In case you haven’t heard, the newest critical discipline to be unleashed upon a beleaguered academia is literary ecology, or ecocriticism, defined by movement guruUniversity of Nevada prof Cheryll Glotfelty as, simply enough, “the relationship between literature and the environment.” What this boils down to is musing on how the natural sphere is depicted in literature, and what impact such depictions might have; if you were ever concerned about what Herman Melville may have meant to the whales of the world, this might be your bag. The cloud-gazing seems limitless— unless you apply the idea to movies. Honestly, literature impacts the environment only in terms of the trees it pulps (Glotfelty’s The Ecocriticism Reader weighs in at 415 pages), but thanks to the gargantuan requirements of filmmaking, movies have real costs, destroy real things, kill real people, and ruin real places. In academia, cinema has been stretched on the rack of every sociopolitical principle but this.
The local devastation and butchered beasts of Apocalypse Now, the wild animals gunned down in any number of safari movies, the forests burned
in firefighter melodramas, the film-
innocent native people exploited as extras, the willful madness perpetrated upon the hills of Montana in the name of Heaven’s Gate: once you’re thinking real blood and biospheres, worrying about “representation” and other theoretical consequences is a bit like protesting the noise pollution of an air war. We all instinctively react to a movie’s expenditure of real-life overhead when we see it (particularly when it comes to documentaries, or “semi-documentaries,” as with the use of the little girls in The Apple), but what academic could resist a critical perspective with honest-to-God victims?
Of course, as with most recent culture theory, there’s a big deep end to go off, and plenty of runway. How far do you go? Do you view The Beach solely in terms of the environmental damage its production is reputedly guilty of? Certainly, the fiction films of Werner Herzog as seen through an ecocritical lens would come off as war crimes against the planet. Every time a horse in an old western got wire-tripped in full gallop, and quite possibly broke a leg or a back and had to be recycled as dog food, you have to think, was a Randolph Scott matinee worth it?
It’s about as radical as cult crit gets— life and ecology before entertainment. And it needn’t stop at wildlife: what about the countless stunt people killed during filming (see Ben Hur, a snuff film with Oscars), directors putting actors in jeopardy (just try to talk to Ed Harris about The Abyss), the debate over non-union shoots, even the suicides of porn actresses? Consider, as Georgia Brown used to here, how filmmakers get toddlers to bawl for a scene. (Ken Loach has a fearsome record of this.) What’s more important about The Twilight Zone: The Movie, its aesthetic qualities or the beheading of Vic Morrow and the two children he was holding?
Could we all be ecocritics, in the same way we’re all now amateur gender critics and multiculturists? It wouldn’t be easy: you’d have to completely reshape how you prioritize pop culture. Of course, with the
sooner-or-later advent of Lucas-style total digital filmmaking, there will be no reality and therefore no consequences. In their second century, movies might— ecocritically speaking— become a perfect world.