evolving ecological media culture(s)

Anthropomorphism (EMI chapter 4)


What Chapter 3 did with the world (and, specifically, nature), Chapter 4 does with people (and, specifically, their relation to nature). In particular, it deals with contrasts between a normative, “modern” (western, industrial) relationship to nature and a non-normative one: non-western, pre-modern, “primitive,” and all those other characterizations that carry so much baggage in the modern creation narrative.

(“We ‘moderns’ are what we are because we . . . [ascended from, descended from, evolved out of, transgressed, superseded, conquered, etc.] this more . . . [primitive, natural, better, worse, etc.] way of being.”)

This means that the chapter deals both with ethnographic film (at its worst and best) and with the ethnographic element in all film. It deals in cultural contrasts that refer to “nature” for their cash value. Some of the examples fall pretty clearly into the two categories of “dominant” depictions of nature/others and “critical deconstructions” of these.

In the first category are the early pseudo-ethnographic spectacles like Nanook of the North, Chang, et al., and the commercial films that “put others in their place” by stacking up the whole array of colonialist categories into a quasi-evolutionary narrative justifying western superiority, or — in the case of King Kong — both western firepower (gunning down Kong) and entertainment spectacle itself.

In the second category are those that critique or deconstruct elements of those dominant modes (often while perpetuating some of their elements) — as in films like Aguirre, the Wrath of God or (in a very different vein) mockumentaries like Land Without Bread, Cannibal Tours, Babakiueria, and Ken Feingold‘s Un chien delicieux.


Comparing King Kong and Aguirre is a useful way of getting at what E. Ann Kaplan calls the “imperial gaze,” which has been an important means of depicting the dominant western relationship to nature and “others.”

Kong was made by two filmmakers, Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, who began making ethnographic documentary films, including Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (1925) and Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (1927), but then decided to take their skills (in filmmaking, observation, and travel) and notch them up to the next level of cinema popularity by creating a mass-market spectacle. The result, King Kong (1933), was an ironic pastiche of the exotic anthropological documentary. Its huge success might have been related to the fact that its storyline reiterated the story Western society had been telling itself since the Enlightenment: that we (white, male westerners) had conquered nature, that we are right to conquer other humans who live “closer to nature,” and that the result, now, is . . . the pleasure of mass entertainment spectacle!! (What a heartening message in the midst of the Great Depression, and a lot of fun to watch.)

In the end, all eyes are on the prize, the object of the spectacle — King Kong, ruler of the primordial wilderness on Skull Island — and on Fay Wray, the female object of the male (and Kong’s) gaze. The gaze, the way of looking, represented in the film is that of mastery: we master the (feared, prized) object and, in the end, enjoy that mastery.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God can be taken to represent the opposite: while Aguirre himself is the living embodiment of the will to mastery — the drive to colonize, conquer, and claim for oneself an entire new world, a world of heretofore unknown and unclaimed lands, subjects (other cultures), and prizes (gold) — he fails utterly. In the end, he is reduced to stumbling around on a dilapidated raft littered with dead bodies and hundreds of little monkeys (he is reduced even in evolutionary terms, it seems). At the end of this journey there is no prize: as the African slave Okello puts it, “no ship… no forest … no arrow.” Nothing has been gained, no inkling of understanding, let alone control, of this world. The circle closes in on the raft (just as the camera circles around it in the final shot); the victor, if there is one, is nature and its cycle/circle of death.

As viewers of these two films, we have the choice of identifying with King Kong’s conquerors (who happen to be filmmakers) and accepting a world in which nature (along with women, non-whites, and other cultures) are conquered and tamed — a choice many of us might not be that comfortable with, which might tell us why we don’t enjoy the film so much 75 years after it was made (except as pastiche). Or, watching Aguirre, we can identify with nothing and no one, except perhaps that circle/cycle of nature which conquers the Spanish colonizer-travelers — or with the film/camera/filmmaker.

The second half of the chapter is where things get more interesting. Here we deal with alternatives (nor mere deconstructions) to the dominant depictions of nature and otherness. These include the holistic ethnographies of David Macdougall and others; the Third Cinema aesthetic of Teshome Gabriel, Solanas & Getino, Rocha, and others; Third World-ish American independents like Julie Dash (see below); and the “visual sovereignty” of indigenous co-productions like Atanarjuat and Ten Canoes.

Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust:


Finally, the chapter examines “anthropomorphism” in self-reflexive and first-person narrative documentaries (like Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil) and depictions of “green identity,” especially in ensemble narratives like Alain Tanner’s Jonah Who Will be 25 in the Year 2000. Since we get more into these topics (ensemble narratives, green identities) in Chapter Six, I’ll leave aside mention of them for now.


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