What follows are notes from the first day of Moving Environments: Affect, Emotion, and Ecocinema.

These are, needless to say, my own hastily drawn up notes (and I’m still a little jet-lagged from my arrival yesterday). Forgive the point form and abbreviation inconsistencies. Any errors are my own; any wonderful ideas are other people’s, unless specifically attributed to “ai.” Other initials refer to other speakers/participants. My tiredness toward the end of the day shows…


Session 1
Emotion, Cognition, and Ecocinema

David Ingram (Brunel University):

Emotion, Affect, Cognition and the Aesthetics of Eco-film Criticism

Comparison of cognitivism, phenomenology, and Deleuzian affect theories. Phenomenology focuses on visceral bodily response (eg Rutherford’s response to Mizoguchi film); need to connect one response to others (cognitive, emotional, not just affective). Deleuzian/Massumi’s approach privileges affect, underestimates emotional & cognitive responses (interpretation, meaning, ideology).  Cognitivism: Greg Smith (in Passionate Visions) – associative model; Damasio; Ed Tan. Cognition, emotion, affect: how do they play out aesthetically? Need for audience studies. Gideon Koppel’s ‘Sleep Furiously’ (Welsh): Alex Cox called it “the least anthropocentric film” he’s ever seen. Long, slow takes (ai: observational cinema ideal). But defamiliarization (as in art & experimental films) relies on audience predispositions, e.g. pre-existing knowledge of ‘ecocentrism’ etc.

Discussion: Choice of theorists for comparison: what about others (e.g. Sobchack in phenomenology, Bordwell in cognitivism, et al)? Are predispositions not part of audience appreciation of all film styles, or is there a ‘background cognitive realism’ that popular films appeal to but art/avant-garde films try to critique and overcome? Alternative forms of attention: e.g. “Sleep Furiously” reminds JW of web-cams – random moments from surveillance cameras; are there other kinds of attention? different kinds of political address to the viewer? What is the cinema analogue of the slow food movement: is it slow cinema (art films with long takes) or ‘place cinema’ – films like “Sleep Furiously” about particular places and intended for place-based audiences, or community access cable filmmaking, etc.? Digital vs 16mm etc. films: is this difference (Scott MacDonald’s protectionist approach to old cinema modes) as important now as it used to be, as the quality of digital images has improved? DW: ‘natural’/naturalistic perception would not just watch a specific place without moving; it would ‘follow the action’ – this approach of just setting up a camera and letting it project whatever shows itself (structural film, etc) is very mechanistic.


Alexa Weik von Mossner (RCC / University of Fribourg):

Ecological Risk and Emotional Engagement in The Age of Stupid: A Cognitive Approach

Cognitive approaches are particularly helpful in thinking about ecological risk. Climate change docs play important role in ‘imagining and staging world risk’ (Beck). Damasio, Ledoux et al. Paul Slovic et al (in ‘Perception of risk’): analytic reasoning requires emotion & affect. Risk = anticipated catastrophe (Beck). Climate change docs face the difficulty of having to portray something that hasn’t happened yet. Franny Armstrong’s “The Age of Stupid”: unusual framing device of a SF futuristic (fictional) scenario to present the future’s past, i.e. the contemporary (documentary) present – which troubles our relationship to the present. When we watch docs, we realize what we see has consequences and calls on us to respond in real world. “Age of Stupid” in pre-screenings did not engage audiences, so she added cartoons, fictional frame narrative (direct addresss to viewer), and fictional ecological space – which puts it in world of SF, but is connected back to doc footage. Film makes no distinction between fictional and real footage – a successful mixture, powerful hybridity that mixes the reality of docs with the address of fictional SF futurism.

Discussion: Compare with Fast Food Nation, also a hybrid film (fictional film of a non-fiction book) where the characters intersect (whereas in Age of Stupid they don’t – it’s a network film that doesn’t draw the kinds of connections that FFN does). Compare with The Corporation. Global vs local documentaries – env/eco psych literature @ the disconnect between global CC frames and people’s ability to make local sense of them. Effect of CC scenarios changes as you keep seeing them, audiences get tired of them. Armstrong wanted this to be THE CC documentary; has been critiqued for heavy-handed polemic, apocalypticism (though it has comic relief).

Again: importance of reception studies (Armstrong did focus groups; “Inconvenient Truth” did interviews). Cognitive studies of empathy & sympathy with characters etc; and of narrative (suspense, etc); ‘artifact emotions’ (Plantinga) – admiration for the smartness of the filmmaker, and ‘meta-emotions’ (eg crying at a melodrama then feeling ashamed about it). But these still treat an abstract spectator, need more grounding in actual reception studies. Relation with memory is vital: longitudinal studies, eg Barker et al on Lord of the Rings, ‘cult movies’; Day After Tomorrow has five (international) studies on it, but only one had a longitudinal follow-up. DW: studies that multi-modal (image-saturated, high-speed, digital) culture affects young people’s ability to develop deep memories. Film & media studies approach contextualizes texts culturally, politically, economically, etc – vs – individual reception studies, cognitivism (eg Grodal’s biocultural approach). Age of Stupid’s scientific advisor now says that apocalyptic imagery is a bad idea.


Session 2: Aesthetics, Affect, and Anthrobiogeomorphic Machines

Sean Cubitt (University of Southampton):

Affect and Environment in Two Artists’ Films and a Video

Dog Star Man (Brakhage), Skylight (Chris Welsby), Voyage d’hiver (Robert Cahen): can we read them in terms of Nietzsche’s Dionysian/Appolonian opposition? Not really… Brakhage: about habits of vision & restoration of primal vision; nature as ‘beautiful, terrible enemy’; quasi-Jungian mythopoeticism. Peter Galison’s distinction between analogical photogram vs probabilistic calculation (2 forms of instrumentation/knowledge). Welsby: background radiation of landscape, Chernobyl meltdown radiation; film is shot through with anger; pastoral beauty (sky through branches reflected in flowing water) no longer tenable; Welsby stops and starts camera, flash-frames, sharp diagonal of film shutter; clutter of radio noises and voices on soundtrack (on background radiation), Geiger counter clicks, etc; image gets deranged towards the end, film breaks down to reckoning the unlensed, incoherent light, sheer fields of color, to white. Brakhage is explicit about spirituality of films, Welsby is coy, but both interweave ecological events and personal perceptions, desire to alter perceptual habits of larger communities. Both films not about nature but incorporated into the structures of nature. Brakhage’s is more about processes, immanence, also in American art tradition (cage, Pollock) of chance processes. Welsby addresses nature as system,  works with determining systems operating in the world he wanted to image, to engineer systems capable of communicating with the planet’s systems. Cahen’s Voyage d’hiver: to image the probabilistic nature of all imagery. Environmental science involves impossible visualizations of invisible processes/forces. Avantgarde film/video try to give us an awareness of time…

Discussion: PB: Malick’s Tree of Life – Rodowick et al – death of cinema, digital difference. Cubitt is arguing for digital as a way of experiencing temporality.  Photochemical vs electronic images: electronic images are gathered in lines – exposure is drained from the chip line by line to store it – the presentation is different – the electronic image is never complete, whereas the film image is. They’re ontologically different.  Christian Marclay’s time piece is both analog (clips from films) and digital (displayed digitally). PB: The time-based nature of the image: is it inherently ecological? SC: interchangeability of pixels, not of frames; relation to commodity exchange, biopolitical management – but sits so close to our challenges with describing ecological change.

Marx’s ‘dead labor’ (technologies as making concrete of skills belonging to the anonymous dead) + Aotearoa New Zealand Maori idea that ancestors’ technologies (dyeing, carving, etc) are in dialogue with us, not anonymous. = a form of posthumous liberation, rights for the dead, the ancestors. Technologies aren’t alien things, but rather are legacy of cumulative human knowledge-wisdom-practice. This means there’s a struggle over the destiny of the dead. Q about Brakhage’s neo-romantic philosophy being antithetical to technology: Brakhage vs. structural filmmakers debate; but Brakhage is also interested in rhythms, color balances, etc. Q about indigenous digital storytelling: some forms tend to remake the techniques of technological visual culture in ways that conform to the cosmogony that they’re involved with. There are good & bad projects, but there’s a risk that their reliance on easily available equipment will be normative. The more user-friendly a piece of equipment, the more difficult it is to adapt it for specialized use. A/G filmmaking is also about access to the full capacity to adapt equipment to different circumstances. There are more and less indigenizable technologies: e.g. tractors were non-indigenizable.

Realism is a humanism: it’s about perception according to how we naturally perceive it, but it sets the world into the position of deity, with us as privileged observers of it. Contrast this with data visualization process as a kind of populism (Laclau’s populist reason). We need to persuade large numbers of people, and the tools are not numbers but visualization of numbers. SC: There are internal contradictions in both traditions (humanist/photorealist and populist/data visualization). We should navigate the borders between them. “Powers of 10″ as proto-ecological film. Our visual culture is dominated by spreadsheets, databases, digital cartography, not by photorealism etc.


Adrian Ivakhiv (University of Vermont):

The Anthrobiogeomorphic Machine: An Ecophilosophy of the Cinema

(No notes; I was speaking. My take on films has been shared often on this blog.)


Session 3: Anthropomorphism and the Non-Human

Bart Welling (University of North Florida):

On the ‘Inexplicable Magic of Cinema’: Critical Anthropomorphism, Emotion, and the Wildness of Wildlife Films

Anthropomorphism: cuteness, a criticism. John Berger: our fascination with animals parallels their disappearance. Little attention in wildlife films to the nonhuman gaze, or to mutually transformative relationships between filmmakers and animal subjects. The look between animal and man has been extinguished (Berger). Room for hope too, however: anthropomorphism can be thought of as different types, degrees, purposes. Randall Lockwood: “Anthropomorphism is not a four-letter word”. 5 types, including superficial (chimps don’t “smile,” it’s their fear grimace; dolphins don’t smile, it’s a superficial resemblance to human smile) and applied (scientific practice where interspecies analogies generate hypotheses) = “critical anthropomorphism,” i.e. making predictions about animals based on similarities that can then be falsified. Doing away with anthropomorphism is not an option. BW advocates critical anthropomorphism and a biocultural approach that recognizes similar biological drives, etc. Grodal: our brains have not adjusted yet to a situation where what we see & hear is not necessarily real.  Producer-Viewer-Animal trichotomy. “Being Caribou”: haunting final image of slow-motion young caribou racing around in calving grounds, ends in freeze-frame of caribou in mid-air.

Discussion: @ emotional relationships between filmmakers and animals. How to theorize this (ref. to Haraway, Deleuze-Guattari, Derrida, et al). Is there some mutual understanding, empathy that crosses the species boundary? BW: when we watch wildlife films, we’re watching visual traces of relationships.  DW: “Winged Migration” story of crabs pursuing the bird and then lunching on something: in fact the bird was saved, the crabs were eating fish. We go “ah…” when we hear this. But: saving the bird is ‘unnatural,’ what’s our sentimentality @ it, e.g. what do we do with birds savaged by cats? If we send them in to institutions, is this recycling individuals? We have no knowledge of how to kill an animal anymore, nor rituals of saying goodbye to it while wringing its neck. How do we locate an ethics and aesthetics in this? Phoenix the hoof-and-mouth calf rescued through intervention by Tony Blair. Is this one survivor helping us feel good about the mass slaughter?

JW: Jacques Cousteau’s Le monde du silence (has been pulled, unavailable, but on YouTube): sharks clubbed to death for being attracted to a baby whale that the filmmakers are trying to save (arbitrary anthropomorphism?). E.g. of breeding of bulldogs to become cuter until the dog can hardly breathe. What are the implications of creating a rapport with an animal? How does the rapport create an ecological sensibility?  Is there a continuum between documentary and fiction w.r.t. rapport with animals?  Are there new binaries arising in the wake of the old (human-animal) binary, e.g. humans-birds-dolphins vs. snakes-crabs-sharks? Spectrum of responses: ecocentrism, animal rights, ecofeminism, etc….


Belinda Smaill (Monash University):

Emotion, Non-Human Life, and Eco-Documentary: Darwin’s Nightmare and The Cove

Emotion-cinema relationship in sociocultural context: how emotions confer value, hierarchize. What are the potentials of documentary to engender emotions, values?  The Cove and Darwin’s Nightmare both turn cameras to human relationships with other species, and to West-non-West relationship. The Cove: employs fictional narrative strategies (suspense thriller) to non-fictional ends. Empathy: with dolphins? (victim documentary tradition; fishermen as perpetrators – human interviewees create this perception of dolphins as exceptional). Or with Ric O’Barry et al activists?  Identification is more intense with the activists, their perception of shared injustice @ dolphins. Darwin’s Nightmare: The fish (Nile perch) is posed at the heart of the narrative of decline; it becomes object of disgust, abject object, spectacle of decay. Fish as metaphor for social deterioration resulting from capitalist globalization.

Cross-cultural looking: Non-Western cultures viewed through a Western gaze. Both films facilitate an epistephilia (desire for & pleasure in knowledge). The Cove: desired knowledge is of how and why the slaughter has occurred – via desire for the image of the bloody slaughter, with the explanation being about Japanese culture & tradition. D’s Nightmare: compels audience to engage in process of recognizing relationships between cause & effect, impact of fish on local community, etc. Broader delineation between exploited & exploiter, esp. @ Africa vs. Europe.

Discussion: The Cove as melodrama: if you go along with its project (articulating a politics of humans as friends of animals i.e. dolphins) you find the film both depressing and promising. D’s Nightmare is bleak, could leave us feeling helpless in front of an unbreakable system (DW). The two share their narrative form of western filmmakers going to uncover issues in non-West, but otherwise very different: D’s N is not about the fish but about the causal relationships/political ecology of global capitalism.   JW: But The Cove also attacks Japanese nationalism/imperialism within the international context (IWC). And, from an ecocentric perspective, who’s the exotic species? The Nile Perch in DN, but isn’t it Louis Psihoyos and Ric O’Barry et al in the Japanese context?


Session 4: Animal Rights and Eco-Extermination

Robin Murray (Eastern Illinois University):

Flipper? We’re Eating Flipper?: Documenting Animal Rights and Environmental Ethics at Sea

‘The Cove’ goes further than ‘The End of the Line’ or ‘Darwin’s Nightmare’ in demonstrating the activism it advocates. DN and TEOTL immerse themselves in Leopoldian Land Ethic (?). Animal Rights vs. Animal Welfare & Environmental Movement (“Organismic environmentalism”). The Cove follows sentientist animal rights arguments, provides an emotional center missing from the other two films. It led to successful petitions (2 million+ signatures) to change dolphin hunting practices. Learning from the success of The Cove, EOTL could have humanized selected species of aquatic life; DN could have highlighted animal species and biotic communities.

Discussion:  The Cove’s rhetorical drive toward the scene of slaughter; hierarchical binary @ westerners vs Japanese. Do we get some ‘grotesque relish’ from seeing the scenes of carnage because THEY, not us, are the ones perpetrating it? Is there a role for critical anthropomorphism in portrayals of fish-related topics? (ai note: Dolphins and whales aren’t fish; they’re cetaceans.) DN and EOTL are tackling much more difficult issues – overfishing, capitalist globalization – that do not have solutions that a single petition could affect. Emotional dimension of food: fears of contamination, anthropomorphism makes it more difficult for us to eat something.


Joe Heumann (Eastern Illinois University):

The Last Hunt: An Exercise in Eco-Extermination

‘The Searchers’: Ethan Edwards shooting wildly at buffalos – “they won’t feed any more Comanches.” Comparison with Richard Brook’s “The Last Hunt” (same year, 1956): gov’t sharpshooters shooting buffalo to thin out a herd; the film is an indictment of it. Ideological conflict between 2 men: a buffalo hunter (Charlie) and a guy who was “done with killing buffalo” and wanted to get rid of “the stink” (Sandy); they’re set up as a binary. Connection between buffalo and Indians.

Discussion: Robert Taylor’s role in The Last Hunt is negative: he was an idolized, attractive male hero at the time, had testified in McCarthy hearings against the ‘red scare’, etc., but was now taking on roles against his own persona. Audience responses: The Day After Tomorrow (problematic film) changed people’s attitudes a lot, to our (RM & JH) surprise. Others, like Happy Feet and … [psychological film from the 1950s], have inspired audiences to think about issues, even if they aren’t critically ‘good’ films. An Inconvenient Truth’s success shocked many people. Systematic scientific polling reveals surprising things. DW: But in focusing on ‘success’ there’s a risk of ignoring the dimension of how the imagination gets fired, enlarged, and deepened (e.g. White Buffalo myth, potential mythic parallelism crossing between cultures).  JH: John Ford darkened the character of Ethan Edwards in the evolution from script to film. Conundrum that we need to destroy our environment to produce our lifestyle; we need to be careful in understanding the complexities of the environments they represent. Gene Autry’s film about DDT valorizes DDT to save the day @ pine needle destruction by pine beetles. Fear that Asian carpwill destroy Great Lakes: carp are being demonized, people being encouraged to eat them – but you can’t convince people to eat a fish they don’t like. Now resorting to idea that carp is good for you, a delicacy.

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