I wrote this a while back and thought I’d put it here.
WILD CINEMA: HOW MOVIES IMAGINE WILDERNESS
“Come spirit. Help us sing the story of our land.” (The New World, 2005)
Growing up in Wimbledon in the 1970s and early 1980s didn’t easily lend itself to a taste of the tangle and shadow of the natural world.
With one, modest, but powerful, exception.
As I think back on that time from the vantage point of 2010 I realise how potent the combination of walks in the woods combined with a high intensity fascination with film was. A memory of childhood has become bound up in a memory of enjoying the woods and being mesmerised by movies.
Images find motion and e-motion in cinema, telling stories about how we embrace and escape nature. In his monograph on Terrence Malick’s war movie and nature meditation The Thin Red Line, Michel Chion observes that “When we grow up, something happens that adults don’t talk about or don’t remember: the world gets smaller…Cinema returns objects to a larger scale.” Cinema screens do for us something comparable to the most immense of trees and mountains.
Writing about the work of painter John Constable, art critic David Sylvester makes an observation that fits well with our responses to films focused around nature subjects: “ Constable’s landscapes, then, often present a contrast between a terrestrial nature that is benign and ordered and on a human scale and a celestial nature that is ungovernable and hostile as well as vast….endowing landscape painting with the moral significance and weight which were traditionally the prerogative of history painting.” (p.42, The Penuin Book of Art Writing, edited by Martin Gayford and Karen Wright, Penguin, 1998)
Henry David Thoreau wrote that a town on a river could be considered to have wings, such that they could fly the townspeople. This morphing of reality, this reaching for an interpretation of nature in relation to human feeling finds rich expression in cinema. Whilst I don’t for one moment think that Thoreau would consider cinema that much of a boon he might have had a quiet interest in seeing how film (photography) pictured the relationship between humans and nature. Filmmakers have made frequent and powerful use of nature images, and imagery, to explore the comfort and the strangeness we find in the wild.
All I want to do here, then, is offer some notes about several readily available films that get to the heart of the matter with clarity of thought and some high-entertainment value. Like a trail through a wood these films take us back to something of our primal fascination and fears towards nature.
A first reference for us, then, could be Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) in which the paintings of Henri Rousseau and Paul Gaugin find movie movement and meaning: the soldiers becoming increasingly lost , socially and spiritually. Beyond the realm of the popular American film, the filmmaker Werner Herzog engages dynamically with wilderness and frontiers in films such as Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre Wrath of God and his recent documentary Into the Wild Blue Yonder and he is now at work on a documentary about the cavepaintings of France.
In his television film Duel, Steven Spielberg pits a suburban, ordinary man against the threat of a menacing truck. The desert setting intensifies the conflict, the expanse of dust and sand emphasising the absence of any tangibly stable signs of the conscious forces of ‘civilisation’. This is a story about the terror we can experience amidst the unconscious forces of the natural world. As such, it’s a companion piece to the Peter Weir film noted below.
Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams
Akira Kurosawa, known for films such as Seven Samurai and Ikiru, to name just two of his diverse film output, produced, very late in his filmography, Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, a feature length portmanteau movie comprised of short films, each offering some image of nature and human relations to it. Village of the Watermills and Mount Fuji in Red (Akira Kurosawa, 1990) provide two contrasting examples, seeing nature as a source of peace and nature as a source of terror. Kurosawa had established himself as a key figure in post World War Two Japanese cinema, charting the tensions of ancient and modern. Where Mount Fuji in Red is horrific (describing the moment when a nuclear power plant becomes an inferno throwing out deadly chemicals and fireballs from behind Mount Fuji.), Village of the Watermills is a serene and placid ‘prayer’ to the act of living in harmony with nature and its rhythms.
The New World
One of the films widely considered an achievement of recent popular American film has been The New World, written and directed by Terrence Malick.
Malick’s handful of films explore ways of picturing nature and connecting it to human behaviour. The New World explores this in a particularly overt way. Indeed, Malick’s mode connects his work, I think, to the American literary and visual movement of Transcendentalism. His is popular filmmaking that works towards fracturing the narrative expectations of what we’re so familiar with. In Malick’s war film The Thin Red Line (1998) the opening words that we hear are “What’s this war at the heart of nature ?” It’s a direct effort to use the concreteness of film to get at the more gossamer aspects of our emotional lives.
Picnic At Hanging Rock
Picnic at Hanging Rock is considered an Australian classic, exploring the tensions between what we might consider ‘real’ Australia and an imported European tradition of genteel ‘civilisation’. Nature becomes a place to be feared, totally bound up in mystery and a sense of dream. The film’s opening images are static, showing views of the Australian wilderness and specifically of Hanging Rock. The first ‘moving image’ we see is of tall grass in the foreground from which the camera tilts up to reveal a European- looking mansion. On the soundtrack lines from Edgar Allan Poe are spoken “ What we see and what we seem are a dream.” Picnic is the most delicately realised horror film you can imagine. As one of the film’s character says of the titular location: “I never thought it would be so nasty or I wouldn’t have come.”
I haven’t walked the woods of Wimbledon Common in a while but I still make sure to visit the woods near where I now live. In these walks, the sunlight flickers through the trees just as light flickers through film whipping across a projector’s lens.