not explaining or trying to fix narrative incongruities that make a stronger narrative and perhaps are in-line with ecological thought. I wonder what other work, allowing for more fragmentation/rupture in ecocinema, could do? These breaks may echo part of Susan’s paper on text in film?

One example I’ve seen now is Darwin’s Nightmare (thanks to John’s paper!). And this film helps move away from the damaging social constructs around ‘nature’ and helps us look to ecology, which does not keep capitalism or destruction apart from the everyday world of lakes, trees, animals, and it allows for multiple voices, and, very important for me, gets away from a first-person/hero narrative. And it severs the idea of health and being healthy from any idea of a “whole” place or body:  “the lake is not dead.” To understand being healthy is about resiliency not being free from sickness.

My background is stronger in landscape design than film, and the above is very rare in design! Are there other ways this happens in film i am not aware of? Or texts that speak to this?

Play Again

Hi, all.

I’m very much enjoying reading your position papers and am looking forward to discussing them with you. As I’m reading, I came across this documentary, which I hhave not seen, but the preview suggests it might be of interest to our discussions. www.playagainfilm.com


I’d like to offer some comments regarding Jennifer Ladino’s argument in “For the Love of Nature”  that if we can see ourselves in the penguins adult,  who are protecting future penguin generations from demise, then perhaps we can also see ourselves in the predators, the threat to the film’s much heralded ‘new life’. The predator identification opens up the possibility of a more honest self-reflection, in which we come to terms with our frequent role as the perpetrators of the environmental destruction and social injustices associated with, in this case, global warming” (68). Ladino goes on to say that such self-reflection and predator identification is rather unlikely, “slim,” as she puts it, given that the “film’s love is so often negotiated through heteronormative kinship relations.” Another reason why identification with predators, such as the gull or seal who threaten the adult penguins and chick, is unlikely is that the film so clearly positions these creatures as the “bad guys,” the enemies of the penguins we have been taught to identify with and root for.

The film appeals to our emotions when the penguins show their heroism, are funny, form couples, or are the victims of predators—gulls, and seals that are shot to look like “Jaws”—but glosses over the fact that penguins too need to eat to survive; that is, they too are responsible for the death of other creatures. In fact, what is stressed in the film is the number of months the penguins go without food, in order to procreate, thus casting those who eat, and therefore kill, in a less idealized light than those who don’t eat/kill. When the females leave for their trek back to the ocean to fill their bellies with the krill that the soon to hatch chicks will need to survive, while the males tend to the eggs they are incubating, the film focuses on the hardship of the journey to the ocean and back, rather than on the procurement of food. In shifting the focus to the journey rather than the food procurement, the film glosses over the fact that the penguins’ principal source of nourishment, the krill (a small shrimp-like creature) is also in danger, not because of the penguins, but because of being overfished for use as fish meal for farmed salmon. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, “krill are the keystone species of the Antarctic marine ecosystem. An essential food source not just for penguins but also for whales and seals, krill have declined by as much as 80 percent since the 1970s in some parts of the Southern Ocean.” According to the same report, the emperor penguin colony featured in the film has declined by 70 percent, not only due to the decline in krill, but also the early break-up of the ice shelves where the chicks hatch and to changes to the ocean habitat due to a warmer Antarctic. These environmental factors, including the impact of climate change on ecosystems and species, are obscured by the film’s focus on the anthropomorphic characteristics of the penguins, as rendered mostly by the interpretative voice-over narration.  Moreover, to the extent that the environment is even a factor, it is usually cast as a beautiful but hostile landscape, a threat to the penguins even as they have learned to adapt. By anthropomorphizing the penguins, with whom the film has taught us to identify, the film perpetuate a Western “tradition” of representing landscapes in polarized ways: as aesthetic objects of beauty to be enjoyed, or as threatening to survival and needing to be mastered.

Nicole, your focus on the “less serious affective modes–and lack therefore–in ecocinema,”  I think is a timely and valuable one that ecocinema will definitely benefit from. I say this specifically having just re-read Garrard’s “Ecocritical Theory” and During and Levitt’s “Film Theory” recaps (on reading list).  Garrard’s tone endorses a lighter mode, and Levitt’s section is all about spectatorship and affect, though as is quite apparent from the books she reviews there’s little discussion of genres of films geared to “less serious affective modes” in the reviewed recent scholarship.

That said, I’m assuming you’ve had a chance to read Arlene Plevin’s “Home Everywhere and the Injured Body of the World: The Subversive Humor of Blue Vinyl.”( Ed. Rachel Stein. New Perspectives on Environmental Justice. Newark, NJ: The State University of New Jersey, 2004. 225-239.)  This is one article that came to mind when thinking of risk and humor in ecocinema.

On a somewhat related but different note, I’m curious to hear if the various references Levitt cites in Film Theory are ones that might also be useful when thinking of affect as it pertains to ecocinema.  There’s just one explicitly ecocritical reference, Patrick MacCormack’s “An Ethics of Spectatorship: Love, Death, and Cinema” (see p. 34; web version) mentioned by Levitt but there seem to be multiple places where ecocriticism can make inroads as themes such as cinematic bodies, questions of agency and ethics are quite apparent and distinctly pertinent to many ecocritics. I was also intrigued by During’s review of Adam Sitney’s Visionary Film, which conjures up many of literary ecocritics favorites in its focus on American avant garde film as Emersonian.

I’m also still mulling over the various themes Garrard suggests are manifest in contemporary ecocritical theory (and looking forward to comparing them with the various themes recently outlined in the ISLE 2010 autumn issue, which unfortunately is not on our reading list).  Garrard references film and ecomedia throughout his article, putting cinema squarely in the realm of ecocriticism (rightly so), and he also critiques Ivakhiv’s ISLE article (also one of our readings) more explicitly.   I wonder what seminar participants make of this critique; especially the cautionary note to avoid “old Gods” of philosophical theory.  Ivakhiv draws from many theorists familiar to film scholars, and Garrard’s critique seems to raise an interesting question for scholars working at the intersections of film and ecocritical scholarship.  Thoughts?  From Nicole and other participants?  Looking forward to exploring the readings and hearing your ideas.


Beginning conversations

We are looking forward to Tuesday, June 21, 2011 in Bloomington for a great workshop about the intersections between ecocriticism and media, specifically ecocinema.

There is a description of this workshop on the ASLE conference website, and in this blog’s About page. and we currently have a full seminar with fifteen participants. In anticipation of a packed 3-hours of discussion, we’ve set up this blog as a space where our conversations about ecocinema studies can begin.

Position paper titles will be up in early May, and participants are strongly encouraged to post questions, comments, thoughts, and ideas regarding their papers and the recommended reading and viewing list.

We hope for lively and thoughtful work on the past, present, and future of ecocinema studies.