June 10, 2009

Von Mueller, Eddy
Film Studies

Project Summary

In 2006, Jay Hakes, a pal and the author of the A Declaration of Energy Independence invited me to a Carter Center pre-screening of Davis Guggenheim's An Inconvenient Truth. He let me tag along not as a Fellow Traveler and inveterate ranter against the global petroleum racket, but as a film guy. There I sat, the token cineaste – movie critic, film studies scholar, occasional documentarist – knowing that as soon as the credits stopped rolling and the applause died down, I would be asked “what did you think?” I knew it was going to be a tough question to answer. It is never easy, in film or any other form of cultural production, to sort the message out from the medium, to rationalize the complexities of the relationship between aesthetics and ideology. Great cinema can be wrong-headed and profoundly destructive; lousy movies can move mountains and millions (of people and dollars). Over the course of that screening, more and more issues sprang to mind: what exactly constituted sustainable entertainment? What part did alarmist fantasies like The Day After Tomorrow or Soylent Green effect the way documentaries and newscasts were understood? How did the representations of environmental issues and ideas of sustainability differ in movies made in the developing world as opposed to those made in the industrialized West? And what impact, if any, did all this have on public policy or the popular consciousness? I decided that I wanted to bring an eco-critical perspective into my film pedagogy (discovering, incidentally, that eco-criticism is virtually absent in contemporary film studies – ironic, given the major role the moving image plays in shaping the global imagination). In particular, I wanted to use issues of environmental awareness and sustainability as a means of exploring how public discourse shapes cinema and vice-versa. The unit also incorporated a number of readings, drawn from classic and contemporary perspectives on the matter, including excerpts of works by Rachel Carson, William Buell, Arne Naesse, and Peter Singer. In terms of films, we focused on several cornerstones: Alfred Hitchcock‟s classic The Birds (released in the context of the frenzied attention received by Silent Spring); the “Greensploitation” films of the „70s (such as Frogs, Jaws, and Prophecy); and such contemporary works such as Outbreak, The Proposition, and Guggenheim‟s celebrated documentary. We also examined films produced in locales that are themselves at the center of ongoing environmental and sustainability crises, including Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Sudan. This unit, though, barely served to shed light on the tip of a vast (albeit steadily melting) iceberg. I hope in 2009 to develop an upper division course on eco-cinema.

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