Eco-Cinema: Filming the Ethics and Aesthetics of Waste
The effect of modern culture on the environment and on our bodies is everywhere evident. We have reached an age when human advances in science and industrialism are damaging the planet’s basic life support systems, generating waste that the environment can no longer tolerate. To add injury to insult, the human mind that made such advances possible in the first place turns out to have a mouth through which it is fed. And it is eating garbage.
The paradoxes of the present age have become the subject of a 21st century film and media movement ranging from CNN sponsored television programs on renewable energy, to animated allegories produced by PIXAR, through science-fiction fantasies of future catastrophe and documentary filmmakers who take their own bodies as “visible evidence” of environmental and physical crisis. While this recent representational movement forms a substantial component of this course, any informed conception of cinematic “aesthetics and ethics” in moments of perceived social crisis demands a historical purview. Due to the rhetorical potency of filmmaking as a tool for public education and advocacy, for instance, the form has frequently served as a powerful instrument of rationality, harnessed to the manufacture of social consent in a tradition that reaches back to ethnographic and adventure films of the 1920s and “New Deal-era” propaganda and animated comedies of the 1930s. At the same time, alternative rhetorical and ethical ends that have shaped cinema’s engagement with social concerns in recent years, in some cases by rendering disaster or waste “sublime,” draws from a tradition reaching back through cold war films of the 1950s and the innovations of filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrick and Werner Herzog. We will pay particular attention to films that forcibly demonstrate the unraveling of certainty in the visible field and play with cinematic techniques—editing tempos, camera angles, lighting, framing devices, time-lapse photography, extreme close or long shots, mobile or still cameras, etc.—in order to question conventional models of perception and knowledge.
Class Structure: Formal Sessions and Film Screenings
Given what literary critic William Rueckert termed the First Law of Ecology—“Everything is connected to everything else”—this is a particularly ambitious course. You will learn to employ a set of analytical and critical skills intrinsic to film and media studies that will provide a foundation for our study. But we will also be grappling with an ensemble of interlocking ideas, texts, people, and institutions—a sprawling formation within which environmental discourse historically has attained intellectual, popular and legal status. Approximately 12 films will form our primary focus and another 30 films and media texts will be considered in short clips and excerpts; readings will include work by sociologists, historians, film critics, philosophers, and natural scientists among others. Regular class sessions meet twice a week (M/W). An additional two sessions (T/Th) will be designated for film screenings. You are highly encouraged to attend all regular screenings in the assigned classroom, but in cases of scheduling conflict you may also watch these films on your own in the Media Center on campus (2nd floor, Suzallo Library) where all titles will be on reserve, or via NetFlix, etc, if those services are available to you.
Regular Assignments and Final Project:
In the first half of the quarter assignments include weekly exercises such as go-post responses to materials, film segmentation analyses, and oral presentations on relevant materials. A mid-term exam will be administered in week five. Through these foundational assignments you will develop research skills and the critical tools necessary to mount a final project. For that project, you will have the option of writing a research paper that incorporates film frames from the texts you are studying and analyzing; another option will be to produce a short film (approximately 15-20 minutes maximum) that directly reflects the concerns of the class. In order to accomplish these goals an adventurous and inquisitive spirit, as well as a mind open to opinions and perspectives that might differ from your own is absolutely necessary. No prior filmmaking or film studies experience required.