MA Film Research Seminar: How to Save the World: or, Ecology and Cinema

Instructor: dr. Catherine M. Lord

In my own research and creative work, I have been exploring the field of “ecology and cinema”; each of these latter two terms often conjures the idea of “apocalypse” film or, much worse, a cinema that prophesies our complete doom in the face of catastrophic climate change (The Age of Stupid, Franny Armstrong, 2006, to name but one example). While acknowledging our precarious state in the face of global warming, my seminar will, in an unorthodox mood, take an optimistic approach to a range of cinemas which display splendid ecological, filmic languages which engage with our psychical capacity for mourning environmental degradation while pursuing a passion to strategically confront our current global predicaments.

“Ecocriticism” and “Eco-philosophy” are both subsets of ecological research in the humanities; traditionally, their methodological and theoretical fields have emerged from literary studies. However, the more recent and exciting fields of ecology and media, the emphasis here being on cinema, allow core concepts from ecocriticism and eco-philosophy to fully engage a range of cinematic objects, from Hollywood blockbusters and European films to “third cinema” whether this be fiction or documentary. For instance, James Lovelock’s “Gaia hypothesis” can be a theoretical interlocutor to a rash of blockbuster films, from The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) to Avatar (2009) which, incidentally, is a film open to interdisciplinary encounters with environmental justice. Gender theory is never far from acts of “reading” the environment as an aesthetic “medium”. So often the “earth” and the eco-system as gendered as a “she” and “her” predicament of violation constitute much pro-filmic narrative.

Classical, ecocritical concepts such as “wilderness” and “dwelling” come effectively into dialogue with the work of Ang Lee. Brokeback Mountain (2005) is more than a visual tale of gay love, it is also a splendid example of the “ecological queer” (Sandilands 2010). The Life of Pi (2012) is a special effects tale about our human encounter with nonhuman “others” in a watery wilderness that challenges any notions of anthropogenic (that is, technological) mastery. With a range of such films, from which students may chose their own list, topics from the “environmental psyche” to animal studies, will be given full attention.

There is also an opportunity for those students who wish to explore “third cinema”, to research relevant ecological issues from the “slow violence” of pollution to cinematic representations of deforestation, biomedical piracy and the phenomenon of “climate refugees”. Equally well, students will have opportunities to research the canon of European ecological cinema, most notably in the work of Lars van Trier, through which the cutting edge concepts of “dark ecology” (Morton 2007; 2010) are gathering scholarly popularity.

The topic of ecology and cinema is suitable for any MA researcher who wants to find out more about environmental issues in cinema or, wishes to study cinema as a medium which necessarily deploys a range of “environments” and “ecologies” within its project of storytelling as an emotionally and politically engaging act.