evolving ecological media culture(s)

Geomorphism (EMI chapter 3)


The following are some notes of relevance to Chapter 3 of the book. I’ve also added a Glossary of terms used in the book (and some used elsewhere), here; I’ll add terms periodically.

This chapter is the first of three sequential chapters that cover the three forms of cinematic “world-production” (or “cosmomorphism”) examined in the book: geomorphism (ch. 3), anthropomorphism (ch. 4), and biomorphism (ch. 5).

In brief, a film’s geomorphism, as defined here, is the way in which that film produces a stable “background world” — a geography or geomorphology — that is laid out and rendered differentially meaningful (for “us”, whoever that “us” may be) in a particular kind of way.

Here’s a typology of some of the main kinds of geomorphism we have viewed and discussed:

1) Land/nature/territory as becoming ours (i.e., moving from being inchoate to being “ours”): The model here was the classic western, with John Ford’s The Searchers being our main example. (In The Searchers, that landscape never quite does become ours — it’s a more complex film than most — but with the typical classical western, that is the direction things move.)

2) Land/nature/territory as us: The example here was Dovzhenko’s Earth (Zemlya), and the model might be called “poetic” or “pantheistic” depictions of nature and landscape, where the “poetry” refers to imagistic and analogical associations made between people and natural cycles. Here are the first several minutes. (Feel free to turn the sound down, since it’s a silent film.)

Some other examples would be the Japanese and Korean films discussed in the book. (If you’re interested in this model, I would recommend watching Yong-Kyun Bae’s Why Has Bodhi-dharma Left for the East? or Kim Ki-Duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring.)

3) Land/nature/territory as for us (and to be managed wisely): The example here was Pare Lorentz’s The River (and less clearly The Plow that Broke the Plains). This model, without the parenthetical “to be managed wisely,” is probably the most popular background assumption to be found in mainstream films.

4) Land/nature/territory as freedom, experience, and/or discovery (sensation, speed, encounter, frontier, etc.): These can be found in road and journey movies (such as Easy Rider and Deliverance), but also in the kinds of “travelogue” films discussed later in the chapter. These were particularly popular in the early decades of the 20th century.

Each of the above models has its critiques or deconstructions. So, for instance, there is

5)  Land/nature/territory as Other, or as becoming not-ours or becoming not-free: The “post-westerns” and “anti-westerns” (like Dead Man) and the “critical” road or journey movies (such as, to varying degrees, Easy Rider, Deliverance, and Thelma and Louise) disrupt previous associations with landscape, so that what used to be thought of as the land of freedom is seen to be not very free any more: the Grand Canyon becomes the “last stand” for Thelma and Louise in the face of the massive police force that surrounds them, the Chattooga River (in Deliverance) becomes not just a dammed river, but a “damned” river, etc.

Other variations of this can be found in the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, such as Red Desert and Eclipse . . .

. . . and in some of the films about the Three Gorges Dam, such as Up the Yangtze and Still Life.

Another example of this type can be found in a film we’ll read about and discuss next week: Werner Herzog’s film Aguirre, the Wrath of God (a precursor to Apocalypse Now). Nature or land here is portrayed as something so foreign to us (the main characters, but by implication us viewers as well) that we aren’t capable of comprehending it nor of finding any harmony with it.

6)  Land/nature/territory as mystery/vision: The experimental films we watched by Stan Brakhage fit in this category. Here there is no sense of “conquering” or of “possessing” the world; rather, the eye of the camera is probing into a world that unfolds mysteriously, bit by bit, leading to an experience of insight, but one that does not “enframe” the world (master it, possess it visually) so much as it pokes into its depths. Or into its ambiguous, sensuous middle. (We’ll get back to this when we discuss biomorphism.) Stalker plays with this model as well.

7)  Land/nature/territory as creative free play (mirror play, puzzle, archive, database, labyrinth, etc.): Prospero’s Books is the film that best represents this model. It’s a form of geomorphism where the relationship between “us” and land/nature/territory gets scrambled into a kind of complex, visual-textual assault on the senses, but one where patterns can be found and enjoyed, even if they don’t fit the usual “characters acting against a static background” model. But there isn’t necessarily the sense that we are discovering something mysterious or mystical, as there is in #6 above. So the viewer can either swim with the currents and find connections between things (and enjoy it!), or get lost in the viewing (and probably not enjoy it).



One of the relevant differences between these forms of geomorphism is the distinction between “top-down,” “bottom-up,” and “lateral” (“flat” or “across”) modes of seeing territory.

#3 (land as for us) presented a way of looking at land by mapping it from above, like the forms of perspectival vision made possible by Brunelleschi and Alberti (mentioned in the long early subsection of Chapter 4 on landscape).

#4 (land as freedom, experience, discovery) emphasizes lateral movement across landscapes, coming to encounter things (people, places) on the ground as the film’s characters move through those landscapes. In the encounter, of course, different places are distinguished from each other: in Easy Rider the Southwest is a land of possibilities (where communes could be started up and just might “make it”), while the Deep South is a land of exhausted possibilities (where being different can be a death sentence).

At the more global level of geomorphism, films can depict a kind of inter-layering of the local, the national, and the global. Up the Yangtze, for instance, raises questions about the eco-administrative (top-down) relationship to land that was promoted by Pare Lorentz’s film The River; but it also includes reference to globalization, tourism, and the relations between rich and poor at local, national, and global levels. So this might be neither “bottom-up” nor “top-down” but a stratified kind of geomorphism, with lateral movement amidst different layers/strata.

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