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.